Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

At death's door

My friend is at death's door. She has lived a good and conscientious life, raised worthy children and witnessed eighty years of the most significant changes in the world. The last time I see her, the body is shrunk, closing in on itself. A heavy tongue slurs speech, belies the mind that flickers bright; synapses still snapping to connect people and events spanning decades. She'll be fine, I think, going into the light or the unfathomable night, whichever you choose to believe in. She'll be fine. It's her child and grandchild who will be bereft, motherless, sad. It's us, who thinking of her, will think "oh she's gone" and feel the weight of absence. But is she any less here as long as someone thinks of her, remembers something she said, recalls her presence?

Some people I know would look at the most horrific films, follow the wars on every side of the globe; but cover their ears and scream with fear when asked to consider their own death. What is it about death that so terrifies some of us? It's easy to say fear of the unknown. But doesn't the known sometimes terrify you to the limit? How could there be worse?

My own belief - each of us must arrive at some personal belief that gives comfort about the last great unknown - is that a life progresses to a death as certain as day follows night. Look around and see so many transitions taking place all the time everywhere. Not just creatures or trees, but inanimate things too - buildings, landscapes, cities - are in a cycle of flourish and decay. Nothing stops, everything changes. Such change may take eons or split seconds. Death, I believe, takes us out of time, out of the cycle of change.

The poet Dylan Thomas gave us the most often repeated admonition on death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I believe he's talking about life, not death. This "rage against the dying of the light" is on this side of death's door. Be on fire each and every day, he declares, not with fear, but assertively, defiantly, live as if it's never enough. When we stand at death's door, there should be nothing more to say or do. Kiss me goodbye with a smile, no regrets.

But nothing is ever as simple as we philosophize. Life is messy. There are people who seem to have checked out long before their bodies lie down. Others who claim to be deathly afraid of dying appear to be squandering their time. And many who seemed too young to die are gone in an instant. Others theorize that each soul calls its own death unto itself. So how should we prepare or be prepared for that moment when life as we know it ends - the other person's or our own. How should such an altered state be welcomed?

Should we go kicking and screaming? Should we be packed and ready, standing at death's door waiting to be admitted? How much life is enough?

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