Ruth Bader Ginsberg
"In my beginning is my end," chanted T.S. Eliot in his second quartet, "East Coker"
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
It is certainly true that we can see, in a man's childhood and early youth, the seeds of what he was to become, but it is equally true that we can also perceive, in the final chapter of a human life, the culmination of of a life's work, of things done and things left undone, of loves and hates, and of joys and sorrows.
When Plato was found dead, so the story goes, he was toying with the word-order of the first sentence of The Republic. What could have been more fitting than that the great philosopher was still polishing a masterpiece or that one of the greatest prose writers in any English should be still fiddling with the cadences?
Saints often die in prayer or in totting up the wrongs they have done or in forgiving their enemies, and their great Exemplar expired forgiving the evil men who had crucified him.
Drunkards die breathing in their own vomit with their curses, and some musicians have died hearing new music in their heads. A world-weary lover may think back on all the conquests made and all that will not be made. "When I was seventeen, it was a very good year...."
An ambitious general, who has fallen short of Alexander and Napoleon, might go out lamenting his failures, while a decent father, however dissatisfied with his children, will give them his blessing.
A philosophical atheist like David Hume spent his last painful weeks setting his friends a good example of dying like a Stoic, indifferent to the good and evil that the world could bring, while a mere secularist, who has rejected all the highest things in life, not out of rational conviction but in conformity to fashion and in pursuit of success, may, alas, remained fixated on the machinery of wealth and power and think only of the party that enabled her to fulfill her ambitions. Disdaining the good of the country, she will conceal her condition in order to prevent the inevitable demands for her retirement, and still serving the party of crime, infanticide, servility, and perversity, will hope that the President respects her wish to have anyone but him appoint her successor.
Eliot held out a finer and deeper understanding of the human possibilities even as life draws to a close:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.