Life is precious. Life is precious. The words keep surfacing. Life is precious.
Sure, yes. But.
Tomorrow, Jasper turns 11. It’s his birthday, and that’s lovely and I’m excited and there’ll be presents and cake and a party and all that, but all that I can think about today is death.
This is the calculus: life is precious, because of death. This is dark, I know; it happens that birthdays and deathdays run too close together for us this month, and so it’s hard to separate the two. Life, death; death, life. Painfully, terribly, beautifully inextricable.
We will, of course, celebrate Jasper’s birthday fully and happily tomorrow. We will do the usual things: sing songs, make wishes, blow out candles, eat cake.
Death will still be lurking.
Death always is, of course. We just ignore him. We’d go mad if we didn’t, I think. We pretend that he’s not there, just waiting around the corner, because we have to, because life would be too hard if we walked into every room expecting to see him standing there.
This time last year our family walked into the room and he was there. We knew that he was going to be there, although it doesn’t necessarily make it easier when you are expecting his visit. It’s not like you tidy up for him, bake him cookies. You hope that he won’t turn up, or that he’ll at least be late.
This time, he wasn’t late.
He stayed a few days. There was a butterfly on the door for most of that time; that’s how they mark the spaces of dying, in some places, in the places where Death visits frequently enough that you don’t to get the rooms confused. He stayed a few days. Then he left, and he took Tanner with him.
That kind of memory stays hard with you, because it has to. You remember the times of dying just like you remember the times of birthing. Maybe not in exactly the same way — you almost certainly don’t mark them with cake and balloons (although perhaps we should?) — but still. These are deep, intimate memories. These are the memories that tether us to our mortality, and they grip us like hooks, or like thorns. They dig into the skin; they tug harder when you try to pull away. Which is why it’s better if you don’t pull away from them, I think. Best to live with them. Best to nest them within the same heartspaces that we reserve for other celebrations of life, or at least close to them. Life is precious.
Life is precious.
I’m thinking about this as my son’s birthday approaches and my nephew’s deathday approaches and the following quote from the Alabama Governor keeps surfacing in my social feeds — “this legislation stands as a powerful testament to every Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”
This is what I’m thinking: that too many of us have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about when we talk about the quote-unquote preciousness of life.
The conversation around abortion is not, for the most part, a conversation about birth or death or mortality. I’ll emphasize the qualification — for the most part, it is not a conversation about those things: there are many circumstances around which it absolutely is a matter of birth and death and the all-too-common intersections between the two. I have personally wrestled with it in the context of those things; I have known women who have confronted it in the most extreme contexts of those things. What I mean, rather, is that when we talk about laws restricting women’s rights to reproductive freedom — that is to say, to the right to the integrity of their bodies, the right to freedom from any entity, state or otherwise, dictating what they can do with their bodies, including the cells that cluster therein and form the potential (the potential) to become lives outside of those bodies — we are usually not about talking life and death. We are not talking about the preciousness of life. We are talking about who controls women. We are talking about control, full stop.
It is not a conversation about life (“LIFE,” whispers Marvin the Paranoid Android. “Don’t talk to me about life”) because we have already agreed, as humans, that we will ever and always be wildly inconsistent about how we talk about — how we value — life in any and all of its forms. When we say, life is precious, we don’t know what we mean, beyond the immediate preciousness of the lives closest to ours. We cannot, for example, all agree that the lives of schoolchildren are worth more than the right to bear arms. We cannot all agree that life holds the same value for human beings of different colors or from different countries. We cannot all agree about what level of suffering is acceptable for a life of any form. We cannot all agree that the life of our planet is worth prioritizing over material comfort, over dollars, over political power.
Life. Don’t talk to me about life. Don’t talk to me about the preciousness of life, especially, because very, very few of us live in harmony with that principle.
It’s also not a conversation about death, because we’ve already agreed — per our agreements on life — that death is something unpleasant but outside of our control, except when we’re holding firm on the death penalty, or insisting upon our right to deliver death upon anyone who threatens us or trespasses upon our property. We tend to prefer that death happen offstage, in hospitals and hospices and execution rooms and abattoirs and in far off countries and in the atmosphere or very far out at sea in gyres of plastic and waste. We prefer to not know why there’s a butterfly on the door.
Life is messy and death is messy and both are beautiful but also terrible and so we don’t like to think too closely about either. We don’t, most of us, like to talk about what it would mean to live a truly good life or to have a truly good death and we certainly don’t pass laws pertaining to either. We pass laws in order to delegate and manage control. The laws that were just passed are entirely about control. Not about controlling life or controlling death — about controlling the bodies of women, and about controlling the bodies of girls.
We have not proven ourselves to be good collective stewards of the things that fall into (or, more often, that we take into) our control. We do not protect the most vulnerable among us. We do not protect our environment. Even when death storms the hallways of our children’s schools, when he creeps into our water, when he pervades the very air around us, we do not, most of us, act.
We are not good stewards; we know this. This is why we generally agree that certain things should not be collectively stewarded, should not be controlled by anyone but the individual – including, especially, our bodies. We should every single one of us be outraged that in even one corner of our world, a small group of men has designated themselves the stewards of women’s and and girls’ bodies.
We should every single one of us be outraged, and we should reject, in outrage, any point of discussion on this matter that contains the phrase, life is precious. Because in this context, it’s a lie, deliberately presented to obscure the fact that what is at stake is control over women’s bodies. If ‘life is precious’ were truly the governing principle for these lawmakers, they would be making very different laws.
Life IS precious. The life of my son is precious to me. The life of my nephew was precious to me, and to his parents and his other family and his friends and especially to him. The weight of how precious life is, really, presses upon my heart this weekend in ways that are complicated and challenging and beautiful and painful and also, now, entangled in rage.
Don’t talk to me about life. If all life is precious to you, then strive to live in accordance with that principle, as fully and consistently as you can. If only some lives are precious to you, then admit that to be true — and it’s okay if it is true; true preciousness by definition has a narrow scope — and acknowledge that such limitedness defines its own appropriate boundaries of action. Celebrate life, love life, seize life. Embrace and support the living. Grieve and remember the dead.
Just stop the rhetoric. And keep it away from our bodies.