Just last week I met a very elderly man with a terminal illness (let’s face it, we’re all terminal) at a party. We had a frank discussion. He said he was tired of funerals and hoped when he returned to his home state he could attend a few weddings or christenings instead. He dreaded reading alumni publications, he added.
(Solstice Total Eclipse, photo by Melinda Johnston)
I said, You know, it’s getting to be the same for me, even at my age. Nearly every year, if not every issue, there’s a death notice for someone in my class. Maybe only one, but it’s happening.
We were interrupted, but I was about to ask this man if he feared dying, because it sounded like he did. It actually felt like a comfortable question in the context of our conversation, and I suspected that his own family was steering clear of questions like this.
He had mentioned his minister, so I wondered how his thoughts about death fit into his religious system and if his beliefs affected how he felt about dying. And if he grew more or less fearful with age.
Right now, I feel afraid. No particular reason, I just do. I felt less fearful when I was younger.
When I was 23, I had a terrible horseback riding accident. There were quite a few seconds—I’m not sure how many, because there’s always time dilation in these situations, so maybe 10, maybe even 30—between when I lost control of the horse and when I hit the tree to contemplate my fate.
My mind was and is capable of handling a lot of threads at once.
I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The horse was an Arabian, going at a full gallop, and the trail through the woods was narrow. I knew I would be thrown, if not into a tree or rock, then over the horse’s head when he stopped. Aside from the horse, I was alone. Serious injury or death seemed the only likely outcomes.
So, I was lucky.
Some of the injuries took years to recover from, but I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.
When I realized I’d lost control over what might happen, I experienced a tremendous calm. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before me, exactly, but there was a kind of… reckoning. I let it go. I thought, this could be it, and there came an acceptance.
No fear at all.
I think my body was scared, but on a mental and spiritual level, the I-ness of me, there was serenity.
And then a few years later, my first child died. Afterwards, I sort of wanted to die, too. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, though I did think I might not fight the wheel if my car started to drift toward the edge of a cliff. I was very curious about dying. Even if death meant oblivion, which I didn’t think it did, I wanted to know. I wanted to discover what Jake had experienced. I figured there would at least be an instant when you would realize that, yes, you were being obliterated. And at least it would be settled.
When my second son came along, I knew I was committed to living. And delighted by life again. Even so, I was certain that if I lived a very long time, eventually I would welcome death. I’d be tired of loved ones dying. Death was part of what made life, and it was the contract we all signed.
But now I’m scared of it.
Why is that? I really wanted to talk about this with the man I met at the party. The poem below poses one reason, but I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.
I was around 40,
after the embolism,
in the track-lit bathroom.
Sitting to pee, I’d think,
I’m going to die.
Not because of the embolism
exactly, or directly.
Just death, its certainty.
I was surprised
by my terror.
After your death,
nothing seemed more certain
I would follow you gladly,
full of curiosity,
How can a bereft
mother fear death?
Yet, as the chips
come closer to being down,
I do. Fear I won’t find
you there, either.