(Image from the blog Corazon’s Corner.)
I indulged in a day of lunch and theatre with an old friend from the hospice I used to work with recently. Les Miserables. Music to knock your socks off and blow your hair straight back…especially as we were sitting in the first row directly in front of a two-story speaker. I couldn’t hear for an hour afterwards but I didn’t want to either, at least not until my body finally stopped vibrating with the memory.
It was a beautiful afternoon spent with a dear friend doing wonderful things.
He used to be the social worker for our small hospice before the owner died and everything fell apart so naturally, over lunch, we spent some of our time reminiscing about the old days. We got to talking about dying and death in general and, before I had a chance to say anything, Dear Friend blurted out.
“Everyone is SO obsessed with death!” He seemed excited which, for Dear Friend the Placid…the Even…was startling. “It’s all you ever hear about!”
He went on to complain about the constant, battering stream of drug commercials, all the news coverage of new medical research that only ever talks about mortality rates and never about quality of life.
The assumption seems to be that if a person is alive, then of course that’s better than being dead…no matter what. Even though when you actually talk to people on the street, the majority say that after a certain point of escalating suffering and loss (that quality of life thing again) they think they’d really rather just go ahead and die.
It was such a relief to me, to hear somebody else say it. And it struck me again, how those who have worked around hospice generally wind up coming to the same conclusion.
Dying just isn’t that scary for us anymore. We’ve seen it. We’ve been around it a lot. It’s become our familiar and we’ve made our peace with it. We know we’ll be doing it and that’s no longer a problem.
Over time we came to see how dying fits into the grand scheme of things and how, more importantly, it can actually top off a life in a way that rights some of the wrongs that were made. We’ve seen first hand, multiple times, how dying can deepen the beauty of a life, spread that beauty around to others, and even leave that beauty behind as a legacy of good that lasts a very, very long time.
Unlike a lot of people who say they know they’re going to die, we REALLY know it, and the knowledge has largely freed us from the constant, underlying fear that people usually don’t even realize they’re living with all the time.
What IS still scary though, even to us, is all the possible wrong choices around dying that are available in today’s world, choices that we know can make dying a lot harder, make the difficult parts of it even worse than they already are.
They’re choices that are proliferating at a blinding speed, too, that are being pursued, promoted, and paid for by that same deep, unconscious fear of dying that’s basically running everything at this point. Our medical institutions and research facilities, our public health policies, our hospitals and doctor groups, our politicians, and our insurance companies have all evolved around this one, central terror of dying to the point where mortality rates have become the key measure by which everything else is judged.
Dying…and desperately avoiding it…has long since gobbled up the majority share.
There are a few people scattered around who, like Dear Friend and I, can see this, and some of them are even people in high places with a lot of influence. Some of them watch the teetering tottering mess with the same dismay that we feel, while others rub their hands together with glee, jump into the chaos, and do what they can to further, then capitalize, on all the fear.
It’s a mess. It reminds me of that classic scene sequence from the movie Titanic, where the iceberg has been hit, the ship is half sunk, and her decks have finally collapsed into a chaotic, milling scene of abject human terror and despair.
It’s quite grim. The movie makers did a good job there.
And then…and then. They do something magical. The camera abruptly pulls back from the closeup coverage of all the chaos and noise, moving to a more distant, mid-range kind of shot from up in the sky and the noise and chaos are instantly reduced. We can still hear the screaming but it’s now far away and less disturbing. The ship, in all it’s eerie, glowing destruction is much smaller now, it doesn’t overwhelm us anymore, framed as it is by a huge sweep of dark, silent ocean that somehow manages to contain and quiet it all.
It’s true. A larger perspective always helps.
But the magic isn’t over yet. The camera suddenly pulls back again, to an even farther point up in the sky, a place so high that we can now see not only the vast ocean containing the tiny ship, but the vast night sky containing the vast ocean that contains the tiny ship.
From that height we can’t hear anything anymore. Not a single visual or auditory detail of the tragedy is left and it’s a relief to be removed from it like that. To be offered a perspective, a scope of time and place, so vast that it easily contains and cradles even that much suffering.
I think about it a lot, why spending time in the dying world helped to alleviate my own fear of it, and I think it’s because this same kind of thing happened. Somehow, by being there with them—each rare and beautiful dying person—by laying my own hands on their quivering bodies and fears and dreams, it made the camera inside my eyes magically pull back, too. Little by little, day after day, mostly to a midrange place where I could still hear and see all the suffering, only surrounded by a great stillness.
But then every once in a while, for some reason that I still don’t understand, (probably love come to think of it…love can do a real number on perception) my eyes would pull back farther than that, out to a place full of twinkling stars and deep time. And in those moments the people I was looking at, the homes I was working in, would fall away into profound silence while everything started to glow.
The wasting body beneath my hands, the faces around me crumpling in pain or anger or grief, all the dying room litter of soiled wipes and used commodes, of sweaty, wrinkled clothing, ice chips, and pill cups, would transform into something that was simultaneously exquisite and heartbreaking—as if everything, all of us, were turning into a giant constellation of stars that were just hanging there, glowing and guiding, in some other kind of vast but invisible night sky.
Although no. Not turning into. It wasn’t so much like we were becoming a constellation of stars. It was more like that’s what we’d always been but then we forgot, consumed as we are most of the time by the engaging, delightful, overwhelming barrage of all life’s little details.
And for those few luminous moments, I’d stand gazing around me slack-jawed and wide-eyed, my hands frozen in whatever task they’d been doing, my breath suspended with the wonder of what I was seeing.
And then whatever was causing it to happen would change and the camera in my eyes would zoom back into mid-range again, the glowing would disappear, the noise would resume, and I’d be able to move again.
Then later, when I’d leave the dying rooms and walk back into the noisy, chaotic world of regular living, my eyes would zoom back into close range again which, frankly, is where they are most of the time. I’m usually just as overwhelmed by details as the next person.
But even though those strange, glowing moments were brief I can still remember them vividly. I can return to them and touch them, over and over again, whenever I need to. Those seconds of looking at the world from somewhere farther away and higher up, from a place where every ordinary, everyday, stinky, crumpled, decaying thing suddenly looked like a miracle and a gift.
And just remembering it, I’m surprised all over again each time. Overcome. It makes me fall head over heels in love with life yet again because somehow I still keep forgetting just how BIG this all is. Big enough to tenderly hold not only the nubile and lovely, but the terrified and aching as well.
Big enough to contain even dying. In the end it all really is just a blink. A beautiful, hard slogging, transcendent, soul crushing, miraculous, grief filled, fascinating, bewildering, breathtaking, fragile, prostrating gift of a blink.
Thank God it eventually ends. Who could take this kind of fabulous beating forever?
copyright Dia Osborn 2012