My Mother always maintained that she was not afraid of death. When I was young I wondered if she said this to reassure me but later I knew she meant it. Perhaps that’s why I’m not afraid of death either.
That’s not to say I don’t fear the absence of my nearest and dearest, or fail to realize how permanent death is. But I am not afraid of the process personally. I don’t think it will hurt. One’s condition leading up to it might be painful, but death I think is not.
My Father was only in his sixties when he told me that when he died, he didn’t want me to be distressed for him – he’d had a good innings. This expression refers to a batsman in cricket who has had his fair share of time at the wicket. His timely warning helped me with his transition. My Mother was completely shocked when he died of a brain hemorrhage at 67, but thanks to his warning, I was not. That was 47 years ago and my Father is still as present and powerful as he was then. I hear him in my head and I carry him in my heart. Love endures, his and mine.
When I was fifty I loved a man 18 years my senior. We were only together ten months when he went to hospital for tests. When I went to pick him up his bed was surrounded by doctors and nurses following a cardiac arrest. He survived but they kept him in, and they told me I must prepare myself, he was unlikely to recover. I discovered then my capacity to lie convincingly, reassuring him that he would soon come home to me. When he picked up my anxious expression I deflected his concerns. I don’t know why I felt compelled to protect him in this fashion. He died within two weeks. I visited him twice daily either side of work, anxious to be with him as much as possible, but I could not tell him he had little hope. I was with him when he had another heart attack and died. He was a lovely man. Love does not fade.
If I was moribund I’d want to know. I want to pace myself, take care of my loose ends. I don’t want to be lied to about my own condition; that would diminish me. So why did I deny him that experience? I was not spared the loss of hope, but he was.
Life passages rise up to meet and challenge us to take them gracefully. I was 57 when my Mother died two weeks short of 87. I think of her as 87 although she missed that party. She had suffered from dementia for some years, so although I loved her above all others but my Dad, I was relieved when she passed. I shed few tears because I’d shed them all before. When a loved one has dementia one grieves in advance so there is little left to grieve about in retrospect.
It was only a blink of an eye between her dying and my becoming the older generation in our family. A single mother, I’d been the Now-generation for years, caring simultaneously for her and my children, that king-pin but stressfully squeezed position. Suddenly I was retired and old and my sons had children and now they were in charge. Momentarily I felt displaced, but it was only a months-long Moment. They are responsible and competent and it was restful to sit back and let them take charge. I don’t understand parents who fight to keep the baton when they have the chance to pass it.
A friend told me recently that his Mother has only a while to live and that her family told her the diagnosis. He wrote “Since she’s been sick, she’s been adorable; as smart as she had a reputation for all her life but that as her kid I didn’t get to see; funny; sweet; thoughtful; courageous; outlandish; ornery; and most of all, beautiful.” This sounds to me like a love letter. I hope she gets it. I replied that being ornery would stand her in good stead as she faces this life passage, which is not easy for her or for him. She’s lucky that they could be open with her, and he’s lucky that she has the courage to bear it. She has time to prepare for her great transition.
I took care of my loose ends, some years ago. Always one to cross my bridges before I came to them, I .made my Will, listed assets and where to find them, asked my sons to let my friends know (with a list of names and addresses). I’ve told them in the letter attached to my Will, I want to be cremated, not buried, and urged them not to let me go without a party. Not to be sad, “I’ve had a good innings.” I wept as I wrote them how they enriched my life and gave it meaning and how much I love them, and goodbye. I wept not so much from sadness but from joy at all my blessings. I’ve filed it and told them casually where to find it.
They know already they are the light of my life and that my heart is full of them. I know that fifty years from now, I’ll still be in their hearts too. Although they never met my Father, they know him through my stories, and my Memoir. A quarter of their genes are his.
Those who believe in a life hereafter (and I’m pretty convinced) are lucky. I’m banking on it being the next Big Adventure, but if I don’t wake up to experience it, I won’t know. The hardest prospect for me is leaving behind my children and grandchildren, but I don’t want to be here so long that I’m a nuisance, so I pray I don’t outstay my welcome. It would be harder still, seeing them go first. My heart goes out to parents in that situation.
The timing is not up to us. Dying is a Big Deal, but if we’re inclined to feel daunted by it, consider the alternative. Living forever would really suck. Who wants to live forever?