Authors: Eve Joseph
The poet Stanley Kunitz believed that all one’s feelings about death are a kind of elegy for the erotic. A lament for the carnal, from the Latin
pertaining to the body and its appetites.
he says, is one of the strongest words in the language. What makes the engine go? asks Kunitz.
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
The flame guttering still throws an exquisite heat. Eros helps the soul to remember beauty. The simplest things look dazzling when we fall in love; time is altered, the world looks new. All the clichés are true. At the same time, falling in love does not banish thoughts of death; if anything, it makes thoughts of death more frequent. How, we wonder, will we survive if something happens to our beloved?
If eros helps the soul to remember beauty, dying can show us beauty as if for the first time. A colleague dying of
breast cancer in her mid-thirties pointed to the things in her room—books, photographs of her lover, her worn leather jacket swung over the back of a chair, her journal on the kitchen table open to the page she was working on, her cat, light streaming in through the window—and asked “How do I leave this? How do I say goodbye?”
What, I wonder, did my brother love? To what would he have said goodbye?
In the end, we breathe from our reptilian brain, the part of the brain possessed by the reptiles that preceded mammals roughly 200 million years ago. Breathing, heart rate and the fight-or-flight mechanism are controlled by the part of our brains also found in lizards, crocodiles and birds. The impulses of the brain stem, lacking language, are instinctual and ritualistic. During the process of natural death, the reptilian brain guides the body through the complex process of shutting down, turning out the lights, slowing down the lungs until the last breath is taken.
It has been noted that when mountain climbers are in danger of falling, this brain takes over; the eyesight intensifies and the feet miraculously take the right steps. Could it be that our reptilian brains help us to step miraculously towards our deaths? The American neurologist Paul MacLean theorizes that we have not one brain but three: the reptilian brain, symbolized by cold; the mammalian brain, by warmth; and the new brain, whose symbol is light. The gold light around Buddha’s head in statues is an attempt to show he is living in his new brain. Some Tibetan meditators of the thirteenth
century, says Robert Bly, were able to read in the dark by the light given off from their own bodies.
It is not uncommon for there to be periods of agitation shortly before death. People often try to rise from their beds as if they have to get somewhere. When they are too weak to get up, they might reach with their arms towards something only they can see, pinching their index finger and thumb together repeatedly in an effort to catch whatever is floating by them. In clinical terms, it is known as pre-death restlessness and is diagnosed by the medical profession as a kind of delirium brought about by physical changes. When my friend’s husband was close to death, he pumped his arms as if about to fly. Some doctors differentiate toxic delirium, an altered state caused by pain medication and other drugs, from terminal delirium, which is seen as part of the dying process. Either way, the medical profession sees delirium as a physiological problem possibly caused by some unknown source such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance or the release of endorphins or other brain chemicals shortly before death.
I’m not so sure.
Over time, it began to appear to me as if the dying were venturing out on a kind of test flight; as if they were working hard to figure out how to leave the body. Episodes of agitation were offset by periods of deep stillness, periods in which family members would comment that it felt as if their loved one was not there. It was as if the silver cord, in the book of Ecclesiastes, binding the spirit to the body, were stretching farther and farther until it finally snapped. Other than
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,
there are few manuals on how to leave the body—the container that houses all that
we are; it’s up to each of us to figure it out. “How,” one man asked, “will I know that I am dead?”
Imagine the dying as test pilots: figuring out ways to best recover from spins, breaking the sound barrier, flying straight towards the sun, bailing out when the plane is going down.
Of course, things don’t always go as planned. One afternoon I went with a nurse to the home of a man who was extremely restless. As much as possible, a nurse and a counsellor work together on the palliative response team so that the counsellor can attend to any emotional and practical needs while the nurse deals with the immediate medical crisis. We parked in front of his house and walked up the sidewalk to the door. There were roses growing beneath the bay window on our right and we could see the man attempting to climb out of his hospital bed on the other side of the window. His wife, who had not slept for days, was beside herself. While the nurse drew up a syringe of Haldol, I spoke gently with the man.
“You can rest now,” I said. “You can rest.”
He looked at me and lay very still. His wife, overjoyed, couldn’t thank me enough. I felt good, even a bit smug, until he motioned his wife over.
“Call our lawyer,” he said.
“Why?” she wondered.
“Because,” he said, pointing directly at me, “that woman just arrested me.”
Whatever works, I thought to myself, whatever works.
Morphine sometimes causes delusions. One woman saw spiders hanging from the ceiling of her room at hospice. Some of them dropped down on her bed and crawled over her face when she was sleeping. She was terrified to close her eyes. People talked to her, telling her there were no spiders, the doctors changed her medication, but she didn’t believe anyone. In the end, the only thing that helped was to pack up her belongings and move her to a different room, where she settled in and never saw the imaginary spiders on their imaginary webs ever again. When Muhammad called the mountain to him, it didn’t budge. “Well then,” he said, “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” There are times you just have to act. Simple as that.
To the Western mind, waking hallucinations about the dead are considered delusional projections of the living—dismissed as indicative of wishful thinking or as evidence of denial or craziness. The one exception to this line of thought is found in studies on widowhood, which reveal that human attachment bonds often persist beyond death. It is not uncommon for widows to have a sense of continued contact with their spouses, including a sense of presence and touch. The dying, too, often talk about sensing the presence of the dead. Sometimes it’s a smell, a certain perfume or cologne; sometimes they hear them speaking. One woman asked me to pull up a chair beside her bed so that her late mother could have a seat; another stared at the left-hand corner of her room for days, waiting for her late husband to return for her; others came, she told us, but she didn’t know them
and refused to go. On the morning of her death, she said her husband had come. He’d tipped his hat in the slightly mocking way he’d always done, and she smiled. A wide, radiant smile.
