Tag Archiv: death
La résurrection de Lazare (English titles: “The Resurrection of Lazarus” or “The Raising of Lazarus”) by Leon Bonnat, 1857.
Sometimes when things are not good or safe, you separate yourself into pieces. In hospitals and battlefields, this time honored tradition is known as triage. There are not enough resources to save everyone, so you save those most likely to live. Losses are unfortunate but inevitable.
Growing up and into my twenties, the survival of some of me came at the cost of the rest of me. This has been a source of grief. Not to mention a long and bitter war within myself. (The parts of me scheduled for early demise were not that cooperative with the parts of me giving the orders.) I wasn’t happy about the executions, but then again I didn’t exactly see other options. The ferocity with which some parts tried to live troubled me. I worried that if they did not die, they would spread through my bones like cancer, and then there would be none of me.
I got them before they got me – those other parts of me. But the death bothered me. It might have been the only way I knew to survive, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Through the years against my wishes and without planning to, I would find myself like Mary and Martha weeping inconsolable at the tomb.
Engulfed in sorrow, I mourned the loss. But I did not dream of resurrection. In matters of life and death there is no going back. I did not think of Lazarus. Dead is dead. What’s done is done. These are true things which even a child can verify.
At least they were true until yesterday. On a Tuesday after Easter, some irrevocably done things were undone. The dead were invited to live. Love spoke and the parts of me long wrapped in grave clothes and buried were called forth.
I believe in the necessity of risk. I believe in betting on the gamble of love. But sometimes you don’t do anything. You aren’t even hoping terribly hard (on account of being dead and all). From the depths you begin to hear a voice. This is strange because dead people aren’t known for their listening skills, but the sound of your name becomes unmistakable.
It is shocking. So much so that you don’t do anything about it for a very long time. Months. Years. Dead people don’t lie around anticipating change or feeling urgency. (It never crosses your mind to remember that the dead lie waiting to be called forth.) The voice is insistent, beguiling. It dances invisible in the air around your corpse until it seeps into you. Until it is moving through you like blood from the determined heart of a lover. One moment you are resigned to death; the next you cannot lie there another minute agreeing to accept it as a permanent condition.
You rise up not knowing what waits. You find it a surprisingly long walk from where you were lying to the entrance of the tomb. You walk blind, shaking and stumbling because you aren’t dead anymore but you aren’t used to being alive either.
You look, sound, and act like you came from far away because you did. You don’t know for sure how to take off all the chic death wrap but you’re looking forward to it. How much help you’ll need or what you can manage alone you’re not sure. But you don’t care. He’s there. It’s an Easter story. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a resurrection.
Whatever the word on the street, death is not the last act. And resurrection isn’t earned. Resurrection is offered, with it’s power hidden behind such tenderness that it takes your breath away. I know because yesterday, this was me.
Some people that I love are suffering. I find myself thinking about Huntington’s disease, dementia, and places where we become less than we were. Sometimes we are children growing in the wrong direction. Away from promise and potential into private worlds where possibilities shrink like the future, fall through our fingers like sand, and torn from us with insistent hands are scattered like chaff in the wind forever.
I like to watch chickens. In all their feather finery, they are a curious and going concern until they’re not. One day they run on three toed feet, an apple slice in their beak trying to dodge the flock of chickens in hot pursuit, one day they settle determined on a pile of eggs insisting that the other girls find somewhere else to lay, one day they dart past you out the door . . . and another day, they’re gone. Nothing but a pile of feathers waiting to be buried.
Chickens’ heads bob around at the end of their necks a lot like a person with muscle spasms. All of them do it and none of them care. If anything, they’re proud of it. Now and then it strikes me that chickens essentially invented break dancing (from the shoulders up). Yesterday I found myself stalled, watching chickens again. I’d dumped some scraps in the outside run to try and tempt them out into the fresh air and sunshine. A bold chicken and two flightier birds came curious about the scraps but not quite sure. In and out an inch, and in and out an inch, and in and out three inches then back to the end of the line. Chicken two gave a smaller try then ran to the end of the line and so on. Ten minutes I stood amused although they weren’t doing anything they don’t do every day. Nervous chickens (and they are all nervous) change their minds even more than nervous people.
