How’s that for a title? Not fun…but I’ve been trying to get a better handle on my attitudes about this subject. I guess you could say it’s part of the bereavement process, and it occurs to me suddenly that “process” is a funny word, something one might apply to white rice or bacon, connoting a series of steps or ingredients leading to a finished product, and even if the result is artificial or unhealthy, completion and closure are implied.
Well, I think the experience of bereavement is much more ambiguous and ongoing than that, but I have learned this much about the topic of death: avoidance, fear, and denial are not enlightening. So I’m gonna look at the thing straight on and keep blabbing. It’s of course universal, but we start with specifics: the particular pain of an individual death, the epic complexities of personal history unleashed, the reverberations of prior loss, the inevitable hunger for meaning and peace. For me this year it was the death of my mother, whose name was Esther.
I have already written in this blog about a recent dream in which she was alive, all dressed up and looking pretty, eating cake with frosting, and happy to see me as always. A woman was walking by, and my mother asked me to call out to her. She wanted the woman to come and see that she was doing well. I remember distinctly that the woman’s name was Maria. “Maria, come and have some cake with us! See? Esther is alive, she’s doing fine.”
Maria was joyful, and so was I. (When I woke up, I wondered, why Maria? Who is Maria?)
Anyway, the part I didn’t tell you is what happened in real life the next day. I had been wandering around town experiencing those intermittent waves of sorrow and remorse, obsessing in particular about not having been present for her in her final days and hours, and before I could talk myself out of it, I impulsively dialed the hospice agency whose client she had been. “I know it’s been months since my mother died,” I said, “and I know she was old and frail and I really shouldn’t be finding any of this so difficult to wrap my head around, but I just need to get some clarity about her dying…was she comfortable? Scared? Was someone with her? Can you tell me something that will make me feel better, please?”
The fellow I reached by phone was surprisingly brusque for a hospice person and not particularly understanding, but he looked up the records and called me back. He told me a few trite things: it was her turn, you did the best you could, let it go, move on. But then he added one specific and verified fact: my mother was not alone. Someone was with her…a woman named Maria.
Various friends have suggested that this dream and the Maria detail constitute a message from my mother, or heaven, or some agent of God, and it’s clearly intended to comfort me if I would only open my heart to it. I wish I could so readily accept it as such, but I guess I’m a pretty tough cookie. I tend to attribute this sort of thing to coincidental line-ups of ordinary events, perhaps subject to spin based on need and desire. I am not so arrogant as to presume that what we perceive is all there is –and it seems to me that unlikely and impossible things happen all the time– but I’m afraid my current framework of religious or spiritual beliefs is somewhat vague and tenuous these days, and I can’t easily lean into it for solace and support. I think faith involves an element of choice, and something lately has been holding me back. I don’t know why.
In fact, I went to a bereavement counselor last week, and she specifically suggested that I investigate the spiritual component of my life, not necessarily with a religious or churchy orientation, but in some way that enables me to clarify my beliefs. That’s a tall order, but I’ve started out by reading one of the books she recommended, called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. I’ve only just begun, so it’s too early to draw conclusions, but so far the book has been a mixed bag for me. At times it just exacerbates my regret about not having been there to help my mother through her passage, and I can taste anew that bitter “too late” residue regarding the deaths of other people I have loved.
On the other hand, it does help to reinforce the reassuring idea of death as a natural process of purification and release, something far more meaningful than mere annihilation. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says in his introduction, “I tend to think about death as being like changing your clothes when they are worn out, rather than as some final end.” And there is much in here about how to live in a way that helps prepare us for death, our own and that of others, and about impermanence and interdependence as infusing life with meaning and hope. So I’m pondering.
The counselor also recommended that I stop beating up on myself and disembark from what she called “the value train” in which everything I do is judged, weighed, measured….and found inadequate. By me. That’s been on my to-do list for a long time, or rather my stop-doing-it list. She further suggested that I do some writing about this whole experience. Fancy that. I told her that I have been writing about it. (Faithful readers of this blog might even say I have written about it obsessively and ad nauseam.) But she put a little twist on the assignment: I am to write a letter to my mother. Alas, this sounds like an excruciatingly painful and masochistic exercise, and I doubt that I will take it on.
But the counselor seemed like a kind lady, and I very much appreciate having a different space in which to “process” things. It’s amusing too to see that give or take a few unique twists, everything I’ve been experiencing is sufficiently cliché to have generated piles of handy little pamphlets and booklets about it.
What I conclude at this point is that we eventually just learn to coexist with heartache, and that no amount of reading, writing, talking, meditation, or prayer is going to take it away. It weaves itself into our souls somehow, rendering us human and compassionate and perhaps more fully alive.
I was in the midst of writing this blog post (the ominous blog post of death) when I heard about the death of Oliver Sacks, whose work I have read with interest and awe over the years, and whose reflections upon learning he was dying of cancer were particularly beautiful and profound. So it seems relevant to share a few of his thoughts here, both in his honor and for the illumination they offer:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Here’s to Oliver Sacks. It is beautiful and fitting that a man who dedicated so much of his life to exploring the wondrous realms of the human mind should leave us with so much wisdom about how to gracefully face and accept death. He wrote with such eloquence, insight, and courage.
Gratitude. Love. Even silliness. These words tumble forth, shining. They don’t erase our sadness for the ones who have suffered or ease regret for outcomes we wish we could change, but they do shed their light on what we still have.
So ultimately this is not about dying, but living. Perhaps I should change the title of the post.
Two days ago I had dinner with friends at a picnic bench by the sea, and it turned out that all of us were either in the difficult midst of caring for an elderly parent or had very recently experienced the death of one. We ourselves are no longer young, all of us graying and weathered, feeling decidedly finite, but it was a good moment, sitting there together while a big round moon rose over the bluff.
When we were leaving, one of them, an affable neighbor and avid surfer, came up to me and very kindly said something like this, “I don’t know if this works for everyone, and I don’t want to sound trite or act like I’m giving advice. I’m just gonna say what works for me. What I do is acknowledge it. I just say, yes, this happened, and it’s so big, so much bigger than I thought, but yes, it happened and it’s happening. You look at it and acknowledge that it’s there, but you stay in the present.”
“I think I know what you mean,” I said. “I sort of do that too. I feel those feelings and memories coming over me, and I know I can’t eradicate them, but I make a concerted effort to push them aside. I try to push them behind a wall in my head.”
“No,” said my friend. “That’s not what I’m saying. What I mean is, embrace it. Be present. Embrace it all.”