I sat on my bed in my bathing suit waiting for the televised baseball game to end so Dad could take the family to the public swimming pool. On summer days in Phoenix, going to the pool at Encanto Park was really the only relief. On weekdays when my parents were at work all day everyday, I would walk the 5 blocks there by myself in flip flops, a bathing suit, and dragging a beach towel. Twenty-five cents would get me admission (a dime), buy me a coke, a bag of popcorn, and a sugar daddy (five cents each) — supplies for my seven hour day at the pool. Other than that, I drank from the water fountain when I was thirsty.
On weekends, we’d go as a family, but we couldn’t go until the game was over. So many innings!!! I sat impatiently on my bed, reflecting on my sorry plight. Waiting, waiting. Bored, bored. (No wonder I developed a lifelong aversion to televised sports). Eventually I realized that even though waiting can seem interminable (I’m sure I didn’t use that word), eventually we got to the pool, or wherever we were going. The passage of time was a sure thing I had just figured out.
Once I understood that (and still waiting for the baseball game to end), I began thinking about time passing in another part of my life. Two years from now I’d be ten. I envisioned myself standing on the outside back staircase at Kenilworth Elementary school, a landing only 5th graders were privy to. I’d be one of them. Two years seemed a long way away, but now I understood that when I was ten, I would be the same person —with the same consciousness I had now, at eight. The baseball game went on and on; I contemplated turning 15 (wow, a teenager!), then 25 (grown-up!), then 40, 50 , 70, 90. When I got to 90, I wondered what that would be like, and realized that though it seemed for ever away, that when I got there, it too would seem like this moment. I was amazed at the ever-present now-ness I would experience. I would be the self-same girl at 90 I was now at 8. I said to myself, then what? And I heard the answer, I die. And suddenly I knew about death. Grief-stricken, I wept. My mother asked why are you crying? I’m going to die I said. She said Not for a long time, now stop crying. I knew I couldn’t explain it to her; I didn’t try. I made myself stop crying.
I only mention this story because it means I’ve had a lot of time to get over the shock of the idea of my death. Which mostly I have. I still don’t love it. But I understand death is necessary in the scheme of things. Still, as I approach the ending, I know there is still work to do in order to minimize my risk of feeling terror and resistance in the now-ness of dying. My hope is to feel acceptance and gratitude.
Most people I know don’t talk about death. Occasionally they whisper in pity. Different cultures and religions have a variety of rituals that help people grieve when they lose someone. Concepts offer a person facing their own (or a loved one’s) death a storyline of hope, i.e. “heaven” or “reincarnation”. In America, we pretty much stopped talking about death altogether, at the same time that families went from being extended to nuclear. Old people have gotten tucked away in “rest homes” or “nursing homes” to keep them “safe”. In Western Medical philosophy, death is seen as failure, something we approach fearfully and lonely as the dying patient. In this system, we feel inadequate as both patients and doctors.
But now, thank goodness, we’re starting to talk again. There is wonderful wisdom that deep thinkers and writers are contributing. Atul Gawande. Larry Rosenberg. So many more. I soak myself in their clarity and compassion. I want this conversation. About aging. About living fully. About dying with dignity. About dying as a sacred passage and how we support each other in our dying. About grief, and how we support each other in grief.
Don’t miss this extraordinary article and short videos on the dying and death of John Shields.
Once you’ve read the aforementioned article, you’ll see that contemplating death is paradoxically completely enlivening. I contemplate the possibility of a deep acceptance which might be closely connected to contentment or even happiness and gratitude.
And this brilliant and inspiring poem by Mary Oliver.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
My little girl self crying on the bed was right. The wait always ends and turns into now, so quickly. We short-shrift ourselves growth, joy, and wisdom when we fail to understand this. Accepting that we are going to die and allowing ourselves to be curious about this mystery and the full range of our feelings about it offers us great opportunities to explore and grow, if we don’t succumb to our (or society’s) fears and aversion.