While I was setting up my new laptop over the weekend, wisewebwoman, who blogs at The Other Side of Sixty, left a nice note on my 2004 series about caring for my mother during the last months of her life in 1992.
It was then, and remains, the most profound experience of my life. I hadn't read the series in a couple of years so I spent time yesterday doing that, which accounts for the sudden soberness of today's post after three days of light-hearted golden oldies.
Death, no matter how many facelifts and Botox injections, comes to each of us. It is the central dilemma of human existence which, with variations determined by personal philosophy, religious belief and disposition, haunts most of us from the moment we are old enough to understand its finality.
In modern-day America, we avoid talking about that inevitability – at least, publicly – by ignoring it. Among the many methods for this are exalting youth as the gold standard of life; consigning our aged to retirement ghettos or, if ailing, to nursing institutions instead of home; and by sanitizing death.
People hardly ever die; they pass on. We've even given up on funeral directors (a mid-20th century euphemism for mortician or undertaker) who now call themselves grief counselors, as though the main character of the event is not the dead person.
We impose distance, too, when preparing wills, living wills and burial arrangements. There is so much paper full of legal language, you might as well be preparing a business contract and not for your own death.
As a result, there are few places and circumstances where we are allowed to speak openly about the stark reality of dying which, in my case, comes to mind more strongly in the years since I turned 60 or so, and it would be useful to hear how other people think about it. But try bringing it up with friends: What you will get is, “Oh, that's too morbid. Did you see Dancing with the Stars last night?”
And then they think you're weird; you can watch their faces change as they mentally withdraw from you.
Even when we get old and closer to the end of our lives, we are often cavalier about it. “I'm not afraid to die,” many say, “I'm afraid of a lingering death.” That's probably true - if you live long enough, you see some people suffer terribly as they die – but is that all there is to say?
Oblivion is what most of us fear. The loss of our individual self-awareness. It is hard (impossible?) to believe we just stop being which, I suppose, is what religions that offer an afterlife are for. That doesn't work for me. Although I am well beyond agnostic, I avoid labeling myself atheist because my lack of belief in a god (and afterlife) is different from rejection of it and also doesn't require railing against religion as in recent, popular books.
The comfort some naturalist sorts say they get from knowing they will return to the earth from whence we sprang bothers me because it doesn't account for having lived. During occasional dark nights of the soul, I wonder what the hell it's all for - all this experience and information I've gathered, collated and tried to understand during my many decades, along with that of everyone else's - if it disappears when we die.
Here is what I hang on to:
About ten years ago, talking with my friend Sandy as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point and took a step backward. Instead of pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar - a large, square hole in the sidewalk. As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.
Sandy caught my other arm and tried to pull, but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she could get no purchase on the ground. My arm against the building was slipping too and in a span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I'm going to die right now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it's okay, I can do this).
Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.
But a miracle happened. (I don't believe a god is necessary for miracles.) Two strong hands caught me in the middle of my back and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continuing life.
What comes to mind now, when I ponder death, is the memory of that perfect calm and acceptance and I am counting on it to return when next I need it.
That doesn't mean I don't think there isn't a lot to say about death and dying, and I wish we talked about it more.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
- The final lines of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean writes of Netti who is Yesterday's News - Not!]