Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When we die we go to sleep. We awake in Paradise. In Paradise, no one wears clothes and everyone is very polite. Tiny condiments are served on trays. A small but precise string orchestra plays. One sees many old friends. All of them look well: youngish, but stately. The couples seem at peace, and the single people are radiant.
It’s an outdoor party, with that honey-colored afternoon sunlight and just the hint of a breeze. The drinks are dazzling.
What most satisfies is the conversation — the pervading sense of discovery. One retells one’s aged anecdotes with new interest. One’s dead words come to life.
There are celebrities, too, at the event, people one has admired from a distance for years, and they are surprisingly accessible. They exhibit a humility that puts one right at ease, and it is almost as if they have long been waiting to meet you. One walks away from the noted writer, the distinguished politician with quiet pride.
Here and there one encounters an enemy, a former rival for a job or lover. One feels the old tightening of the belly, but with a touch of amusement. Despite oneself, one is a bit charmed by the villain. Doubt enters the mind: could I have been mistaken?
At certain points, someone will clear her throat and address the crowd, and everyone will grow still. Often the speaker will recite a poem, which impresses one with its personal, yet lucid quality.
Some women wear jewelry, and it is as if one has never seen jewelry before.
At odd moments one will stop and note that there is no anger, no jealousy, no discontent at this gathering. It is so different from one’s routine. One notices this with satisfaction and a certain wistfulness.
Just when one is bored, one meets an old Air Force comrade, a fellow with an infectious laugh and impossibly large sideburns, whom one had never expected to see again.
Unlike most occasions of social nudity, there is a certain sensuality in the air, and the frank, amused attitude of the women invites play. There is of course no physical contact, but rather a sense of mutual delight. Women one has never found attractive seem suddenly daring.
There are moments at the party when one feels capable of anything: of turning invisible, of composing a great symphony, of robbing a bank. One smiles upward into the sunlight.
The paté is excellent.
New York, New York
I don’t know what will happen when I die. A part of me died when my husband died. I was twenty-two years old, married a year, when my husband accidentally drowned in Belew’s Creek, North Carolina. His body was never recovered. I died (a chunk of me) in bits and pieces. I saw the change immediately when I stared into the bathroom mirror. I saw nothing but death staring back at me. I began to compare my pain, measure it, against the pain of others. Was theirs as deep, as sharp, as endless as mine? I withdrew from friends and relatives. They were anxious to help at first but were afraid of my rage and hurt. People my age were young, carefree, concerned about having fun, not facing death, not confronting sadness. I carefully contained myself. I was afraid that if I was honest, relaxed my hold on myself, I would explode in a shower of pain, shards of anguish. Death robbed me of my youth. All those years lost to silence and heartache. Since I was not legally a widow (as his body was never recovered), I existed in a sort of legal limbo. I couldn’t remarry, write a check (all assets were frozen), or even leave the country. It took me nine years of hassling with lawyers and going to court to finally get my husband declared dead. So when we die, we take parts of other people with us to the grave. Experience has taught me not to be afraid of death, but it is always unexpected. When my husband died, I searched for faith, confirmation of life after death, proof of prayer, and relief from my own deep survivor guilt. I read all those books, searched faces in a crowd, looked for life with a deeper meaning. I ended up where I began, staring in the mirror, watching death, watching me.
Jean A. Renfro
The first funeral I attended was that of my grandfather’s grandmother, a crinkled old crone who had lived to a hundred and three or four. I was very small and taken by the hand to pass in front of the old woman’s body that lay with eyes closed and face toward heaven in an open casket surrounded by flowers in an old country church near Talledega, Alabama. I remember it was hot and we left early, probably on my account. I was very little and had started most likely to whine and squirm.
