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.”


6 thoughts on “The First Night

  1. The first line of the Collins poem struck me – the use of the verb ‘open’ in the sense of opening a book of poetry (as one might say “I opened my Shakespeare at page ten”) but here addressed directly to the poet; ‘open’ morphs to include ‘become intimate’, ‘reveal’, ‘understand’. Were I in the presence of Collins I would tell him I was going to steal that idea, consciously and consciencelessly.


  2. Thanks, how lovely to have your thoughts book-ended by a poet and his poetic interlocutor! Dark this stuff, yet not in the usual way we think dark… mysterious, but not ghoulish. I can’t exactly imagine death as an adventure, but neither as an end. The Jesuit Karl Rahner spoke of it as a completion. There is something to that, i think.


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