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Open Closed Open

Updated: Jul 1, 2023



‘Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again. Open closed open. That’s all we are.’


Recently, three people close to me opened--or closed-- depending on how you see it. One was my brother-in-law Jim. For over fifty years, together we kept alive the memory of his brother, my late husband. The other was a friend from earlier days, someone from the nineteen sixties with whom I shared Peace Corps times in East Africa. And before them, my beloved friend Ellen died. She and I shared a house for eleven years, where I was super-aunt to her three children.


Examining the meaning of these people in my life, and constructing the meaning of their death, I am oddly--and gratefully--comforted. It's as if each of them taught me something by the way they left. They hadn't planned to do so. I wasn't central to their lives, the way their spouses and children were. But we shared conversations and thoughts over the years. And knowing them as I did, I understand a bit more about how finality can be a bit more of an opening than a closing--though still I fear it, truth be told.


My friend Diarmuid knew he was dying. He was in hospice, but we kept texting. His straightforwardness was invigorating, his ability to coexist with death's approach and still be incensed by the state of the world he was leaving behind. I loved his sense of outrage, his Swiftian anger at how messed up things are and how they need to be mended. When we were young, in the sixties, we were optimistic things would get better. Doing our bit to make that happen, he worked with farmers in Uganda and I taught secondary school in Kenya. Things felt less calamitous, before the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, before 9/11, before climate catastrophe, before the magic and destruction of social media. The world was headed in the right direction, and we were along for the ride, making progress happen.


What did I learn from Diarmuid and how he handled his exit? I learned you can remain engaged, pissed off, unrelenting in fighting injustice in the world around you.

What did I learn from Diarmuid and how he handled his exit? I learned you can remain engaged, pissed off, unrelenting in fighting injustice in the world around you. And in the end, as you skip away from it all, you can observe that your individual life is connected to larger realities. As Diarmuid said in his last unfinished note to me, not with grandiosity but with inquiry:


Is it a coincidence that the helpless thrashing of the last cohort of defunct empires matches my personal struggle to maintain coherence? In my case, I am leaving the stage of history with an overwhelming feeling of joy and gratitude for the love I have been able to give and receive. Vladimir the Terrible, Donald the cultural rag-picker and Boris the Blithering Idiot should be so lucky.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think this balmy notion plays out into anything resembling an insight. But it is definitely a fact that my exit and the final collapse of Imperialism (currently in a demented state but still sowing havoc) are somehow coinciding.


On the other hand, my brother Jim did not know his death was on its way. It came quickly. He was away in five days. Jim, too, had a finely honed sense of outrage. He and I were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but each of us was unrelenting in how we interpreted the world's woes. Underneath his opinionated, take-no-prisoners intellect, shone a vulnerability and lovingkindness.


As he wrote a few months before his death,


{thanks for your card re} my aging, my crappy health and just plain reminder of our ties. It's our ties that matter most of course.

Jim taught me that anger doesn't have to dissolve bonds, that sharpness of mind needn't fade over time, that there are ways of being loving even when inner conflicts threaten to choke off kindness.


Jim taught me that anger doesn't have to dissolve bonds, that sharpness of mind needn't fade over time, that there are ways of being loving even when inner conflicts threaten to choke off kindness.

My dear Ellen showed me graciousness in the face of leavetaking, courage at its most fiery in resisting despair. Our last conversations reverberate over time. Anticipating her imminent death two years ago at what is now the not very old age of sixty-nine, Ellen wrote:


I don't really know what to think about the afterlife. Whatever it is, it will be an annihilation of anything I’ve already experienced. Will my consciousness and being disappear? Probably. At least as I understand consciousness and being. That's scary, but also it raises my curiosity, because the change does not necessarily mean an ending, just a different state that might as well be an ending. I guess that's the point of "soul growth" -- to facilitate the transition.

I'm in a different space, already "going away" and yet I'm alive and doing relatively well. I don't want to anticipate my death. I want to value what I have. It reminds me of the scene in the play "Our Town" when the woman dies in childbirth and comes back to visit her family. She sees everything so poignantly, while her family is just involved in the banalities of everyday living. I expect things will be changing as I go along; I will feel different things, going back and forth between anger, fighting, acceptance, sadness and joy in what I have.

For now I still have some work I want to do. One can only stay on these subjects for so long. Thank God, there is living to do.

Living to do; fortunately, yes for now. Those who have left are my teachers, guiding me and urging me to be open to what is to come. Goodbye Jim, Ellen, Diarmuid. Thank you.


1 Comment


Beautifully expressed, Rose, by you and your departed friends. It occurred to me some time ago that, up to a point, one's longevity and the frequency of seeing recognized names in the obituaries are directly correlated--until you reach "peak obit," after which you recognize fewer and fewer of those names. I suppose the likelihood of reaching that point are about 50/50. Certainly, I've recently lost an increasing number of friends to this or that evil chance of the years. The graceful acceptance of this inevitability is, I think, a gift to all around one. After all, should awareness of the time that will succeed you be any more fearful or worrisome than that of the time that preceded you? I…


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