Image from The Empathy Project at Seattle Art Museum 11/2018
We arrive on this earth, learn things, affect people, people affect us, eat too much or too little, hate ourselves, work on loving ourselves, work on not hating others, lose people, gain new people, worry about money, and kids, our parents and siblings, and friendships, have some laughs here and there, and then we die, we are gone. At some point, it is over, just over. We make up ideas about where we go when we die and typically think it will be much better or much worse than life here on earth. I think we just die. We leave energy behind, we leave memories and that is all we really know.
Death seems to happen by mistake, an anomaly in our world. We all know that we die, but I am a member of the club that pretends that it will really never happen to me. Or it will happen in a way that is swift so I barely know it has happened. It will happen as I imagine when I am 100 and still have my wits about me. I will be sleeping and my heart will fail. My imaginings are based on facts; My mother lived to 94, her sister to 92 and her cousin lives on at 101 about to be 102.
When death happens we land in the country of disbelief and say this wasn’t supposed to happen, especially when the person seems too young to die or cut off from doing something that we think is important or it is just someone we love spending time with and it feels like they are taken from us.
As I don’t have a ritual for death, there are the memories that I want to collect up, like a hoarder. The Day of the Dead ritual in Coco seems good. Creating an altar of things that help me remember my friend Paula, my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the friend that died when we were both 19, the friend of my daughter’s who also died when they were 19. I still carry around my mother’s ashes in a shoe box, fitting for who she was, waiting for the perfect moment and place to put them. I think of somewhere for the ashes, weigh in on it, and, so far, nowhere ends up saying, yes, leave her here, with us, where she will be taken care of. Maybe a shoebox is the perfect place. It was not uncommon for my mom and I to joke about her and Imelda Marcos. Not about shared politics, but about too many shoes.
This past month I sat and watched my friend wither away like a dying, brittle vine, still clinging to the trellis it once had adorned with blossoms. She had stomach cancer but told us she had breast cancer because that is what she wanted to believe. It was part of her wish to believe she could recover from this by diet and positive thinking. By the time she had told me, and a few other friends, she had had this cancer for a year. We learned of it when the cancer was in the process of attacking her entire body. In the end, it left her with a writhing ocean of an open wound weeping from her chest. It was as if her insides had become a riptide of pus trying to break free from her cancer-riddled body, just as she hoped to do, break free. Prior to hospitalization, a nurse suggested wearing a Kotex as a bandage on her leaking breast, which she did, bringing both of us to uproarious of laughter. The whole time we joked, I had no idea she was dying and maybe it was more fun that way. It was just a silly bandage that would be removed one day when she was “better”.
The last time I saw her, she was in a baseline assisted living home where she was receiving Hospice care, at least when the nurses chose to follow Hospice’s instruction or when Hospice was there itself. She looked kind of like a person I once knew, but as she became ever more gaunt, she was a sliver of who she once was. Over a months time, she became an empty body, with blue eyes that moved and had moments, flashes of recognition, and then vacant. She died on December 24, 2018, at too young of an age, taking secrets with her.
Each day, after leaving the vigil of sitting with Paula, my thoughts would drift off to how will this happen for me. Who will be with me? I would like my kids to be with me, but wonder if one could stand the process and if the other will be too busy. I carry a fantasy that my kids will be there like I was for my mother, but that fantasy includes things as if I were like my mother and my kids were like me. But, in fact, my mother and I were always pretty different. I mean it was clear we had a special bond, and we were related, but I live my life differently than she lived hers. I attend to my fears differently, I attend to my hopes differently. So to think I will have what my mother had in her ending years, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The last time I saw Paula she looked a lot like an alien with a small diminishing body and huge eyes. I felt cliche when my mind went off to wondering if this is what life comes to and then wondering if am I doing my life right. Paula died much as she lived. In the end, she was as worried about her finances as ever, though her worries were unfounded, as they always had been. She scrabbled around with friendships and kept secrets or half-truths how she was actually related to certain people who she spent time with. Early in my first visit, at some point in her morphine stupor, she made a comment about looking fat. The only thing that could possibly suggest fat, was her cancer inflamed arm. Even on her death bed, her eating disorder was alive and well. Her concern and fear of being fat was evidence that our craziness follows us to the end. So if this is the case, I deeply want to unhook my deep, low self-esteem issues now. I would like my death bed to be free of the ailments of untruths about who I actually am.
So what am I doing with my life? How cruel have I been? What can I do about it now? When do I just let go and be kind, do what I need to do, do what I want and brush off the cruel things said to me, by me and others?? Get the tougher skin my mother had wished for me. I find all my actions are directed towards freeing myself to be present, being kind and generous, uncluttered by my lower needs of inclusion, fear of being left out, needing to defend myself, needing recognition. I find I am driven to live from a higher place than my ego and I fail at all of this a lot.
After watching Paula, I hope I get there. I think I want this more than anything other than for my children and their loved ones to be happy, healthy and feel safe.
“If death is certain and the time of death uncertain, what do I do? How do I live? What matters most to me in the time that is left?” ~Stephen Batchelor