Doesn’t everyone know Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which the greedy and grumpy old Scrooge, after many misguided years of bother and humbug, finally learns the value of kindness and generosity? It takes three ghosts to teach him, but he does learn. In the 1951 film version of the story, as the reformed Scrooge knocks on his nephew Fred’s door on Christmas morning, ready to atone for past wrongs, we hear an instrumental “Barbara Allen,” and when he’s inside, we hear the tune sung as a duet.
This song, a widely known English folksong first mentioned in Samuel Pepys’s diary in the 1660s, exists in hundreds of versions. Were it not for its great popularity leading to printed lyrics, which tend to regularize what would otherwise morph and mutate even further, many more versions would exist. Some begin in Scarlet Town, where a young man is courting a maid by the name of Barbara Allen, some in London Town, and some with the young man already on his deathbed and sending for the girl who has caused the heartache that’s killing him. That is the version I know, as sung by Joan Baez, and it cuts out the name of the town, the explanation for Barbara Allen’s heartlessness toward the dying William, and even the reason for her change of heart, which, within a day of his death, brings on her own. She knows, just as he knew, that she will die, and tells her mother,
Oh Mother oh mother,
Go dig my grave,
Make it both long and narrow.
Sweet William died of love for me,
And I shall die of sorrow.
She tells her father,
And father oh father,
Go dig my grave,
Make it both long and narrow.
Sweet William died on yesterday,
And I will die tomorrow.
A lot of words for one who so recently, looking on Sweet William, had said only, “Young man, I think you’re dying.”
I think you’re dying. Those few words are harshly to the point, with no hedging, no beating about the bush. Talking about death is normally not that easy. Maybe that’s because, unlike Barbara Allen, we don’t accept so calmly the prospect of our own demise occurring within a blink. (Two days! That gives you no time to grieve the departed, much less prepare to join them.) I for one have never contemplated someone else’s pending death without shying away. Not that I was in denial, exactly, but talking about the event seemed improper. Wouldn’t that be like dwelling on the spilt milk rather than the couple of sips still left in the glass? It might be imprudent too: mentioning death, just because you’ve glimpsed it hanging about on the periphery, might bring it closer. So I’d rather pretend that you (and I) are in no imminent danger. I have never said to anyone approaching death, Are you afraid, what are your regrets, what words of wisdom do you have for those who will be left behind?
A character in Alice Munro’s story “Pictures of the Ice” says that guilt is “a sin and a seduction,” but that regret is different. “How,” he asks, “could you get through a long life and escape it?” Escape suggests that regret would be best avoided, but if regret results from seeing a better alternative, even though it’s no longer available, then it’s a kind of wisdom. I’ve had flashes of it, as I’ve looked around at the people who are slipping away from me. I see that we go too fast and burn through our friends and family along with our years, leaving a pile of ashes here one year, ashes there the next.
Still, it’s not in my power to say, “I think you’re dying.” I think you’re bleeding, yes, that I could say, quickly adding that the wound is probably superficial, no lasting harm has been done, we’ll get you patched up in no time, and soon we’ll again all go rolling merrily along.
And yet when I think of the people I know who have died, I wish I had some final piece of advice from them. Perhaps I should have asked for it, though that would have been like touching a match to a tinder-dry bridge. It wouldn’t have to be final advice even—just further. Could it come now from beyond the grave? Marley’s did to Scrooge. And according to the story of Sweet William and Barbara Allen, from whose graves in the old churchyard grew an entwining rose and briar, it seems death isn’t the end, and the story can continue. Don’t I wish someone could affirm that.
But I am still too much of this world to edge close enough to that other to hear the message. I’d rather just taste the sweet milk still on my tongue, even if it’s the last drops, than to look ahead to envision what I’m left with when I’m left with nothing. What’s the hurry? I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’d rather not burn my bridges until I come to them.
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