If I refer to death as a presence then I can tell you that we’ve grown up together. By the time my childhood dog died I had lost all of my grandparents. By the time I headed off for college I had a solid understanding of the life span and several of its life threatening diseases. By the time I left college my father had been diagnosed with cancer. And by the time I finished my graduate work his cancer was metastatic. While I knew my familiarity with terminal disease, nursing homes, funeral homes and hospitals at this age was not desirable it did feel normal. It all sounds macabre in the telling, but I assure you it is not. Imbedded in dying is the doorway to living.
The first hang-up about death we seem to have in our culture is the attempt to carve it into a separate event: life and everything that threatens its existence. When, in actuality, they are kindred. Through experience I have learned the intimate connection between the two, the sisterhood and love between life and death. I recognize this understanding now as a gift. If they are in fact kindred then death need not scare us…to death. Between my work with adults diagnosed with a dementia and my own family I see this clearly now.
Death is not life’s shadow. It does not lurk or creep, follow or haunt. Only our THOUGHTS about death can do this. Death itself is but another moment, an event in the course of our lives. The confusion in contemplating death from the vantage point of “here” safely on the other side of “it” is the ultimate mystery and frequent frustration of life. Death is often understood as a misplaced punctuation in the lifespan blocking what should be. Pesky aging and disease getting in the way of more life the way we want it. It’s delusional and quite maddening really. It is something we all struggle with at some point. This occurs not only in our view of an ultimate death but when faced with profound loss or radical change we can fear all sorts endings and may find ourselves craving more of what was or what should be.
Resistance is common and conditioned in our growing up human. Change is entangled with the meaning of endings as our minds flood with metaphors of doors closing and walls blocking. We find ourselves caught in an unfortunate duality of life vs. death and the misunderstanding can persist throughout a lifetime. Contrary to our mental noise about endings we are surrounded by a universe that demonstrates quite the opposite. Looking to nature there are no endings, only transformations. What evidence in nature suggests anything but transformation of energy and matter into more life?
We have all entertained a fantasy or two about our own death. It is the fodder of many wonderful comedies (my personal favorite is Defending Your Life with Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks) and tragedies (my go to cry-it-out film, Terms of Endearment). Most of us envision our life’s punctuation, an exclamation point preferably, somewhere in our 90’s with certain conditions, right? Perhaps we die in our sleep, peacefully, with zero money in the bank account and a winning lottery ticket on the end table for the grandkids. Or maybe heroically, where our demise is a shield for someone else. It can be cathartic and terrifying to sit with these wonderings. The point is, our preoccupation with aging and death, as well as our avoidance of looking at it altogether is at its essence an avoidance of living. A turning away from our own intimate connection with what’s really happening, right now, this moment and the dance of living and dying within it: Microscopically and macroscopically. To deny this is another form of insanity and ignores the mysterious and beautiful complexity of what it means to be human as well as the natural order of the universe we have evidence of right under our noses in nature every day.
I remember clearly the first funeral I attended as a clinical social worker. The word “client” really does not describe the relationship well. Lets just say I admired Dee immensely and she enjoyed that immensely. Dee’s memory loss had diminished her vocabulary but not her self- confidence. Her cognitive changes created a significant rift between her ability to distinguish the present day from a time much earlier in her personal history, but there was no impairment in her ability to connect socially and laugh it up with friends. The dementia Dee had impacted her piano skills and pedagogy but not her desire to sing and run her fingers over the keyboard the way a mother runs her hand through their child’s hair: familiar and adoring. The physical changes of arthritis ravaged her hands and slowed her gait but not her desire to move and dance slowly to sound and rhythm. She was grace and I felt grace in her presence.
I was in awe of Dee and the other members of the memory loss day program, The Silver Club. It was my first job out of graduate school. I was the first program director and the members were my bosses. They showed me a dimension of living, while moving in the direction of dying and revealed instead a joy, wonder, gratitude and creativity for living in the most unexpected of places. Adult day centers are one of our nations (our worlds) hidden places for our elders. It was and continues to be a miraculous setting very few of us have the good fortune of experiencing. The men and women of the Silver Club set me firmly on my path, wrapped my fingers around the torch and gave me a big shove in the right direction.
The words of the poet Mary Oliver fit my experience perfectly:
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
When Dee died I realized how I loved her. I felt it in my bones and I cried as I had at my own grandmother’s funeral. I remember feeling small. I struggled with my role as a social worker and my more demanding role as an emotional and spiritual human being. An uncharacteristic nervousness and enormous effort to not break down when speaking at the funeral home pulpit while sharing a happy memory of Dee’s presence in our memory program dominates my memory of the event. In the wake of her passing the gift Dee left behind revealed itself and I felt unsure if I was strong enough to carry it. It was a whisper at first, an invitation. It sounded like “go child, tell’em what you see here, tell them all, as many as you can.” I added the “and do it quick” part myself.
I did not realize at the time how Dee also gave me an instructing piece of the letting-go lesson. I would soon become a collector, following a bread crumb trail of acceptance and grief that would lead me to my first aching loss, the death of my father. My father lead me to the practice of mindfulness which then illuminated all of the lessons I had learned up to that point from the dying, from innumerable clients, together as a collage of mysteries spelling out instructions to living. Learning to die as a practice of living. It does not make any sense at first because it is rooted in rare awareness. The kind gifted to us in grief but ironically available to us in any moment. It transcends thinking and enters the realm of being in a way that challenges the limits of language. Jon Kabat-Zinn answers this profound experience in his book, Coming to Our Senses, with a life altering question: Can we die to each moment? “We are dying a little every day, just as we are being born a little every day. Maybe our knowing of death, our ability to foretell its inevitability yet not know the timing of it is a goad for us to wake up to our lives, to live them while we can, fully, passionately, wisely, lovingly, joyfully.”
Living and dying are connected, inseparable and at the core of this human experience. Can we muster the courage to turn towards it, questioning and curious? And when we are led to the water’s edge, not be afraid of our own reflection? Death knows us as intimately as our life does because they are one in the same. They teach us what it means to be human and to be here, one moment at a time; soul rails on the train of existence moving in tandem, parallel and complimentary, whose destination is no further than the next moment.
Death is not the end
Death can never be the end.
Death is the road.
Life is the traveller.
The Soul is the Guide