Dead can dance

1 11 2008

Dead dead dead. Death with a scythe. Angel of death. The big sleep. The worm crawls in, the worm crawls out.

‘Tis the season of death!

I am not a spiritual person, but the time of Halloween/Samhain/All Hallow’s Eve/All Soul’s Day brings the contemplation of death into the public realm. Usually, we Americans deal with death privately—no Day of the Dead for us! No, to be an American is to be all about life. Forward! Forward! Into the future! Death rather interrupts that ride.

Death used to structure my life—well, no, it didn’t. It’s true that I was determinedly self-destructive for over twenty years, and was firm in my sense that I had to cut out my life from under me, but this sense was more about my distaste for life than it was any appreciation for death. I wanted an end, nothing more.

It was terrifically important that I not think beyond my end. I didn’t want to ‘taint’ my suicide, didn’t want it to be a gesture or a kind of weakness, thinking that somehow it would all be better after I died. Certainly, when you’re thirteen years old and trying to kill yourself, you tend to desire surcease, if only because a permanent separation from life is unimaginable. Let me die, I thought, and it will be better.

But as I aged, and more importantly, as I considered my self-destruction as a moral issue, I determined that any notion of ‘better’, any notion of ‘after’ would muddled my understanding of what I would do. I was to kill myself because that was the correct action, the only corrective to a badly disordered existence.

The argument behind this conclusion would take me too far away from where I want to go with this post; suffice it to say that the experience of failing to kill myself (and the reaction of those around me to such failures) sharpened my sense of the necessity of a morally clean (i.e., shorn of any emotional encumbrances such as a desire for comfort) exit. In any case, the issue was the break with life, not the entrance into death.

Now that I have walked away from the artifice of self-destruction, however, I need a new relationship with death. I don’t know what an ‘ordinary’ relationship would look like, not least because it is not a part of everyday conversation, but I’d like at least to begin to think about a life that will end in the same expected/unexpected way as those around me. I never, truly, had to think before about what it means to be a mortal being.

Thomas Lynch, in an essay in today’s NY Times, notes

We humans are bound to and identified with the earth, the dirt, the humus out of which our histories and architectures rise — our monuments and memorials, cairns and catacombs, our shelters and cityscapes. This “ground sense,” to borrow William Carlos Williams’s idiom, is at the core of our humanity.

To be human is to be mortal. there’s nothing particularly original in this observation; in fact, it is such a central part of our being that artists and writers—to say nothing of religion—regularly turn this upside down and inside out and stretch this notion in order to make some sense of this fundamental boundary. What does it mean to die? What would it mean if we were to live forever? While believers may be ecstatic at the thought of eternal life in the presence of a loving God, those who consider the notion of immortality on this earth tend to take a dimmer view of things.

In Jose Saramago’s latest book, Death with Interruptions, death takes a holiday. I haven’t yet read it, but from the reviews, it’s clear that, for the inhabitants of this novel, life without death lacks sense. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, noted that natality is the founding condition of humanity; implicit is that for natality—birth—to have any meaning, the new life must eventually come to an end. For humanity to be renewed, humans must die.

While taking the larger view, Lynch also offers a more prosaic perspective:

[T]here remains something deeply human in the way we process mortality by processing mortals in the journey between life as we know it and life as we imagine it, in whatever space the dead inhabit. Wherever the dead go or don’t, it is the duty of the living to get them to the edge of that oblivion.

Since the first cave-dwelling Neanderthal awakened next to a dead kinsman and knew something would have to be done about it, we humans have looked into the tomb or grave or fire and asked ourselves the signature questions of our species: Is that all there is? Can it happen to me? What comes next? Only the dead know the answers. And the living are well and truly haunted by them.

Considering death, we are thrown back on to ourselves. How often do we take up such considerations, take up ourselves?

We prefer, as a people, to keep such hauntings limited to a day or two a year, paint it up in costumes or guide it down the hallway of a fright house. We can tame it, master it, keep it on a leash long enough to thrill us, but leashed, nonetheless. Then we scrub ourselves clean and begin our anticipations of Christmas. Lights! Presents! And, oh yes, new birth.

Enough with the cultural gloss. What does it mean not for a people, but for a person? Marjorie Williams, trying to see past her own death, felt keenly her prospective absence from her children’s lives. ‘Who will talk to my darling girl when she gets her period? Will my son sustain that sweet enthusiasm he seems to beam most often at me?’ As she witnesses, for the last time, her nine-year-old daughter’s preparations for Halloween, she dreams forward, writing that ‘I’d just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I’d cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I’d played was the fifty-two-year-old mother I will probably never be.’ Her children will live, without her.

But in the meantime, she lived. For awhile she comforted herself with the fact that ‘I’ll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles.’ None of the irritations! But, as she recognized, in not having to deal ‘with all the error and loss and love and inadequacy’ of living, ‘I won’t have to be human.’

As her life lasted beyond its expected expiration date, she, too, moved beyond this sentiment. ‘The passage of time has brought me the unlikely ability to work, simultaneously, at facing my death and loving my life.’ It was often ‘lonely’ work, she noted, but it did not take her out of her life. Death, unwanted as it was, had to be taken into account if she was to have a human life, her life.

Jon Katz makes brings together the observations of both Lynch and Williams in writing about his hospice work. He writes repeatedly of people ‘on the edge of life’, knowing they are heading into death while trying to make sense of their lives. Hospice can offer them a way to a gentle reckoning, an easing through a process which is often un-easy. On their way to death, these people become alive to him, through the stories they tell him, the presence they bring to his life. To attend to someone in their final months or weeks or days is an honor, he says, and one which deepens his appreciation for their lives and his own.

And then there are the moments after death. Lynch, as an undertaker, has written quite a lot about this (go read his book, The Undertaking), but what stays with me is a story Anne Lamott told, about the death of a friend’s mother. I can’t find the exact story (so apologies for any misremembrance), but she writes how she and the friend cared for the mother in her home, how they touched her and held her and lay next to her while she lived, and then continued caring for her after she died. They washed her entire body and, although I’m sure my imagination has added this to the story, wrapped her in a clean shroud. It was a final act of love, for her and for them.

Perhaps this stays with me because I wonder who would wash and wrap me, after my death. Who will care for me? For whom will I care? I have a complicated relationship to my own solitariness, alternately protective of and resigned to it, and although I know (or think I know) that we enter death alone, I don’t know that I want to end my life alone.

Yes, Lynch had it right. To think about death is to think about life. Thrown back on to myself, I am uncertain of whether I can catch my self, by myself.