Destination Death

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    To This Favor by William Michael Harnett, 1879 (Wikipedia)

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble keeps a skull on her desk, one of many sent her by her followers, and believes that the words ”You are going to die,” can give comfort. These are part of her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, Latin meaning “Remember you will die.” As a practice, a memento mori object reminds us to consider  death daily and that life will end. Thus we learn to value the present as well as the future. Sister Aletheia argues that we tend to think of our lives as continuing and continuing, but confronting the inevitability of death, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, leads us to a deeper understanding of our lives.

Sister Aletheia Noble is forty years old. As I think back to my forties, I don’t remember that I thought excessively about death, although the black colored themes and cards we send on 40th birthdays suggest that forty is a transitional age, when we at least acknowledge our mortality. Now, in my mid-seventies, every day brings me manifestations of aging, from the mundane wrinkles, to the chronic, aching knees and hips, slowing steps, and consciousness about falling. All of which, in their entirety, lead to diminished mobility, the inability to experience life as we once did. For me, the Tiger Tail foam roller on my desk is as good as a skull, because it reminds me of where gradual physical changes lead, that I am mortal, and that death is my ultimate destination. 

Interestingly, I came across the Sister while looking for information about people who maintain exceptional physical fitness into old age. I was back from a week at a cabin on Lake Superior and had done both some easy and quite strenuous hiking, including the seemingly innocent path from the cabin down to the lake shore.

For the first time in my many visits to the cabin, I felt hesitant, even a tad scared. The path starts with a series of steps with a handrail and becomes a long needle-covered slope descending to a rocky barrier with the necessity of almost scooting, legs first, (at least for me) over the rocks to the beach itself.

To my 77-year-old judgment, the path looked doable, but deceptively so, because one wrong step, one foot mistakenly placed or unable to hold its position, would lead to a long slide ending at or on those rocks. And, at my age, that wouldn’t be a pretty ending.

With the help of a hiking stick, something I wouldn’t have used in my younger years, I made it down the path—more than once—and enjoyed the beauty of Lake Superior, the thrill of the icy water on my feet, and basking on rocks in the spring sunshine. But I didn’t attempt the path at night, as much as I wanted to gaze at the spectacular night sky. Instead, I enjoyed it from the driveway. Later, thinking about my hesitancy and realizing that the path will only get more difficult as I get older, I asked myself, how long will you be able to do this, Karen? 

The internet is full of answers to this question and full of examples of elderly people running marathons, swimming the English Channel, lifting enormous weights—you name it. But impressive as these are, my sense is that such achievements require unquestioned and total commitment—24/7 if you will. Which reminded me of our old friend, “purpose.” These people clearly have a sense of purpose and it’s all about the physical challenge, making the infirmities of old age seem optional.

Which leads me to ask how facing death on a daily basis, whether it’s contrived as in the Sister’s revival of memento mori or simply the harbingers of death as we age, affect how we construct our old age. I respect that some people find a big purpose in exceptional physical fitness to which they devote their remaining time (although I sometimes wonder if this is a way of ignoring the reality of destination death), but for me, as much as I treasure all the wonderful activities the body allows us to do, as I age, I want to stay open to new callings that could potentially replace lost abilities. So what if eventually I can’t navigate a difficult trail? I can still mentor my grandchildren and the occasional student. I can learn rosemaling, tutor middle schoolers, enjoy Bridge, enjoy my friends and family, publish an occasional article and read books that make me think. My days balance small purposes, the “little p’s,” that make up a life. As May Sarton says, “I have work to do and a constant response to it that makes me feel that life has meaning.”

When my mother was nearing the end of her life, if we planned something like an all-night wedding reception or party that would keep her up late, we’d ask her if she wanted to attend because we worried she’d get too tired. She was always up for it. She’d say, “I’m going to spend a long time asleep in my grave. I want to be awake for my life.” She didn’t need a skull on her desk to be reminded of her mortality. Part of aging is facing our deaths gradually – very gradually. Aging does slow us down; it incrementally steals once taken-for-granted skills. The challenge is to stay immersed in living while knowing the inevitable ending.

