The plague has come upon us. We must wonder who will croak.
My fascination with death began in childhood. When I was four or five years old, a feral female cat named Gee was living in our woodpile. She soon gave birth to three calico kittens, each with its own distinctive pattern. We named them Tic, Tac, Toe. Toe was my favorite, my best friend. One day when I came home from school, I saw Toe stretched out on the lawn. My heart filled up with love as always when I saw my cat. I called her name. She didn’t respond. And that seemed odd. As I drew close, I realized with astonishment that my dear friend was dead. She looked just as she always had, but dead. When it sank in that she was gone, forever and completely gone, it felt like a hammer blow straight to the heart. Far too much pain to comprehend. My fuses and my mind were blown.
I had a lovely terrier hit by a car and killed when I was young. What once again twisted my frustrated brain was that she lay there looking as she always had, but lifeless – inert – just a sac of stuff. Her energy, her manic charm, her personality: all gone. And that’s when I realized what death really is, seen from this side, at least. It is nothing at all: no feelings, love, or energy, no laughter, pain, or suffering. Nor wrath, nor glee, nor hope, nor thought, nor creativity. A mocking, opaque emptiness, no more. There’s nothing really wrong with death except the lack of everything we love or hate or think or feel. The emptiness will not compute.
Then, later, at the age of six, I got sent off to summer camp. Camp Wonderland, a working farm. We city kids got to do chores, including killing chickens with an axe. It was grotesque; the frenzied headless hens running in circles till their spurting blood ran out. Another mockery of life.
Perhaps my early, painful losses helped set me on my oddball course; I wanted to learn all I could re: death. Whenever an animal was dying or being slaughtered, I made a point of being there. Then later, as a grownup, I found ways to be around a couple humans as they died. It’s all the same.
The body, by its nature, wants to live. To live and grow. The body knows its enemy, that gray, cold awful presence contradicting energy. The body hates and is afraid of death. The soul is imperturbable. The central, soul-like part of us is not afraid of death or anything. Eternity is very calm, accepting – comprehending – everything. There is no need to be afraid of death. There’s no such thing! It’s just the dearth of life that freaks us out.
I feel a bit as Mark Twain did when asked about the fear of death. “Why fear it?” Senor Clemens said, “since you and I were almost surely what we now call ‘dead’ for endless eons before we were born.”
At last relieved of personhood and breath, we go back to that postal system in the timeless sky which brought us here initially. The system is larger and smarter than we. There’s reason to trust it implicitly. I’ve always thought that dying elders, if they are beset by fear, would benefit from being present at a child’s birth; to help remind them: we were not, before we showed up here on Earth. So, dying is, to tell the truth, another, outbound form of birth.