Southern People

I journeyed with a friend her last few months of life; this is the end of it.

Well I got Agnes’s ashes today. They arrived in a white cardboard box and inside was a plastic bag filled with about 10 pounds of what remained of her. Just ash and some bone fragments. I tried to think that this was her, but I could not get myself to make that jump, it was just carbon, remains after the body burned to powder. Yet they are hers anyway and I will treat them with the respect that they deserve.

Agnes’s daughter will come down in May and then we will do with her ashes according to her wishes. I don’t mind holding them till then, for it is important that the daughter be here for the spreading of the remains. She wanted it done in the forest or perhaps an open field, she did not really mind where I put them as long as it was in nature. She did not want to be put in some kind of grave, just the scattering.

Just a few weeks ago we were talking, I was helping her with some paper work; chatting about her daughter and making up a collage of pictures, though there were not that many. I was there when she decided that it was time to give up her cat, a very hard choice for her, for she loved the cat very much. I went out and got her a hamburger and a cold coffee with some almond sweetener, three squirts, no more, no less. She was nervous, scared of being alone at night in her apartment. That was when Steve got her into hospice, I just stayed with her until the nurse came and did an evaluation. It was strange, this helping to close another’s life. It would seem that we are the only animals that can do this, something frightful at times; at least it was for Agnes. Yet she also showed courage in facing her death, even though she said to me a couple of times that she could not believe the end was coming.

People speak bravely about death and I respect that, but in the end, none of us knows how we will react at the time of our demise, or when it is close. For to imagine it is just that, something in the imagination and we always like to make ourselves look good in our inner wanderings. A heroic death, one with meaning, leaving an impression on those around them thinking it will make a difference. It is of course all nonsense. For death is experienced not witnessed, if it is thought about, it is just an inner movie being watched and commented on, even if only to oneself. We die, forgotten, well at least after a time, the world moves on until it is as if we never existed at all. So perhaps our deaths, while leaving sorrow in those left behind, are really of no importance at all in the schemes of things. I say this as a believer not as one who thinks life is annihilated at death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

I am reading a book by Julian Barnes titled “Nothing to be frightened of,” an honest book about death. He talks about his mother, a fearless atheist and his father a more timorous agnostic. The mother did not fear death, the father did. Julian says he is more like his father, while his brother, a philosopher, actually looks forward to not existing; to his extinction. So two men who believe in nothing after death, yet each approaching it differently, both being aware of the closeness of their death and each processing it in their own unique way. Both in their sixties, Julian’s older brother approaching 70, yet one seems calm, the other frightened. I think the same thing can be seen among believers. Some calm, others very frightened over the prospect of loosing full control of their lives. That final letting go perhaps after a long line of little deaths leading up to the big exit or is it an entrance?

We are all philosophers, though not all have the language to speak it, yet there are writers that speak for us, perhaps that is one reason many people like to read; seeking for someone to speak for them. We are like children whistling in the dark, pretending all is well, when at least in the long term, that is not true. Our loved ones die, our children often die before us, our parents and school mates, the famous and the infamous, the good and the bad, have the same appointment and nothing can be done to stop it. Then one day, just like Agnes, out of the blue the sentence comes; “you have this many months to live; get you affairs in order.” When that day comes all pretense is taken away, all intellectual mutterings are stripped of their power to console, and faith, well, it can seem empty and a lie, at least on the emotional level. For when the floor is peeled back, all we see is the void that has been there all along. Perhaps then the meaning of the word ‘pilgrim’ is finally seen for what it is, a sign pointing to our utter temporality.

Some people see this more clearly than others. Some go through life being happy and never speak or think of death; others can’t shake the inner emptiness of existence. I am of the latter group. Which is better; I have no idea. I don’t know how I will stand when my time comes. Will I cower, fight, or be peaceful and go gently into the night. Perhaps both ways are equal in merit, each a different path; perhaps both paths have the same share of those who are happy and those who are not. For awareness of our temporal nature can lead to a deeper life, leading one to have values that make the greatest number of people happy. For those who do not think about it, perhaps they can also do their part in their happy open attitude to all that life offers without worrying about endings. I wish I could say I know, but I don’t. Even with my faith, deeply rooted in Christ, there is more I don’t know, than I can honestly say I do. Life for me is a deep mystery, yet that makes me think that things are a lot more open ended than I can ever imagine or hope for. Others will come to the opposite conclusion. Who is right? Well I don’t know, perhaps it is good that way, perhaps having love and compassion for others is more important than having the ‘answer’. Which as history shows has caused no amount of suffering and trouble. There is nothing more dangerous than a ‘true believer,’ be it for a religion or some political or ideological cause.

Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.