Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In praise of death

I'm terrified of death. Some nights, I wake in the small hours and lie next to my beautiful warm husband, transfixed by the horror that he, I, we will one day be no more. All that will be left are a few stories, until they too fade away. I worry that my children will die young, and I become all teary; I fret that I'll be a young widow, and be unable to cope; I think about my own death, and hope I can go gracefully and generously, even as I feel sick with panic.

And yet, I want to sing death's praises. Not sudden death, or violent death, or death before time. Not death that is plotted and planned and controlled. But death after a good life - yes, I will sing its praises.

I sat with my mother as she died, after years of suffering. We made jokes, and cried, and sang, and said goodbye; and then we were quiet as she laboured at the end. The room was filled with a sense of generosity, of hope and love. And freedom.

Because when a sick person dies, they are liberated from their suffering. They, and we, are utterly relieved that they will have to endure no more. No more doctors, no more pain, no more pills. And when a sick person dies, they leave a space. For years it is a great yawning void, a space that can barely be endured. And yet, whether we tiptoe round the edges and pretend it's not there, or leap into the void and feel drowned by grief, we grow into it. Our lives expand and we experience liberation.

My mother was a gifted woman, a workaholic, a trailblazer. She was large; her spirit took up most of the room. There wasn't much space for the rest of us. After she died, we crumbled down to our hard cores, then slowly, unexpectedly blossomed, as her shadow faded and we had access to the sun. So I will sing praises, to the end of suffering and to the start of something new.

And I will sing of corpses. I have seen a few. I will sing praises, because death is hidden here. Sick people are shuttled off to hospital, or hospice. To visit them and spend time with them, we have to drive to strange suburbs and sit in strange rooms and have strange conversations. Death becomes foreign. It happens to other people, somewhere else. Bodies are whisked away, and reappear, by arrangement, at the funeral home. So I will sing the praises of corpses, of the right to see a loved one in their final state, of the chance to say one last goodbye to a strangely still and waxy face, familiar and foreign in death.

I keep a few skulls on my piano: a wallaby, a kangaroo. I caress a bird's nest made of down, a hawk's feather. These objects of beauty are reminders of transience, a sign of the wonders to come.

And because I sing praises, I sing praises of life. Since it is finite, let us fall down into ourselves and discover who we are, so that when our time comes we can say that we have lived. Let us become those people today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Let us celebrate the life that is here, the life that is now, the life worth living. Let us turn up our stereos and dance round the kitchen. Make a cup of tea and watch the clouds scud across the sky. Plant some flowers in a surprising place. Write a letter to a loved one. Invite someone to dinner and open a bottle of wine. Start drawing, or writing, or singing like we mean it. Join a peace movement. Eat a juicy apple, and live extravagantly, generously, open-handedly today.

Because some day soon our bony friend will come knocking at the door. And when those hard knuckles go rat-a-tat-tat, I want to open it boldly, ready and able to welcome him in.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully poignant post.

    I am a Home Hospice RN in the U.S. -- so rather than trundling people off to "somewhere else" they get to stay in their own home, and I visit them there as a guest in their home for a few hours a week.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    ~ Keith


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