I don’t know how watching them helped me. I remembered a sick chicken who no longer bobbed her head at all but still knew she was a chicken. The other chickens knew she was a chicken too.
I’m not sure what separates us from the chickens is as big a space as we’d like to think. Or maybe we do know. A microscopic hair’s breadth separates us, people from chickens, well people from sick people, and that’s what hurts. Watching people suffer who were us in another life, three or four seconds ago.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote poet Dylan Thomas. But not everybody is handed the ability to rage toward nights gentle or otherwise. In a different poem, Thomas writes, “Though they go mad, they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
Death shall have no dominion. I think the chickens know this.
November is a traditional time for remembering those who have died. Churches remember. Countries remember. As if on cue, entire northern climates cycle from life to death or dormancy.
On my walks I often see an older couple. They tend a grave with great care. Every day of the year, in snow or rain, hot or cold, they go to the grave. There is a bench, a bird feeder, and little lamps always burning. In winter, they keep a path shovelled to the grave. All kinds of animals come year round. Despite the location, it is a very lively place. At first I tried to figure what to make of it. Then I decided it wasn’t mine to worry about one way of the other. They’re just a part of the landscape now. I wave. They wave back. I keep the dog away from their spot.
Two years ago my brother was visiting with his kids. Something got it into our heads to visit my mother’s grave. We took the kids, all eight of them, with toothbrushes, a bucket and some soap, to tidy up the grave stone. It wasn’t morbid, it was pleasant. She would have loved them chattering and curious.
My mother was the first person I loved who died. The first person I knew was the piano player from our church. Her name was Lois Olsen and we kept her dog while she was sick. She was as old as the hills. I was curious about the funeral, but hanging around a church with a dead body inside was too scary for me. My brother and I stayed at home. Watched from the upstairs window as the hearse drove up and her casket was taken into the church. Staring at a box that had the actual body of someone I had seen play a piano was somber and sad and fascinating.
When my mother died, I had the hardest time getting rid of her shoes. They were the wrong size for me, but all I could think was: when you’re dead, your family doesn’t want your shoes. It was a few years before I could bring myself to part with them.
I miss my mother. I grieve her loss. But much harder for me is to love her, not as a memory of how I did love her, but as a verb, now, in the present tense. To love her now is to say that just beyond my reach, she is still as real as I am. That, while neither of us can bridge the gulf between us, love can. In fact, it already has.
We love now as best we can across the chasm. Mothers. Friends. Babies not yet born. With tiny faith, our love claims: O death, where is thy sting?
And then someday –
Inspired by All Saints and All Souls, I am working on a piece about death, but it’s not quite ready. When I made attempts to talk about death last year, a former student of mine from Mexico wrote me afterwards. I found his brief response to my writing more profound than what I’d written. The video he shared took me by surprise. First I wasn’t sure I liked it, then I almost cried. Since tears are one of my shyest friends, when they come round I take notice, say thank you, and give their inspirations a big thumbs up.
From my wise now adult friend . . .
Your blog made me remember how we forget that death is not suffering, it is part of us, and we corrupt the meaning. I found this video about the tradition in Mexico!
Most of our chickens don’t have a name because we can’t tell them apart anyway. The ones that Boy two likes are the exception. There was Tail-less, now there is Queenie and Obsidian. Spontaneously, I started calling our dying chicken on the porch, Frieda.