The next funeral I remember was that of my great aunt Amalta, Aunt Mal we called her, and I remember passing her open coffin and seeing she was still wearing her glasses and I wondered aloud if dead people read and was told that people who came to look wouldn’t recognize her without her glasses. I was suspicious even as a child and thought it silly to put glasses on a corpse but that didn’t keep me from having a wonderful time with my cousins, Beth and Susan, as we laughed and giggled all the way to the cemetery and back home.
For a very long time after that nobody died except the father or mother of a friend from school. When I was twenty my friend Mike, the first person I’d loved since I was a child, died from injuries sustained in a car wreck. His chest had been crushed and he drowned in his own blood. I had watched him die full of tubes, surrounded by doctors doing all they could to save him. He struggled for a long time; then he seemed very peaceful; then his eyes rolled back in his head, his body convulsed and they asked me to step outside; ten minutes later they told me he was dead. His funeral was held at a big Methodist church in Commerce, Georgia. I waited outside until the coffin had been closed. I wanted so much for him not to be dead and if all I could have was my memory of his body alive I’d not taint that in viewing the undertaker’s artistry.
After college, I worked in a little South Georgia town called Ashburn and a young woman named Gloria worked for me as my secretary. I was director of a small school for the mentally retarded and was as such entitled to a secretary. But the pay was low, Gloria had few clerical skills, and there was little for her to do, so in her spare time she distracted the other workers or found ways to annoy me. I decided I’d rather not have a secretary and planned to share the news with Gloria after I returned from my vacation. The day I got back to work everyone looked forlorn. I asked what was the matter and was told, “Gloria is dead.” Several women started to cry. Gloria, they said, has been kicked in the head by a horse. Later I learned that the entire staff, myself included, had been named by Gloria’s family as honorary pall-bearers. On the day of the funeral we all rode to the tiny country church in two yellow mini-buses ordinarily used to transport our students from home to school and back. We got there early and were seated right by the coffin. As the director of the center I sat, as expected, in the front row. Gloria’s face had been disfigured by the horse’s kick but the casket was wide open and a veil covered what the undertaker’s cosmetics could not. I watched two women in their fifties draw close to the coffin and then one furtively lifted the veil and said in a whisper to the other, “There, there’s where the horse kicked her.”
My grandfather died in 1976. He had suffered for two months as cancer ate his pancreas and doctors and their machines had kept his body living in a hospital. The last time I saw him he held my hand with all his strength as if to tell me not to forget him after he went away. The dying are always wise to what’s going on and if they pretend otherwise it is only to reassure the living who are forever praying for the wrong kind of miracle. A dying body in its simple wisdom yearns only to be allowed to die. My grandfather’s death followed shortly after his son had arrived and he felt his family strong enough to take his leaving. I did not want to see him embalmed and pasty and cold but I could not avoid doing so without making a difficult situation even more difficult. At the funeral I sat beside my younger brother who asked me if I thought Papaw had gone to heaven. I said as far as I could tell all that was left of Papaw was in that box in the front of the chapel and would soon be six feet under the Alabama earth. My father later scolded me for upsetting my brother but I think it was he who was upset in not knowing anymore than my brother or myself just where the old man had gone.
Last night I dreamed that I was going to die. I was supposed to go to a hospital or some other place where mortality was appropriate, but first I had things to do. Straightening up this and that, I wondered that I felt neither pain nor fear, and then noticed that everyone I had been close to seemed to be there — father, mother, stepmother, sisters, nieces and nephews. They weren’t there to console or bemoan. They just went about whatever it was they had to do. Without any particular effort, the priorities — those things I chose to call and feel important — asserted themselves and were very clear.
It was more a tone-dream, a feeling-dream, than a dream filled with affecting specifics and actions. Its tone might have been summed up as, “OK.” That, and some wonder that it was so effortlessly “OK.”
Psychology suggests that dreams are places in which to rehearse fears and wishes, so perhaps it was all wishful dreaming. But still it set me to thinking. . . .
