The Fear of Death
“My Gutsy Story®” Shirley Showalter
Behind all our fears, often hidden even to ourselves, lies one big fear.
Yes, you got it. The fear of death.
We can’t become truly gutsy, courageous, until we accept the reality of death and consciously seek to live deeply and fully in its presence.
I first stared death in the face at the age of six.
It happened this way:
On the evening of Dec. 20, 1954, my younger brother Henry and I were playing in a little stack of hay in our barn, making tunnels out of bales and talking about what we hoped for in our Christmas stockings. Cows chewed contentedly next to us. The DeLaval milkers sounded almost like heartbeats—lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub—as they extracted warm milk from each udder.
And then we heard it: a horrible, penetrating, animal-like scream, piercing that night and my life to this day. The terrible sound grew louder as Mother came toward the barn. She ran to Daddy and, still screaming, started pounding him on his chest.
“My baby is dead. Our baby is dead. My baby is dead.” That was all she could say, over and over again. Then she would throw back her head and wail.
I learned a lesson that night that I would have to learn again when my father died at age 55 and when several close friends died in sudden, untimely ways.
We all die.
From then on, life became even more precious. I decided to live twice, once for myself and once for the little sister who lived only 39 days.
When I played softball on the playground, I swung for the fences.
When I read books, like Little Women, I identified with the gutsiest character, Jo.
When I discovered you have to go to college in order to be a teacher I decided to go, even though my parents weren’t enthusiastic about the idea. Even though no one else in my family had ever gone.
When I stood up to the bishop in my Mennonite Church and told him that he wasn’t practicing what he preached.
What does it mean to live twice? How did it change my life?
In other words, my childhood and adolescence were never the same after I heard my mother scream and after I touched the cold, white skin of my baby sister inside that sad little casket in 1954.
Death made a searcher out of me. I sought out writers who understood urgency, such as Annie Dillard, who advised:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
I love these words. I try to keep them in mind as I write my stories.
But I have to keep something else in mind also.
I believe that death is not the end of life. The writers I love best don’t dwell on morbidity, they face death and fear, and while doing so, come home to themselves by coming home to love. Engraved inside their hearts is the reminder that love is eternal.
But it wasn’t a writer that taught me that lesson first; it was my mother. After she shook my six-year-old world with her screams and tears, she took solace in her faith and accepted the comfort of friends and family. Depression tempted her. She could have withdrawn from life and hence from her living children. Had that happened, you would not be reading these words.
Sometimes the gutsiest things we do are to keep on putting one foot in front of another and continuing to live, determined to turn darkness into light.
Next month my mother turns eighty-seven. I no longer fear death because love has triumphed. Whatever is gutsy in me goes all the way back to 1954 and to the woman who never gave up on life, my mother.
SHIRLEY HERSHEY SHOWALTER, author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, grew up on a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, dairy farm and went on to become a professor and then college president and foundation executive. Find her at her website: www.shirleyshowalter.com
Please watch my interview with Shirley Showalter about her memoir: Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World
Here is my 5-star review of Shirley’s excellent memoir, Blush.
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