Frieda took so long to die that I began to think she would live. Why she died is still a question. Best available wisdom suggests a raccoon injury, cancer, or that she became egg bound. Last year, when paranoia about microbial invasions on the farm overwhelmed me, we had a post mortem done on a chicken. For $60, I learned that the alive but ailing chicken I delivered had a bad case of arthritis in her knees and would have suited the dinner table just fine. I calmed myself by pretending we were intentionally seeking education rather than paying money to contaminate our chicken so that we could no longer eat it. Whatever Frieda died of, I don’t think it was contagious, so no post mortem for her, and no pricey education for me.
Waiting for Frieda to die stressed me. She didn’t seem miserable. When I expected her dead in the morning, she woke up hungry. By that night though she wanted neither food or water. The smell of death and bowel dysfunction made the air a bit thicker than I like it. I put her out in the grass the next day to get rid of the smell, and because if I was going to die soon, a patch of lawn in the sunshine would be just about right.
There is a whole field of psychology devoted to the notion that the further we distance ourselves from nature, the more unhealthy we become. I know everybody can’t have a farm, or even a pet, but I do believe we innately crave connection with living things. That we need to be reminded of real things. I didn’t kill Frieda myself because I didn’t know if she was suffering and because head removal is our method of chicken dispensing. Although I’ve done it many times, every time it surprises me a bit what a physical act it is.
I like that my kids have seem things die. Not because I want them sad, but because I want them to know that nothing dies for free. I obviously take no issue with eating meat, but I care a lot about quality of life, basic consideration and avoiding needless loss.
As living things ourselves, the strand of spider’s web we hang by is fragile. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I guess I hope that a little kindness for a dying chicken teaches my kids a few things that don’t have to be spelled out. Like, be compassionate, even if someone really, really stinks. Do what you can to make them comfortable and say a few kind words. It might not change the world, but it might make us just a little bit more human.
It is no small thing to be born. We all got to do it once. Being born means coming very close to dying. It’s not always sunshine and beautiful. It hurts. And things die. People, lambs, chicks. Spring on a farm is a mini maternity ward. It’s new life, but there’s death in the air too.
Every day, it’s true that we could die. So could our children, our husbands, or our best friends, but we don’t like that in our air. We die when we have to, but otherwise we avoid remembering it exists. Mourning periods with different clothing, visible signs of grief are a thing of the past or a thing for other cultures. We don’t prepare dead bodies in their homes. As soon as people die, they’re whisked away to the funeral home until it’s time to bury them. I don’t think we are trying to be disrespectful, we’re trying to forget that life is fragile and death inevitable.
I watched some lambs be born with Girl two beside me. I didn’t know if the lamb, whose foot we saw go in and out and in and out before it finally came out, would be alive. Sometimes they are not. My daughter cheered when at last it emerged alive. But I think I found it more beautiful than she did when the lambs sputtered and cried, because I knew more about the thin line that separates survival from death. And the miracle that happens when something steps across it.
Death as destruction is rightfully abhorred. Death as cessation of life is a gift we do not comprehend. This also makes birth beautiful. Perhaps I am speaking for myself; I glimpse that death is merely the end of what we know, but most of the time, I fail to understand it. Yet birth, the gift of life, this I can comprehend. There was nothing. Now there is something. Breathing, moving, living.
In every birth, we celebrate our own. A tiny vision, fresh and new as the day we were born. Not yet resigned to anything. Happy to be who we are. Curious to see who we might become. A furious hope still clinging to our skin, we are a little bit born again.
Life on a farm subjects me to weather in ways that my previous life did not. Weather changes, dictates, sustains, destroys, and nourishes without consultation or apology. I like to make plans. But rested and ready to go, all hands on deck, and the rain is torrential. Exhausted, ready to drop, out of gas for the tractor, and the sun blazes warm, a breeze comes up and a long day is required. One year is not like another. One spring the lambs thrive, another old farmers shake their heads at all the losses.
Weather is just the tip of the iceberg, one little facet of the great untameable Mother Nature. I like the beauty, I hate the not knowing. Then again, that’s why we chose to have a farm. Things die that aren’t supposed to and cantaloupes sprout unbidden on a manure pile in the field. Ewes bred at the same time give birth two weeks apart, and unidentified living things, bugs and microbes, arrive constantly to help and harm. Out of control is amplified here to a decibel we cannot miss.