In many cultures, children are raised with an eye to survival, a clear, practical approach and appreciation of death. In our own society, child-rearing emphasizes what might be called adulthood, the ways and means of functioning as an adult. If adults are smart, teach children to be smart; if adults are rich, teach children how to get rich; if adults are caring, teach children to be caring, etc.
But when it comes to death, our adult credentials seem to be inadequate. How is a person to “cope” with something which has no interest in being “coped” with and positively disallows convenient intellectual or emotional hand-holds? Some respond with belief or disbelief while others turn to hedonism or helplessness. Yet none in the end can compass or reach. Belief or disbelief cannot go with us to this place. We go naked as at birth — naked and alone. There is no “coping,” no success or failure, and certainly no dream. In what way then can there be an honest approach to so personal a fact as death?
In Japanese, there is a word, senge, which is most often applied to priests and tells of death. Senge might be translated as “to change the place from which the Truth is conveyed.” Here we find responsibility and clarity, a responsibility and clarity in no way limited to a priestly life. No longer is the sense of death something that runs counter to my will. Neither is there a longing for death. Instead, there enters a healthy appreciation of simply according with circumstances as they present themselves. Not yesterday’s circumstances, nor tomorrow’s, but these circumstances. With an appreciation like this, each moment is a moment of birth, each moment is a moment of death, each moment is a moment of life. Moment after moment, there is no escaping and no need to escape, no clinging and no need to cling. What, after all, would we escape from? And what cling to?
To change the place from which the Truth is conveyed — this is not an exercise for the intellect or the emotion. It is something for the whole being, like birth, like death. Naked we move from moment to moment with our whole being. As there is nothing halfway or doubtful about birth or death, so there is nothing halfway or doubtful about life in this moment. Next moment will be different, utterly and completely new, yet connected in all directions through time.
It may take some effort to set aside the wonderful adult skills and discover the place from which the Truth is conveyed, but since that place is no more foreign to us than so-called birth or so-called death, a little attention and diligence should do the trick. Here a cat stretches in the sun. There a gentle river current runs smooth and uncomplaining ’round a rock. Moment after moment, death after death, no need to be afraid. If you miss it at lunch, I’m sure you’ll find it by dinner.
New York, New York
When I was in training to be a pastor, the help I had from my supervisor was, “People die the way they live.”
There were exceptions, I’m sure, but I remember how close this proverb comes to the deaths I’ve experienced.
A former prisoner, sedated and barely alive after many operations — nearly only a voice left — managed to cheat the hospital out of the money to pay his bill.
A woman who had lived nobly and alone, and who had heart problems since she was sixteen, died at eighty-eight of a heart attack (her only one), alone, on the kitchen floor, having never, I think, asked anyone for help in her life.
By the time life ends we’re so much ourselves that we can’t escape what we have become.
There’s a saying, “We take care of our habits, and then they take care of us.”
To die well, we have to live well, and do those things which we ought to do, and not do those things which we ought not to do, and love our wives, our children, and ourselves, and speak affection and encouragement to those who matter to us.
An end to life when it is a high art, causes regret.
An end to life when it is a jumble, causes despair.
Death is hard enough when it is beautiful.
Playing in the dirt as a child, I would occasionally cut an earthworm in half with my shovel. I was always amazed that both halves would remain alive, as squirmy as ever.
I know very little about death. No one really close to me has died. And the closest I’ve ever come myself is temporary ego death — rejection by someone important to me, or the realization I’ve done something ugly. But as far as the final, the ultimate, the Big D, my best guess is that the Worm Principle takes over.
Our legacies keep us alive. Children, if we had any. Anything of substance we contributed to the world. Legacies are one half of the worm.
The other half is people’s pure emotional response to the life we led. The feelings generated by memories of us. The negative or positive example of our life, as people perceive it.
I never found out how long those worm halves lived after that experimental surgery I performed as a child. Probably not very long. But when I get sliced in two one of these days, I want both halves to squirm in glory for quite some time.
