“To die will be an awfully big adventure.” —Peter Pan
She wouldn’t tell me why she was scared. She didn’t need to; I knew why: Nudgemamma (“Nudgie” for short), Hungarian for “grandma,” was there to die, transition, pass on, kick the bucket, go off the grid, whatever you want to call not living in a body crawling with cancer from too many Pall Mall cigarettes over her 70-something years. There weren’t any piteous tears as she spoke to me, her oldest grandchild attending her, just a calm admittance, “I’m afraid.” Then, turning her head away, she gently gazed out the hospital window.
A shared silence filled my reply. What was I going to say? That I knew for certain what awaits? That I would be scared, am scared, too?
Today, some 30 years later, I may have proffered one of my afterlife beliefs du jour, “You are returning to Love. It will be the safest place you’ve ever known.“
But on that cool and cloudy October afternoon, I eventually brokered the quiet room that Nudgie shared with an elderly suitemate with profound practicalities, “Let me give you ladies pedicures.” Girlish giggles marked the overture of the Love that was to follow shortly thereafter.
Listen, little drop, give yourself up without a regret and in return you will gain the ocean. Give yourself away and in the great sea you will be secure.
–Rumi, as paraphrased in the movie, “Victoria and Abdul“
Ohio, circa 1970. It was the perfect setting for a defining childhood moment, one that would be an enduring memory on par with Barbie McCoy insisting, despite my jaw-dropping protestations, that there’s no Santa Claus, and my dad’s amused countenance when I questioned, “Why are you going to work? Don’t you have summer vacation?” Katie Knapke and I shared a patch of grass, intently watching summer clouds shapeshift overhead. As a girl, age six, her theory seemed plausible enough to me: dead people live on top of the clouds.
To this day, when traveling in an airplane high above flossy, white masses looking down, no one either dead or alive in sight, I am reminded of young Katie, wondering where in the world she acquired such an innocently misguided notion. (It certainly wasn’t from Barbie McCoy, I assure you.) On a bright blue, cloudless day, I’ve also entertained Katie‘s fantasy, but with the adult sensibility that any poor soul who died today is either shit out of luck for eternity, or transported to where eons of deceased have long since relocated to a neighboring cloudy planet (of which there are many) because its stratosphere is not bombarded with the storage of computerized minutiae.
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
― William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet“
The funniest thing I’ve ever watched was a man die, over and over and over again. And I paid good money for the outdoor performance. A prolonged, self-inflicted sword thrust to the heart fatally wounded him, “a lover, who kills himself most gallant for love.” But I expected that. As if instantly reincarnated, he jumped back up though. (Now this I did not expect, even after having seen this scene countless times before.) He died a second time: imitating suicide by slitting his wrists; then, by electrocution; again, by chainsaw massacre; and by two or three more ways, each gaining in the absolutely ridiculous. The audience held tightly knit with laughter, myself included. After about 20 minutes of this record-breaking, self-aggrandizing suicide, he met his final demise by simulating a rotating, clacking Price Is Right wheel repeatedly smacking him in the face. He was down for the count (most probably), the audience rising in applause, me about to pee my pants from laughing so hard.
This death scene was, of course, a piece of brilliant physical comedy from the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The role of Pyramus played by talented comic actor Brent Hinkley at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013. I have often thought about this particular performance, and how we mortals, given the right circumstances, can laugh, laugh to the point of tears, at death and dying. Perhaps Shakespeare knew we needed to shake off the enculturated shackles of fear surrounding death occasionally? That living and dying are illusionary, merely a dream that we are having individually and collectively?
“If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character…Would you slow down? Or speed up?”
― Chuck Palahniuk, “Invisible Monsters“
Yoga is a philosophy of action. And I aimed to offer my yoga students just that: a warp of asanas with a weft of something to ponder, on and off the mat. But this class, themed on death, I missed the mark— or so I thought.
During the hour and a half lesson, you could hear a pin drop, none of the usual fidgeting, water slurping or occasional passing of gas (yes, a familiar sound in yoga classes). Although the class ended as it always did, with a final savasana— Corpse Pose (more than a little appropriately on this day)—students picked up their mats and left without a lot of chitter chatter. It felt like a bomb went off, a smoldering silence rising in its wake.
Well, that didn’t go over so well, I thought to myself.
A week later a comment showed up in the studio suggestion box: “Claire, that class on death was really helpful. Can we have a whole course on it?”
I pinned that hand written note to my bulletin board to remind myself not to underestimate the importance of talking about uncomfortable subjects such as death and dying. The whole purpose of yoga revolves around finding peace within the unpredictable parameters of the human condition. Great ascetics even had a Latin phrase for remembering that we have to die: momento mori. Contemplation on the limits of our mortality and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits brings clarity to the present moment. That reflection can take some doing in today’s Western culture, given its obsession with youth, longevity, and accumulation. Not so in other places, where death is less sanitized, less compartmentalized, and hence more integrated despite an universal sorrow upon the loss of a loved one.
A return to dust and smoke is the story we all share, but rarely comfortably, let alone meditate upon. The fact remains: None of us are getting out of this alive. Everyone has an expiration date; and most of us hope that today is not the day. To occasionally contemplate its eventuality is healthy, helpful, perhaps even a bit courageous–momento mori forces us to realize that we’re all here on a suicide mission, one impossible not to accept. The choices we make until then–our practice–shapes our precious parcel of time and the world we are borrowing from those yet to come.
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
― Haruki Murakami, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories“
On meditative scooter rides, I recall a psychic once telling me that my grandmother, Nudgie, is now one of my spirit guides; I remind myself, again, to look up Katie Knapke on Facebook; I always look forward to more theater (although I often have to settle for Netflix these days given my energy levels); and I wonder when and how living with progressing FSH muscular dystrophy is going to end, a rush of peaceful relief and terror ensuing simultaneously. I don’t know about “Nudgie, The Spirit Guide,” (I would hope she’s too busy having the time of her afterlife, enjoying a date with David Bowie perhaps), but Mother Nature definitely guides and soothes my soul.
As I spin by natural wonders – the weight and gravity of Navajo sandstone peaks, the push and swirl of spring blossoms loose in the wind, the grandeur of a spry coyote crossing an urbanized strip of the bajada, or the greying decay of bird carcass— I see that I am just a fragment of the Universal Life Force, a piece of God if you will.
If I knew that I was destined to die in the next 24 hours, I would first cry a little (I do not follow in my grandmother’s stoic footsteps in that regard); then, with utmost gratitude, I would say that I’ve enjoyed a great life; immediately followed by the hope, the belief, the unsubstantiated hunch that death will be quite the journey, a return to cosmic nothingness and everything at the same time. I must’ve spent zillions of years there-nowhere before I got here, so it can’t be too bad. And, if karmically required to return for another round of the human experience, I would only be activating my inner control freak to request what I would want come back as next time (although reincarnating as theatrically talented and good looking as Hugh Jackman has crossed my mind…).
I have absolutely no idea where we go from here, just an evolving collection of thoughts, all of which require letting go, trust, and the ultimate spiritual practice—acceptance. Besides, some things are best left a surprise.
According to the article, titled “A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs,” Jobs’s last words were “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”