It is a gentle, rainy day. “Soft” as they sometimes call it in Ireland. This kind of weather might annoy some people, but honestly I like it. The coloring of things hints at autumn, my favorite season in spite of or perhaps because of inherent melancholia to be found therein.
Melancholia is a constant and faithful friend of late. I find myself thinking a lot about death.
The gardens themselves lean toward the great sleep, readying here and there for a dying back into autumnal composting and winter’s rest. Spring’s regrowth will come once more, eventually. We as humans seem to forget our place amidst nature’s seasons. Lately I find my mind ill at ease – a feeling of being consistently gaslighted by society. Over 180,000 people have died of Covid-19 in this country and few seem to even take note of it anymore. Around 1000 people PER DAY. How can this not be the day’s big news? There are even some who don’t believe the numbers. We throw these figures around and forget that behind every number is a lifetime of dreams and hopes and fears and faults. Laughter and learning, lightness and darkness. The messy stuff of everyone’s everyday. These are someone’s loved ones. How can the world just go “on”? I find it almost too much to take. And maybe this explains why no one is talking about it much. Maybe no one can take it.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
–Mary Oliver (I love this poem and was re-minded of it recently by the wonderful daily poem sharing offering of Shippenverse. Go give her a follow on the socials if you like timely poetry.)
It is a grave mistake in a well lived life not to give death a good mulling over now and then. I have at times (in the before times) been playing music with my dearest friends in a local session and have found myself so overwhelmed with a tearful gratitude that I think:
“Remember this. It’s not going to happen again. These people are a gift. Nothing is guaranteed. Pay attention. We could lose one another in an instant.”
Cheerful. I know.
But I do maintain that to toe the edges of things, to contemplate Great Mysteries, is to be more deeply alive, to live closer to the bone.
On soft days such as this one, I find myself thinking about Ireland, a land with its fair share of soft days and a place where the lines between life and death, this world and the Other, before and after, us and them, are blurred. I find myself most comfortable in a place that openly acknowledges the delicate nature of our very existence. Ireland is such a place.
Looking back on this Year of Years, we come to realize we were truly fortunate to begin the year’s wave of griefs on griefs in such a magical place. Tony’s mom died while we were over there. To explore ancient burial sites and wander the misty and mystical Burren in Clare was to feel a part of things in a very deep way. I wish I could be there again this fall, to process all that has happened – all that IS happening – but this is not to be.
Last week in the tail end of a yoga practice a thought, or perhaps even a ‘command’ of sorts came to me. “Tell the earring story” it said. And so I shall….
My friend Mia was dying. I had been lucky enough to leave my day to day behind and spend a few quality days with her before she slipped into that “between place” where she could no longer be reached by us. It was the wee hours of the morning and no one in the household had slept much that night. Professional nurses, Mia’s mom Ruth and husband Morris tended to her final moments and then, just like that, she was gone. The quiet was that strange sort of quiet that sometimes happens in a room where a birth has occurred. Dying is a different kind of birth I suppose. I stepped outside to get some air and to give Mia’s family a bit of space. I could feel the All of Everything outside. It was a beautiful morning. A bit later, Morris and one of the Hospice nurses approached myself and two other women on hand and asked if we might accept the task of washing and readying Mia’s body for viewing. Their family’s close community was to come to the house to pay their respects, share food and kinship, and bid farewell to their dear friend. Washington state allows for a family to hold on their loved ones for one full day before needing to send the body on to final burial or cremation. This was to be Mia’s day. We accepted this task with great honor and the Hospice nurse filled us in on what needed to be done. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to tend to the final physicality of someone we love. Yes, we were filled with grief, but something about the very earthiness of it all was a salve to that grief. We were mindful and in the moment. We put on Mia’s favorite music, opened the window to allow her soul passage. We washed her gently, and put her into her favorite clothes. Soon, we were nearly done. I had put in one of a pair of earrings into her ear when we were interrupted by someone entering the room. A friend in the community who hadn’t realized we weren’t *quite* finished. And just like that, the bubble had burst. Something of a strange reality had entered the room with this newcomer and there was no more that could be done. Mia’s head was turned and so no one would notice the missing earring anyway. My fellow caretakers and I had a bit of a strange laugh over this turn of events and the day carried on. I pulled Morris aside and told him of the earring still in my possession. He too found it all a bit funny. The earrings in question were moonstones. Mia and I had gotten matching sets we before she’d moved out to Washington and we liked to wear them at the same time like a couple of middle school bff’s. When the day came to an end it was time for the funeral folks to come and take Mia’s body away. I did a puppet show for the kids in the other end of the house while Morris took care of this bit of business. Later, he handed me the first earring. I took some pliers and converted that earring into a small pendant which I eventually took home with me. I made the second into a pendant as well, and left my set of earrings and that matching pendant with Morris to give to their daughter when she was old enough to wear them. (she was in the first grade if I remember right.) I still have my little moonstone pendant and keep it on my flute case as a constant reminder to live this life to the fullest. Mia reminded me always to follow my art dreams and to keep playing music. I have done and am so grateful for her early encouragement as we ran mile after mile together in between our busy lives and young motherhood.
I tell the story above as a small snapshot of the complexities of the end of a life. To remind us that once there was a time when tending to our dead was a privilege. This virus has so many dying that I believe we have a hard time really taking stock of so much loss. Our minds can’t wrap around the level of destruction. And with all of this death, comes a deep loneliness as well as many are having to die alone so as not to endanger their loved ones. The virus has robbed us of the very things through which we cope with difficulty. Gathering, hugging, singing, sharing. And these are difficult times to be sure.
A couple of artful friends in my life are stepping into what one of them calls her “final act”. They are seemingly facing this next chapter with a grace all of us might hope for in the end. They wisely advise us all to have the difficult conversations about what we might want for our own end of life chapters, how we might want things to go if difficult decisions are faced. Have you done this? Do your loved ones know how you might like to be remembered?
My friend Jeni sent this below to me (not knowing I was brewing a death-themed blog post, but this is how the muse works sometimes, eh?) And I absolutely love it. I read this and think, I might have been friends with this woman had we met.
It seems easy in these scary times to just step out of our bodies and forget we are limited beings. I think many people have really. So much anger, so little time for self-reflection or kindness. We aren’t taking the time to ask one another “How’re you doing, like really?” We won’t be here forever, this much is true. Something about turning 50 on the cusp of a global pandemic will drive this home to many of us. Much as the ads promising me the fountain of youth would like me to step away from my own sense of self, I stay put and face this age, my age, as it is. It isn’t pretty most days.
I make the conscious choice to stay in my body, as difficult as this feels in this harsh world. I run when I can, even on (perhaps especially on) cool rainy days.
I eat spicy food and cry easily. Much like old Moaning Myrtle, I am not afraid to talk of death. Perhaps it is, in the long run, the only thing left we might have in common these days.
Be kind to each other, check in with one another. Bake some cookies for your neighbors if you can.
And perhaps take some time for self-reflection on these remarkable times in which we find our small selves.