Death is not the failure of the human body — rather, death is a surrender of the spirit. First comes self-condemnation, then refusal to forgive oneself. Note that these are willful acts — nothing passive here. Next we enter a state of self-punishment — a withdrawal from those things by which we nurture ourselves — by turning away from poetry, music, art. Perhaps we stop painting, put away our journal, cut down on correspondence and begin to see a little less of our friends.
As the soul shrivels, we find it progressively harder to connect with tranquility, believing that it is our failure as a human being, not our spiritual withdrawal, that has caused us to lose our inner light. Mediocrity becomes the goal, not the starting place. When we begin to believe that to live in a deadened state bereft of beauty and serenity is to live in the “real world,” it is then that we begin to die.
Eyes red and puffy from too much pot, braless under my flimsy shirt, I sauntered out to the interstate and stuck out my thumb. I was eighteen years old, feeling free, and oblivious to any thoughts of danger. Why, the world was most likely going to be blown to bits anyway, wasn’t it? And none of us was going to see thirty.
My perspective gradually changed as I moved through my twenties. I became more cautious and realistic, but I remained remarkably sheltered from the experience of death. I, my friends, and my immediate family remained intact.
Then when I was nearly thirty, a man I knew well, the husband of my closest friend, died of a drug overdose. Within weeks two other people I knew, both young, were killed in accidents. I remember the thought that keened through my mind as I lay absorbing the shock and grief. “People die. People actually die.”
A year later, my father died. This took a lot longer to absorb.
Then, one day, an unwieldy vitamin pill became wedged in my throat. In panic, I rushed to my husband, squealing and gesturing frantically. He took me in hand, convinced me that if I could speak I could breathe, and got me to relax until I could. The pill shook loose, but for several weeks I became obsessed with a fear of choking and of death. Waking at night, I would listen carefully for a sound from my sleeping husband. Is he alive? I’d wonder, reaching out to see if his body was warm, or cold. That passed. But on some level, I had acknowledged that my husband and I will die.
The more I see of it, the more I feel that an acceptance of death — of an end to life as we know it, with no guarantee of heaven, rebirth, or any other safeguard — is necessary for living fully. If we’re thinking about pie in the sky, or about how we can do it differently next time, we may not do whatever is necessary to make it right this time. If we live the richest life we possibly can, and there turns out to be more to come after death, why, that’s frosting on the cake.
During especially hard times I have sat in my car at the cemetery, chewing on chicken and staring at the monuments. Life seems more vivid there and one’s awareness is enhanced. I see clearly I must live before I die, and not get so worked up over transitory problems; I almost feel ashamed even to want food, clothing, and shelter.
The apparent reality of our demise can still fill me with flashes of fear and horror, that our bodies will disintegrate and we will never see those we love again, but these dark feelings are more unreal with each death of someone I know and care about; it’s impossible to consider them only some sort of physical machine which shuts off abruptly when the batteries run down, or is damaged beyond repair. I feel and know we are much more than that and that a divine eternal spirit shines inside us.
My father, an undertaker, used to describe to us at dinnertime the various grotesque ways people can die. A crazy man rushed up to a woman who carried a baby down a country road and cut her head off. “We had to put a scarf around her neck to hide the line.” A farmer, who had suffered a heart attack, fell into his hogpen and was found later half-eaten by the hogs. Why did he have to tell us while we were eating? I was glad when he discontinued his ambulance service. Every day, he faced the greatest of mysteries and dramas.
The many reported out-of-body experiences indicate to me that our spirits and minds can exist independently of our bodies, which are released at death into a higher realm, more subtle, more ethereal than the earthly, and where ideally I hope that we commune with holy ones in a colorful and mystic paradise. All pain is gone, all severe loneliness, and the souls there can perceive each other’s beauty. We then may dwell in the Pure Land.
When we die, I believe we’ll meet what we expect to meet. We’ll meet the essence of what we’ve done and been during this lifetime.
