Living with mortality
It’s hardly an original thought. We are all painfully aware that the only thing we know for sure is that one day we will die. Mercifully, we do not know when and we do not know how. Only the terminally ill can make a well educated guess, but where there’s life there’s hope and miracles have been known to happen. As have fires, earthquakes, accidents and a whole artillery of other potential terminators.
But here’s my point: I’m no longer afraid to die.
I used to be. While there was no paranoia or impairing fear of living – I was as happy to hang precariously from my knees above concrete as much as the next ‘60s kid – I was afraid to die primarily because I was afraid of what came next. Not the heaven or hell kind of fear, no. I was cocksure enough to assume I would be admitted into heaven through a beautiful gate by a dude in a long dress and a beard who would welcome me warmly before introducing me to God and handing me over to my dead grandparents. But what if there were no happily ever after? Just nothing. What about all the life I’d miss out on and the people I would never hug again?
I remember sitting on the edge of an open grave at around six years old, and touching the coffin with my toe to see what would happen. Nothing did, of course, but I wanted to be sure. I couldn’t imagine being left to rot in a box.
When I learned of cremation, I couldn’t imagine being burned in a box. With my options running out, I thought donating my body to science may be the way to go. But then again – thinking butcher – perhaps I’d rather rot in a box.
As the years passed, all the hospital shows and documentaries reinforced my belief that there are as many ways to die as to live. I watched with morbid fascination while wondering what the anniversary of my death would be. I chose not to consider the how; I just quietly panicked over bumps and twinges. While harbouring the paradoxical belief that I would live to be a grand old age.
I’ve been researching our family tree. We’re not very grand and as yet we remain sadly unrelated to Denzel Washington or royalty, but I do have one branch traced back to the mid-1600s and several more to the 1700s. It’s all very addictive and time-consuming, but oh so fulfilling to watch the tree chart grow as members of bygone generations are added to their rightful twig. And it pops so much into perspective.
According to official records and other family tree makers, my ancestors originate from many locations in England, Wales and Ireland. They were carpenters, joiners, tanners, masons, coach makers and a wide variety of other tradesmen typical of their day. While I was researching, I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet these people and hear about their lives firsthand. Or see the homes they lived in and the tools they used. Or simply hear their voices because they are part of my history. The only three common denominators among them are that they all lived – some long and presumably healthy lives, others merely a day – and they all died. And me. Had any one of my pedigree family (direct line) not been born or not begotten a child, I would not be here. But here I am, written into my place as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, great-great-great grandchild etc., and currently living on the tree of mortality.
And it was this way of thinking that suddenly induced my inner calm. Regardless of one’s beliefs regarding the ever after, happy or otherwise – we all remain little twigs of history on someone’s tree.
Now, people say growing old is better than the alternative i.e. dying. And I totally agree, in the short term. But not in the long term. Death is meant to be. It’s the cost of living. It makes room for others to live.
This is what we know.
None of this, of course, prepares us in any way for how or when we die.
Personally, I think Margaret Thatcher had the right idea. Dying while having breakfast in bed at The Ritz London hotel simply must be one of the best ways to go. But as The Ritz don’t take ‘anytime’ bookings, I shall have to take my chances.
And live each day fully in the present, with an eye on the future and a foot in the past.
I shall Live in Peace.