Saturday, August 17, 2013

Memento Mori and C. S. Lewis's Final Days

In the classical and medieval tradition—which Lewis, of course treasured—a good life was defined by knowing one’s death and thus dying well. Memento mori (“remember death”) meant that it was better not to die in one’s sleep, or die quickly—as many today long for—but to know we’re dying and therefore to die prepared and peacefully. For that reason, God did seem to give Lewis a nice passing. When he almost died in the summer of 1963, he expressed some regret that he was brought back. Writing to his longterm friend, Arthur Greeves, on 11 September 1963, he found it

rather a pity I did revive in July. Having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

      But this reprieve also allowed several final, precious weeks with his longest term friend, his brother, Warnie. When Warnie wrote a memoir about his brother’s life, his final lines express a poignancy that pierces my heart as I read them. Note particularly how he remarks on the return to the happiness of their boyhood in the imaginary games they played in the “little end room,” a place for Lewis’s fruitful imagination as well:

In their way, these last weeks were no unhappy. [Lewis's wife] Joy had left us, and once again—as in the earliest days—we could turn for comfort only to each other. The wheel had come full circle: once again we were together in the little end room at home, shutting out from our talk the ever-present knowledge that the holidays were ending, that a new term fraught with unknown possibilities awaited us both…. We were recapturing the old schoolboy technique of extracting the last drop of juice from our holidays.

      But that was not to last. Just before his sixty-five birthday the pen of C. S. Lewis would never write another of his insights. I find the words of his brother spare and moving about his last day on earth:

Friday, the 22nd of November 1963, began much as other days: there was breakfast, then letters and the crossword puzzle…. Our few words then [at four] were the last: at five-thirty I heard a crash and ran in, to find him lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. He ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later.

Warren could only add, in his brief memoir, “nothing worse could ever happen to me in the future.” He too knew the sorrow of losing someone close. Indeed he could not bring himself to attend his beloved brother’s funeral. Instead he numbed his pain (as he did throughout his life) with alcohol, and had to survive another ten years without his beloved younger brother.
      It’s clear what Lewis believed about heaven, and thus life after death. If he was right about what he wrote, his place is now secure. As he penned so movingly in some of the final words from The Chronicles of Narnia:

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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