A man sits on a fence at the edge of town. A traveller comes along and asks him what kind of people he’ll meet in this town. Our friend on the fence asks him what kind of folks he encountered in the last town he was in. “They were mean, greedy, selfish, ugly, nasty, useless.” “Well,” replies our friend on the fence, “that’s the kind of folks you’ll find in this town, too.” A while later, along comes traveller number two, who asks the same question about what he’ll find. Our friend on the fence asks again about past experience. The traveller replies, “They were loving, gentle, considerate, giving, friendly, sweet.” “Well, that’s the kind of folks you’ll find in this town, too.”
Most of the stories I’ve heard about life after life/death are tales about the great white dazzlingly brilliant light that waits for us to blend into it. Some call it Jesus. Some sects of Buddhism say that if we don’t feel worthy of blending with that light, we get to go away from it for however long it takes us to learn how to be comfortable within it.
Any answer to what happens when we die will be laced with agreement or disagreement with our childhood teachings, and some tinge of religion or spirituality. Sometimes it sounds like preaching — replaying of old tapes — and I often desire to dismiss these repetitions. But I am impressed with the similarities that continue to appear in the stories. The great white light is the most comfortable aspect to me. I feel a need to grow worthy to become a part of it.
I started studying the subject of death five and a half years ago when a very dear friend of mine died in a mountain accident: he was playing his flute in the back of a pickup truck on the way to the 1979 Rainbow Gathering. The driver fell asleep after fighting forest fires for three days. The flute was never found. You can imagine how some of us have smiled at the vision of our angel-faced friend playing his flute in harmony with the harps up above.
When he died, I realized suddenly that any of us could die at any moment. And when we die, we ought to have all our “stuff” cleared up, all our difficult relationships smoothed out, all our debts paid. I need to leave my loved ones with an echo of “I love you dearly” in their ears. So I wrote lengthy letters to the two most cluttered relationships in my life — my mother and my former husband. I explained my concern. I said very simply, gently, and clearly, what I wanted. And they responded in the most loving way that could be imagined. If I had written the script, I couldn’t have written a happier ending to that scene. Actually I believe I did write it in a way — in the same way that I also believe we all write our own scripts for life: we build our own reality.
When I was given the diagnosis of cancer four years ago, I was so scared I couldn’t even tell my three children, who were all in college at the time. Since then, I’ve spent lots of time with people who “know” they’re dying — children, and all ages of folks with “terminal” illness. Those who are in support groups are the fortunate ones who can talk about their feelings, release the hidden fears, and then go beyond that to other details about how to live life now.
I was given the all-clear signal this April. But a door was cracked open for me, and I have been exceedingly fortunate to spend time with dozens of good people who have shared their feelings about what they expect to find — when we die.
And when I die, I want to be buried under a peach tree so I can continue to provide a delectable usefulness!
I am almost a father as I sit among shadows of my past in this mountain town. I am scarred from a memory of what I did not do. I did not conform as an adolescent here. I did not drive. I did not date. I was a stranger here among family and neighbors. I stand without parents. Both of my parents and my stepfather have passed away. I live among their memories. Yet in January I will go beyond my past and embrace a new soul, a child, born to my wife and me.
Here I am in a land that now seems more foreign than my wife’s country, Peru, the country we recently left. I think a lot about death these days. That happens to me quite often when I am going through big changes. I feel that death brings us to something bigger than this life. We can in no way return to this world, as a child cannot return to the womb. There is something so awesome in the laws binding that other world that we are not allowed to live this mortal life again.
And when we die we open to that awesome world beyond. We must always be prepared to enter that world. Is that not the goal of this life — to be prepared to live in eternity? I have been told that Christ defeated death. Physical death is nothing to defeat. It is an awakening to a greater reality. It is a glorious birth. It is a release of sorrow.
Now, when there is spiritual death, when our spirit grows cold, when we refuse to face the light, that is a dark and hideous thing that gives me the creeps.