I’ve got an aunt who will likely be dying in the next couple of days. My mom’s sister. Death is an interesting thing because it’s the one fact that we all share, one of only a few certainties and yet, it is something so many resist. We create religions, in part, to help ourselves deal with our mortality. We create all sorts of elaborate beliefs to that end. My approach to death might be best summed up by one of my favorite songs, “Fact of Life” by Poi Dog Pondering:
“Relentlessly climbing and conquering and swallowing fresh pain
Melting reemerging and rising up clean in the pouring rain
Rise up clean in the pouring rain, only to drop down
and decay again
Muscle and sweat and blood and bones
feel good, feel strong!
Don’t ask why, it’s a fact you die”
We die and our bodies decay. The matter of our body, our molecules, are decomposed and released into the environment. Or, we may be cremated, the matter of our bodies released through a different process but still a process of transformation. Whatever the process, the atoms of our body are recycled. Frankly, I think it’s a fucking beautiful process and in fact, it’s happening during the course of life, every moment of every day. We shed our skin and other bodily cells all the time. We breathe in, absorbing the oxygen molecules released into the air by plants. We breathe out, releasing carbon dioxide which will be used by plants. A constant exchange, constant interaction We are of the Universe.
And it’s not just our bodies that we shed. In a very real way our minds, our identities are also in flux. The Denny that writes these words is not the same Denny of 10 years ago or the Denny of 20 years ago. Each day brings now opportunity to grow and to change if we’re open to it. Even if we’re not, it’s going to happen. There’s nothing static about the Universe. It’s all movement, all the time. From the subatomic scale where the elementary particles of atoms of are in constant motion and interaction, to the atoms that make up molecules, to the tiny microbial life living on our skin to the planet and solar system. We can zoom out and out and out and still we find change, birth, decay.
Another Poi Dog song, Bury Me Deep:
“A lifetime of accomplishments of which the dirt knows none,
Only in death can one truly return
Return the carrots, the apples and potatoes,
The chickens, the cows, the fish and tomatoes.
In one glorious swoop, let the deed be done
And bury me deep so that I can be one…
And all around my muscle and all around my bone,
Don’t incinerate me or seal me from
The dirt which bore me, the bed that which from
The rain falls upon and the fruit comes from
For the dirt is a blanket, no fiery tomb,
No punishment, reward, or pearly white room
And you who say that in death we will pay,
The dead they can’t hear a word that you say
Your words are not kind, sober or giving,
They only put fear in the hearts of the living
So put away your tongues and roll up your sleeves,
And pick up your shovel and bury me deep.”
Again, fucking fantastic. Yes. Yes.
And so, I think about my aunt and the other family members that have died in recent years, my grandfather, my granny, my other grandfather – and I smile. They all had long lives. Interesting lives. I’ve not shed a tear for any of them. Why would I? I think about my aunt who’s body is shutting down as I write. She will take her last breath very soon. Her body will grow cool. She will be gone. The consciousness that was hers will fade. Her family will remember her until they too die and fade away. I didn’t know it at the time but when I last saw her a month or so ago, that conversation was the last I will have had with her.
What can we do? We can go on. We can remember and we can do our best to live. I suppose, perhaps the best we can do for our dead is to relish and celebrate life with them before they die. And after they die go on celebrating life with the people they knew or with people they didn’t know. We all co-create this life together, we weave a rich tapestry that becomes vibrant and then weathers and fades and eventually disappears. These are our individual stories and fates just as one day all of humanity will fade. Even the stars transition from one state to another. Nothing in the Universe lasts for ever. Not planets or stars, not galaxies and the Universe itself may have some sort of end. We are in good company.
I think what I will do is celebrate. I will recognize that this pattern of energy known as Denny will not exist forever. I will try to use each day, to live each day in a way that recognizes that lifespan. I’m not sure where I heard it but there’s a quote that goes something like: “Live each day as if it were your first and each night as if it were your last.” Yeah. That.