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Amy Ludwig VanDerwater: Thinking about death helps me appreciate life

When I was in high school, I often took solitary walks through my church’s cemetery. Strolling through green grass or fallen leaves or soft snow, I’d read gravestones, figuring out people’s ages, imagining their families, wondering about their stories.

I remember noticing new bouquets of flowers and fresh piles of dirt, and I remember always feeling calm when I left, sure in the knowledge that I, too, would die one day, understanding that today really mattered.

In cartoons, we imagine death as a black-hooded character out to get us, with an evil laugh and glinty eyes. But really, it’s just the last chapter of a book hopefully well-written, gracefully lived. Thinking about this last chapter of death helps me appreciate my life more deeply.

I like walking around cemeteries, and I like surrounding myself with old objects, things that were once used daily by folks now gone.

Many objects around our home make me think of death and then of life. The house itself is an old farmhouse, a place where the former owners celebrated their 50th anniversary in the living room, where someone once made moonshine, where cow-ghosts still lumber around the barn.

My dear Great Aunt Tom (yes, Tom) died over 25 years ago, and today I still bake on her beat-up old cookie sheets. Each time I make a batch of gingerbread boys or oatmeal chocolate chips or snickerdoodles or cardamom bread, Great Aunt Tom is there, whispering encouragement from the past, urging me to celebrate what is most important now. Could I afford new cookie sheets? Yes. But these old ones hold lessons that new ones never will: life is fast; take your time; death will come, love.

There are other things, too. My husband Mark’s black denim coat once belonged to Danny, our dear friend who died from cancer at 37. Mark has worn that coat for nine years; nine years have passed since we have heard Danny’s big laugh. The coat helps me remember.

Too, a patchwork quilt and a cross-stitched floral afghan in our living room came from a Goodwill shop. Surely they were pieced and sewed by someone else’s grandmas decades ago, grandmas likely dead yet with whom I feel strong kinship when curled up under colorful warm squares late at night with books of poems.

In these fast days when I spend so much time running here and there, I could easily forget death. But then I pause. I may drive by a cemetery or see Mark in Danny’s black coat or begin to bake some peanut butter cookies, and I remember. Death. It’s right there.

Some days I look down at my right hand and see the antique ring that belonged to my Great Aunt Peggy. Her own daughter should be wearing this ring, but that little girl died of scarlet fever at only 5 years old. I see the ring and hear her: “You are alive. Be grateful.”

I am not a morbid person. I do not watch horror movies or play violent video games. And yet, I do think about death. I know that one day my name will be carved in marble with a start date of Aug. 6, 1970, and an end date no one yet knows. And so I work to fill my days with meaning.

Death is here, holding a card with my name on it, holding a card with your name on it. And I am grateful to think about it. For as strange as it sounds, thinking about death helps me live a better life –as I bake, enjoy blankets and stare at these old treasures.