Dancing with Death

To say I am shadowed by death is inaccurate, implying that I am either haunted or endangered. It is perhaps better to say that I am engaged with death, that both purposefully and accidentally I deal with my horror of death, my fundamental objection to death, by dancing with it—a kind of do-si-do. I turn my back to it, then face it again.

Death seems like an inefficient and unjust solution to population control. I understand that if you want to live in a world with babies and children, you should accept a world with ageing and death, but it still seems outrageous to me. Just when you learn who you are and how to live, you have to limit your life and then lose it, along with all those hard-won lessons and the relationships that evolve only over time. If it had been my job to invent the universe, I like to think I would have been able to devise a solution not involving space travel or reincarnation (who would want to forego the surprise of the new? “There’s great grandpa Joe again!”) –though at the very least, I would like to have invented a universe in which death was an event to be prepared for, even welcomed, a universe in which we did not lose young people to car crashes and middle-aged women to heart failure, a universe in which we had time to say good-bye, tell the last stories, have our last rites while we were still conscious enough to perceive them.

We don’t live in this universe, and so the only solution, it seems to me, is the selective remembering and forgetting of death.

We have to forget death in order to go through an ordinary day. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend today? Keeping death in focus would bring the world to a stop—no one would go to work, wash the dishes, or do math homework. At the same time, we tend not to remember death often enough: We leave letters unanswered, apologies unsaid, wills unwritten.

With death in the corner of our eye, the reminder that any head-on collision, stroke, random gunshot could take us out of the world, we are more awake. None of these projections is far-fetched. The loss of teenagers in my circle of friends is a perpetual fresh grief, a reminder always of how terrifyingly fragile the young are. The sudden death of my stepchildrens’ mother reminds me constantly that the people who anchor others, gravitational centres, are as ephemeral as all of us. Death is unfair, unexpected, outrageous:  my uncle really was shot by a random bullet gone wild, someone in the next apartment cleaning his gun—and died some months later, weakened by it. So.

Thinking of death, we are more awake, try to see each other more warmly and clearly, sweat the little things less. These are modest gains, only a beginning in terms of how I want to live. Without wallowing, I want to tell my friends what they have meant to me. I want to build of myself a memory for my youngest son—not the memory of the one who is critical and demanding, but the one who rejoices in him, supports him, will sustain him when I am gone. I know well how our parents stay with us when they pass, and I worry about the legacy I would leave now. I want to conserve time as if there were a shortage—because there is.