Some years ago (won’t say how many!), I taught middle school. English, or as they preferred to call it, “Language Arts.” My first year, rather than being handed a list of mandated texts to teach, I was given the opportunity to choose the works my students would read. So I put together an interesting mix of books; classics from the likes of Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis were on the list, for sure. But so was another not-so-classic book that, while not uncommon in sixth grade classrooms, held a strong appeal for me and my fascination with death.
The book was titled Tuck Everlasting. It centers around a family that, having drunk from an otherworldly spring on their property, is given the “gift” of immortality. Of course, it doesn’t take the family long to realize that the gift is actually a curse – that no one would really want to live forever, that life is only worth living because we die. In the story, a young neighbor named Winnie discovers both the spring and the family, and death is something she, naturally, finds fearful. The father of the family takes her out on a rowboat to explain, as perhaps only an immortal man could, how death must always come:
She (Winnie) would try very hard not to think of it, but sometimes, as now, it would be forced
upon her. She raged against it, helpless and insulted, and blurted at last, “I don’t want to die.”
“No,” said Tuck calmly. “Not now. Your time is not now. But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”
“She once said that her ambition was just to leave a little scratch on the rock,” the husband of the book’s author, Natalie Babbitt, said upon her death yesterday at the age of 84. “I think she did that with Tuck Everlasting.”
I know she did. I had some pretty deep discussions with my young students all those years ago. It was my hope then that they came away with at least a beginner’s understanding of how death gives meaning to life. And it’s my hope now that their understanding will continue to mature and enrich their lives – that is, until their deaths.
And I’m grateful to Natalie Babbitt for the scratch she left on the rock. I hope to do the same, and hope the same for all of you. It’s the best we can do.