Impatience Meets Pandemic

I was folding an Origami crane when I started to think about impatience—probably because Origami teaches precise steps taken one-at-a-time, which requires patience. I am by nature impulsive. I don’t know if that’s equivalent to impatient, but certainly related. When I am impulsive, I’m not necessarily feeling impatient. I act without thinking and a different feeling follows the action. Sometimes the feeling is regret, which I can often shake off. With impatience, however, that longing for something to happen and then trying to force that something, the regret goes deeper. It often leads to remorse, “if I could do it over, I’d do it differently.”

I’m the person new car dealers love. Take my last car. I set out with my sixteen-year-old grandson to buy a Mazda. He, however, didn’t want to drive across town (inherited impatience?) to the Mazda dealer, so suggested we start with the Volkswagen dealer in his neighborhood. I ended up with a VW. It was impatience meets impulsiveness. The car buying process that takes patience—or endurance—was sped up with an impulsive purchase. Fortunately, I love my car—having no Mazda to compare it with, since I never considered one.

Life is a first-rate teacher about impatience. One of my most enduring lessons occurred when I was about ten years old. I had a baby tooth that ached and ached, but would not fall out on its own, but instead needed to be pulled. My stepfather took me to the free dentist at the gas company in Racine. As we rode the bus downtown, I was filled with dread and fear. Up until then, my experience of losing teeth involved pliers or strings tied to the tooth, connected to the knob on a door that would then be slammed, and voila—the tooth would be out, instant but short-lasting pain. To my mind, my stepfather taking off work to take me to a dentist surely involved something worse, although I couldn’t imagine what.

I don’t remember how the dentist pulled the tooth—the dental equivalent of a pliers? I do remember sitting on the bus on the way home crying, with blood and saliva running down my chin. My embarrassed stepfather handed me his hanky and hissed at me to Stop crying!

The next day I woke up feeling great, no more toothache, and now the permanent tooth could come in. I’d learned an indelible lesson: “Get it over with. Worrying and dread are worse than moving forward. Once it’s over, all will be fine.”

When my second husband, Gary, was dying of cancer, that lesson kept rearing up. Our situation was life and death, in no way like a tooth extraction, yet my mind kept capitulating to “get it over with.” Gary’s pain was unremitting from the disease, fear about dying, and a deep sense of loss—he was 54 years old. My pain was watching his suffering and feeling like I could do nothing to help. I dreaded what was to come for both of us.

How much more could either of us take? At one point I thoughtlessly told him that I just wanted it all over with. He responded cynically—and rightfully hurt—“I’ll see if I can’t speed things up.” Fortunately, my careless remark prompted us to spill our feelings and share the pain to the extent that we could—love in the midst of dying—yet I still regret those thoughtless words.

And then he died. Regret was nothing compared to the unrelenting pain of a heart trampled by death. And the notion of “getting it over with” . . . a childish fantasy. I felt even worse than I had watching him die. Day after day of sudden crying, feeling the loss so deeply. I thought over and over about what I would give to have him back. I realized that I should have hung on every moment we had together in that last year, treasured them. A new lesson took hold “Live fully in what is tangible and present today. Cherish those you love.”

I tell this story because the pandemic, for me, calls up again that childhood lesson of wanting something over with. I want this damn pandemic DONE, FINI! I wish COVID was a tooth that could be pulled, and we’d wake up tomorrow feeling better.

But then there’s that competing lesson of enjoying what is tangible and present. I’m also reminded that I’m 76. My time could end abruptly from a heart attack or stroke. I could learn tomorrow that I have a fatal disease.

So, I forge on, wear my mask for a better tomorrow for all, while reminding myself that a beautiful summer is blowing through my windows. On my daily walks or bike rides, at my socially distant breaks with friends on our patios, or during my Zoom meetups, I remind myself to show up fully. This is the new normal, and I’m resolved to stay present, to know the magic in today’s moments. Even time during a pandemic can never be gotten back. Patience, Karen, patience.