The First Night

“The worst thing about death must be the first night.” Jose Ramon Jimenez

Sooner or later something ‘really bad’ happens to us. It might be a debilitating or critical illness or financial catastrophe; it may be the death of a parent or family member. In whatever guise it comes, this life challenge is always shocking because it marks the end of life as we have known it, and the beginning of a new chapter or new path. From that day forward, nothing is ever the same.

Shock! No words come; breathing is difficult; the eyes cannot focus; our rational minds are frozen; our hearts beat like sheets flapping in the wind. This new reality is nowhere more evident or more keenly felt than ‘the first night’ in which this new knowledge, this new reality lies beside us in bed. There is no way out, no escape from what is.

I found the quote above very powerful. If you have lost a loved one, you probably remember that first night alone. But what about the one who has died – how is that first night spent? If the people reporting near death experiences are to be believed, the departed ones are probably very happy and at peace after the turbulence of earthly life. But still …

I wonder. When I think of dying, I feel sad to think I will be leaving behind the beauty of this earth, the blue sky, the scent of rain and flowers, the sight of young babies. It can be fashionable to believe in reincarnation and to say you want to get off the karmic round, be done with humankind and enter nirvana.

I am pretty sure I will be back many more times, not only because I have so much more to learn but I have so much more to let go of. This earth and its beauty grips my heart – or, am I the one who is holding on so tightly to the known? Will I be able to go gently into that good night?

The quote by Jimenez was the inspiration for a wonderful poem by contemporary poet, Billy Collins from his book “Aimless Love.”

The First Night
“Before I opened you, Jimenez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

But now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a long darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death.
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh –
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day – moon
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
These sentinel thorns,
Whose employment it is to guard the rose.”


The Next Day

The thin crack in the pale gray clouds
Silently open and the light gets in,
Just like Leonard said it would,
And the wet dark day is transformed.
A tall white-trunked tree stands proud and solitary
Against the blue sky, its shadow a hand on the dial.

At 30 degrees above the horizon,
The sun shines down impersonally
On good and bad alike and washed clean
Of last year’s karma, the soul of the earth
Stretches and preens and tosses its head,
Stripping the trees to reveal bare black skeletons

With arthritic limbs studded with buds
Like tiny furled fists ready to open at the least encouragement.
From out of cars and down paths and behind bushes,
From sidewalks and shortcuts and skyways, they arrive,
The sparrows and crows and gulls,
The joggers and children and old women with dogs,

The men with fishing poles and the mothers with babies,
All grabbing at the blue sky – for all had heard
More rain was on the way which is greeted with relief
As well as dismay by a thirsty land and its people.
A woman with a long white scarf that is echoed by her long white hair
Strides past the pond overtaking the bent lady in red pushing a walker.

Two fisherman, one old and one young, heads together,
Rods leaning against shoulders, hands holding delicate lines,
Stand in high grass and debate the merits of various lures.
Brisk winds from the north loft the football from the hands
Of the teenage boys who play amongst the children
Freshly sprung from nearby schools who run through playgrounds shouting.

A toddler, legs pumping in wavy circles, races across the field
Chased by a mother who calls out his name while another
Pushes arm-waving twins in a stroller pony tail bobbing with each step.
Dogs arrive, straining at leashes, noses to the ground,
Tails in the air, bodies twitching with energy,
Ready to leap and run, Jack-in-the-box with joy.

A young man starts his rusty Ford pick-up
And sings about fast women and faster cars
As the sun sinks slowly towards the tree line,
The clouds let loose the folds of their white skirts,
The edges quietly flowing across the sky
And settling in for an extended stay.

Wearing the face of an ancient Aztec,
An old man in bedroom slippers shuffles past
And raises one horn-hard hand,
Curved fingers tipped with yellow nails,
In acknowledgement of this person’s presence.


Here is a link to the ‘Leonard’ reference:

Winter Afternoon

The sky was a washed out gray-blue,
The trees in constant motion from the wind,
The cool air hanging in a thin fog
As the hours of the afternoon drained away.

Weary from four days of constant rain,
The used-to-be clouds were limp from the effort of bearing
So much moisture ninety miles from the crashing surf of the Pacific
To the heavy wet silence of the Great Valley.

A cry in the sky. A thin sketched line
Jaggedly drawn by a quill pen on parchment,
A long ragged string jerked and pulled like a toy
Tugged by a child across a linoleum floor,

A feathered ribbon of pumping life,
Long necks stretched and calling,
Came. So high! So distant.
Gulls? Geese?

Lined along the telephone wires,
Toes tight, feathers full,
Small brown heads looked up
Into the rain and listened.