It makes me crazy. It keeps me sane. My husband and I have been discussing solutions to the latest fencing problems for weeks. After waiting out the weather, we finally thought we had it. Satisfied with our new barriers, we went in for lunch. By the time we’d finished eating, all the animals we separated were back together again. In the, “who’s in charge of the farm,” game, we had once again, underestimated the wits of our opponents.
Any step in any direction here reveals things that need doing. No matter how long we worked, there would still be more. It’s so far from my control that trying seems almost pointless. I hate that part.
Except when I let it baptize me.
When I walk by choice down the banks of desperate pretending, into the river of big, impossible, unending, unpredictable, uncertainty. When I let go of dry and the worry of what I’m not. There, water over my head, something true touches me. I am no match for the seeming chaos. As threatening as that is, it is also a relief.
I am one person in a vast universe. A tiny part of a big picture. I don’t know what’s coming next. I couldn’t change it if I did. All kinds of seasons, physical, emotional, and spiritual, will come and go. Grass will grow and grass will die. I will rise each day and go about my business. Some days things will go as planned and other days not so much.
Holding tight on the banks, the fear of my smallness imprisons me. Baptized, it’s different. I’m a little mouse in a very large field, but I’m friends with the guy who owns the hawks.
I’ll forget and run for the banks again. But I’ll get baptized again too. Dripping and free, I’ll pitter patter around the field, come rain or shine.
When my mother got cancer, I was very matter of fact. All was well until the tests said otherwise. I listened to poor prognosis and small chances of treatment. I was very careful with my hope then. I treated it like oil, where there’s a limited supply, everybody wants it, and the price keeps going up. I didn’t want to use too much.
My mother was the opposite. She worried most at the beginning. Once cancer paraded out of the closet with tests and labels, she was ferocious in hope. Doctors had no right to say she might die. She would not until she was good and ready. She painted her toenails red and wrote a poem about how if she died, she’d go out with ten little flags waving: this one did not go willingly. Don’t worry, she would tell me. I can feel it. I’m going to get better.
She didn’t. At least not how she was expecting.
I was told last week that I probably have Raynaud’s phenomenon. It is generally harmless, involves very cold feet, hands, and nose, and is caused by spastic contractions of blood vessels. When it does cause complications, it is treated with blood pressure medication.
Seems unlikely, I said when the doctor suggested it. No one in my family has it. I doubt I have it. (The apple did not fall far from my mother’s tree.) Then I went home and read about it. Honestly, the information is not that troubling. Except that I was troubled. This last year of fussing to get my iron and hemoglobin levels up, now a “phenomenon.” Really? Phenomenon sounds ridiculous. Can’t it just be a disease, a disorder, even an affliction? But no, I’ve got a phenomenon. And not just one of them.
The other phenomenon is what happens when you inherit, “damn the torpedo,” genes from your mother and paranoid, “don’t count on health or life,” genes from your paternal grandmother. She died at ninety, but even at fifty, it seemed as though the threat of the Lord’s call to home hung like a knife in the air above her head. Maybe I didn’t see it, but she sure could.
I used to laugh at her, but now I don’t. I get it. Paranoia feels logical and crazy both. Low iron, Raynaud’s phenomenon . . . they’re not fatal. But underneath it all, I’m afraid of dying. Since my mother died, part of me is looking over my shoulder trying to figure out when to duck. Healthy living and optimism do not save you or she’d be here painting toenails with my girls. But neither does anything else. Life and death arrive on their own terms with or without our permission.
I’d give up the ghost, but I see it as plain as writing on the wall right now: the details of unknown are messy, but the goodness of the plan is guaranteed. My fear vs. my lack of control unnerves me, but it’s ok. It really, really is. I fear. I doubt. Yet Love. Always and forever, abides.