Death Defying Act

A poem.

Even when expected, death’s coming
is rude, abrupt, a sudden fissure
opening in the earth. Although he shows
his invitation, you slam the door on him
and brace it with your back.

No matter what his disguise – 
healer, comforter, journey’s end,
dispenser of justice – death is
a burglar who breaks down doors
to rob, to foul and smash, 
to drain away the inner sap of things.

He barged in twenty-something years ago
to play his little tricks, devil
that he is, resolving to take Mom,
piercing her guts with cancer.
And, Dad, you trembled to be left alone,
but now he took you first.

Big joke! Big victory, Death!
But the joke’s on you: your dallying
gave us a miracle, years that 
wove Mom and Dad more tightly 
together. Getting dressed, getting up
out of a chair – every movement was a dance,
a dance against death. You thought
to drag your heels to draw out
your torment, but your wound
only roused the body to resist,
knitting new connections.

You took a shredder to his brain
scrambling past and present,
destroying his familiar world
so he was a stranger in his own
home, among his own family.
Homeless, he became restless,
ever seeking for a world
restored, a world cleansed
of your lies and confusions.
Thinking to set him astray, 
you turned his face toward home.

You came as in a morality play:
the villain who strips away
one support after another to isolate
and weaken your victim,
but in every hand that reached
to help was the power of many
hands and in the voice of one
many voices spoke reassurance.
Words common as daisies that 
have been passed from mouth to mouth
till they were faded as a second hand
shirt suddenly revived, took colour
as they enkindled light in Dad’s eyes.
Death brought life into dead
platitudes, fragrance into sterility.

Granted, Death, you took more 
from him than you took from Job,
took his self-knowledge and words
that would have given strength 
to withstand you, took and took,
whittling away flesh and memory
till he was little more than bone,
but still his eyes lit up like distant 
stars to prayer and psalms, to words
that found his deep-formed soul.
So little remains. And, Death, 
that’s all you get – remains;
for look, he is not here.
Look: once again an empty tomb.

What a shadow you cast, Death,
huge as a dirigible. You’ve puffed
yourself up beyond all bounds, but
though you huff and puff
though you blow your worst,
you cannot blow the house down
or budge it from its base.
For all your huff and puff, Death,
you cannot blow a single note
without the trumpet-maker’s brass – 
not now, not at the final curtain call.
Whatever noise you make is
but an echo of the final trumpet
sounded by the angel band of God.

Look and listen: at nightfall
the trumpet’s brilliant call
reverberates between heaven and earth,
shattering into golden shards
the slowly sinking golden sun,
that sinks from sight only so
that we may sleep and rise again,
refreshed with eyes made new.
Oh, do, Lord, do let us see
with eyes like morning dew
that you make all things new.  


  • Harry (1944-2008), former editor of Christian Courier, read this at the gravesite of his father 20 years ago – April 1998. His own son read the last part at Harry’s funeral.

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