— From CB —
There’s nothing aesthetic about dying. Yes, if we’re lucky we might see a picturesque face bathed in peace, white hair haloed by sunlight. But even the most graceful death may be with slack jaw, open mouth, dark-ringed eyes, labored breath. Dying can be hard work.
Tuesday, we visited a friend. After many years struggling with multiple myeloma, she had come home after one last bout at the hospital. Her bed was in a beautiful room with dim rich light, walls of goddess statuary, soothing music; and a cadre of friends and family were in steady attendance.
She was unconscious when we arrived. We sat at the bedside, each holding one of her hands, simply sharing presence. One of her caregivers whispered that she did hear voices and that we might speak. Each of us spoke a few words. We stayed about an hour, then embraced her mate, thanked her caregivers, and left.
A few hours later, Mary Tressa called: Morning Glory was dead. The time of death was 5:42 p.m. Odd coincidence that years ago we’d produced a play whose full title was Descent of the Goddess Inanna, Trenton NJ, 5:42 p.m. An auspicious time for priestesses, I guess.
Elizabeth had visited her in the hospital, but the last time I’d seen her was eight months ago when she was hosting a party, bustling about the kitchen. It’s startling to see someone so changed from illness or age, and a body that’s danced and caroused and given birth now drained. An idyllic setting, but it’s still a dying woman on a hospital bed.
Not an aesthetic beauty then, but a working beauty. The heart continued its beat; the lungs grabbed air; the cells gave heat. The body worked to do what it was born for: to live.
When a language dies out, a culture is lost. When a human being dies, it’s a library going up in smoke, a vast panoply of perception, memory, pain, joy, humor, skills, flaws, blessings, spirit. The body holds to life till its jaws let go.
I didn’t actually know her that well, though she was an intense presence at celebrations, and I’d interviewed her and her mother for our radio series. We were from different worlds. But half an hour into our visit, I began to weep.
It was watching her breathing chest that brought it on, imagining the struggle of her heart. I saw my mother’s death then. I had planned to fly to Iowa, and she died the day before. Now I was with her, another mother dying, in the flow. I spoke something to her quietly. She was in the dark waters then.
When all your muscle is gone, all you can give to your people is your death. They take it in their hands and make of it what they will.
— From EF —
I have sat with birth, and now I have sat with death. The universal gateways: they should both be called labor. Giving birth is the hardest work a human is ever called to do, and it’s only the culmination of a long process of becoming. That intricate path from zygote to embryo to fetus is hidden in the warm womb until labor brings it to light — in Spanish, dar a luz.
Birth, even when uncomplicated, is furious. The death I sat with was peaceful. Just because that word is overused doesn’t mean it can’t be true. But below that stillness, a lot was going on. Deep in the mind, negotiations, arguments, and decisions were being made and unmade. And the body that had worked at progressing from zygote to embryo to fetus to lusty baby didn’t suddenly become a light switch. Weaving the threads of consciousness and identity is one kind of labor; letting the threads go is another.
As I’m thinking about this, I’m cutting and sewing hand-puppet bodies for the characters in King Lear. I’m using a quilted fabric and applying some extra padding at the palm to give the hand a better sense of “owning” that body.
These body-forms will get specific character costumes, and each will be topped with a sculptured head. Each will have an identity, even while just waiting to be used. But it takes the entry of the performer’s hand to give it life. When the hand is withdrawn, the “character” is still there, but the life is absent.
Lest one wonder if I am inexplicably veering into the God lane, remember that we describe ourselves as “Dionysian Quaker Pagans.” It’s just that I am gob-smacked by the concept of becoming. It’s corny, but at sprouting time, when I hold that teensy tomato seed in my hand, I think, “How the hell do you know how to turn into a Polish Linguisa instead of a Druzba?”
And how that story ends is that we eat the damn thing, with utter delight. Is the multiverse sitting down to dinner when she invites us in? Not rending, as in gnashing of teeth, but in the sense of welcoming us into the wholeness, feeling nourished by our arrival.
Saying farewell is mixed, no matter how it happens. Here? Loving care and exquisite beauty, even handmaidens and angels. There? A man in pain. No matter, there are many stops on our mandatory travel plans.
Her death taught me how to aspire to my own. The circumstance of this passing was planned with love and skill. It was beautiful. People plan weddings with great care and skill, and our son and his beloved are in the home stretch with their plans. Yes. I’d like to imagine my own death as a huge wedding, coming into union with The Great Unknown, and we’ll all dance.
[This week, the Damned Fool is just sitting there thinking. He’ll be back next week.]
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© Bishop & Fuller 2014