I DID NOT SET OUT TO RETRIEVE MY BROTHER OR ASSUAGE AN OLD
grief when I began writing about death, and yet it seems he keeps serendipitously finding me.
When I first visited his grave, with my mother and sister, thirty years after his death, the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke flooded the car when I parked. None of us smoked, and when I got out of the car and looked around, there were no discarded butts to be seen. I asked my sister if Ian smoked. “Like a chimney,” she said. I have no way of knowing if he was there, no way to discern between wishful thinking and a spiritual encounter, but as we started down the hill, I thought I could see him, clear as day, sitting on the rock wall, swinging his feet. Saying, “It’s damned well about time.”
My mother, sister and I arrived at the cemetery only to find it had just been mowed; all the flat headstones were covered in grass and impossible to read. My mother, who had attended the burial in a state of profound grief, had no idea where to start looking and began slowly walking amongst the graves. My sister, Carol, and I took off down the hill to see if there was any logic to how the plots were arranged, only to find there were no clues: old graves and new graves were side by side. Unable to go any further, my mother half collapsed on a red bench streaked with the evidence of recent bird strikes. “None of my deaths have markers,” she told me when I went to sit with her and put my arm around her shoulders.
A few minutes later, Carol, who had been futilely kicking the grass off concrete slabs, walked slightly to the right of the bench and suddenly stopped, threw up her arms and
exclaimed, “Here he is!” I don’t know if we found him or he found us. It doesn’t matter. Between the three of us that day, our offerings included a handful of lily of the valley from Mom’s garden, an empty coffee cup to put them in, and a pencil that my sister tucked in the thin edge between the stone marker and the grass. “My brother,” she said, “never went anywhere without a pencil.” In a sea of green, our mother had sat down right in front of her son.
At a recent writers’ festival on Galiano Island, one of the hundreds of islands and islets that form part of a larger archipelago in the southern part of the Salish Sea, the talk turned, as it often does with a group of writers, towards death. In the course of the conversation, in which I spoke about my brother, the novelist Audrey Thomas said that she had been at UBC in 1964 and had known Ian. They were both enrolled in an Anglo-Saxon seminar, and they met in Meredith Thompson’s small office to translate Beowulf. She recalled how he would arrive in class, often hungover, and lean back on his chair, balancing on its two rear legs, and how she would wait to see if he would tumble backwards.
I like that; it seems accurate. I can see him precariously balanced. Between drink and study, recklessness and scholarship, between Angleterre and the New World. Between Here and There.
In a recent email, Audrey asked me if my brother, dead, had had a profound influence on my life. No, I think to myself, it is not the fact of Ian dead that shaped me; rather, it was his death. The sudden absence, the depth of silence, the inexplicable disappearance.
When Odysseus tries to embrace his mother in the underworld, she flutters out of his hands like a shadow and says to him,
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
fire in all its fury burns the body to ashes
and once life slips from the white bones, spirit,
dreamlike, dissolves into the shadows.
All over the world, every second of every day, the dead are fluttering, like shadows, out of our hands.
In our encounters with the dying, we each bring our own beliefs—beliefs based on our history with death, our culture, religion or lack of it; beliefs based on mythology and psychology and on our motives and expectations. Our beliefs are a kind of architecture of the mind, a way of creating meaning and interpreting the world. In Africa, a widow might run a zigzag course through the woods after her husband’s burial so that his ghost will not follow and haunt her. There are Japanese people who believe the dead arrive on the back of a horse on New Year’s Day; when the holiday is over, they return them to their world in small wood and paper boats bearing lighted candles.
The Aztecs, Babylonians and Assyrians believed that all good people metamorphosed into birds, while ancient Egyptians believed that the soul, the ba, could leave the dead body in the form of a hawk. They built their graves and tombs with narrow shafts leading to the open air so that these birds could fly in and out, keeping watch over the body.
We acquire our beliefs as we go along, influenced by the tangible as well as the intangible. The beliefs I held about death as a child were influenced by fairy tales and prayers; a single kiss had the power to undo spells and restore life. At night, I knelt down beside my bed and recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” It had a nursery rhyme quality, four lyrical lines a child could easily memorize. Each night I prayed,
If I should die before I wake, I pray for God my soul to take.
Death winked at me before I knew what it was. Falling asleep felt a bit like coming unmoored—the frayed rope, holding the little boat, unravelling.
I grew up in a house of superstitions. Paintings falling off the walls or robins flying into the house meant a death would surely follow. My mother believed, with complete certainty, that crows were harbingers, and in our house, strangely, that seemed to be the case. I remember her screams one morning when a crow fell down the chimney, and the phone rang shortly afterwards to inform her of the murder of a close friend’s daughter. After that, she warred with any crow that came close to the house—shaking her fists at the ones who squawked at her from the telephone lines.
“Don’t be hanging around here, you bloody bastards,” she’d yell out the kitchen window at six a.m.
In the fifteenth century, the art of dying was laid out in the
A good Christian death, as prescribed in the two Latin texts, involved departing in a state of grace, denouncing Satan, praying to God, repenting one’s sins, and—for Roman Catholics—receiving the sacraments. The
survives in two different versions. The first is a longer treatise of six chapters that prescribes rites and prayers to be used at the time of death. The second is a brief illustrated book that shows the dying person’s struggle with temptations before attaining a good death. In one of the illustrations, the Devil, pictured with a hooking staff, and Death himself, with a lance, are seen trying to snare the soul of a dying man while an angel hovers at the head of the bed. In another, demons crowd around a bed offering crowns to a skeletal figure who looks as though he has died of fright. The art of dying, in the fifteenth century, was not for the faint of heart.