In reading Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” today (actually I listened to it on a bike ride), I realized something new about the oldest nemesis, death. At the end of the poem, the poet listens to the sea, hoping to hear the “word final, superior to all”, and he finally does. It’s the “delicious word death”, which the poet repeats nine times for emphasis. As the finale of this long poem about love and loss, the concluding truth, the ultimate power, the last word, is “death”. Years ago, I might have thought Whitman was being pessimistic here, but today I have another view. It seems to me that the poet is saying that death is the most important reality, the strongest “word”, not because it destroys life, but because, on the contrary, without it there would be no life. Death, in a real sense, prepares the way for life. It’s the doorman who opens the door for life to walk through and continue on with its endless procession. After listening to those nine repetitions of the word “death” today, I began wondering where we would all be if there were no death. To start with, there would be absolutely no vegetation on earth, because all plant growth depends on the food provided so dependably by the dead “bodies” of other vegetation. The daily death of billions of plants actually makes it possible for new plants to unfold into life. In addition, consider the population problem on earth were death to disappear. If no one died for a single 24 hour period, the earth would be a heaving and thoroughly destructive mass of humanity. The death of millions of people each day literally opens the door to life for millions of newborns. Finally, don’t we all experience death each moment, and shouldn’t we be grateful for that? Every second of our lives, old cells die and new ones are born, new oxygen sweeps into our lungs and “dead” carbon dioxide leaves, thank goodness. Not only that, each moment is born anew and fresh only because the last moment dies and disappears. “One second ago” is always totally dead and gone – and let us be thankful for that, for only with the death of the past split-second can newness arrive in our lives moment after moment.
So, yes, Whitman understood something wonderful, and this morning, as I pedaled my bike along the dappled roads of the Connecticut countryside, I came to understand it too. Death, death, death, death, death, death, death, death, death … As sad as it renders us personally, let us try to be thankful for the gift of new life that it offers us. With each death, death says, “Let us begin again.”