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When we are forced to accept death — not just the idea of death, but the act of death — we wish for, at least, an easy death. Buck had a hard life before he met Betty; he earned a good death. To die at the craps table, with a winning horse ticket in your back pocket and the woman you love at your side, beats by far the long, slow death by disease, or the slip and fall, the broken hip, the faces leaning over the bed, the piecemeal relinquishing of your very essence.

Later in life, perhaps at the end of my 30s, I put on a skin-diving mask and went underwater in the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. It was disturbingly beautiful, a siren call. The silence underwater was as deep as the silence in the mountains at night, intense enough to heighten the senses. The water was a liquid magnifying glass, poorly adjusted. It caused the light to be dispersed in generous ways; there were no hard edges. Movement was soft as well, the slow sway of the seaweed, the schools of tiny black fish that undulated as if in a single body, the splash of red-gold as the garibaldis’ curiosity got the better of them. This underwater experience altered the way I saw the earth’s surface. I remember thinking as I walked around on terra firma again, But there is this whole other world. More and more I am cognizant of death being like the ocean, a parallel dimension, a geographical place for which we are bound.

Then there’s Glory. My dear friend, the woman whom I try to model myself after; the person who has more joie de vivre per cell than any other living creature. She’s only in her 60s, but this year she had a bad bout with vertigo. For months on end she couldn’t leave her house because everything was spinning. Her stomach rebelled; she clung to the toilet. She’s extremely independent and always active, involved with the whole world in a hundred different ways. I can’t even imagine how terrible those months were for her. During that time she also watched her aging aunt decline, wander, lose her memory, her appetite, need constant care. These two incidents made Glory vow to get hold of some Seconal in case she found herself in the big decline and didn’t want to wait it out. Out of love for her and out of the arrogance of someone who had not endured the pain, I couldn’t bear to hear her talk that way. I delude myself that the will to live is a shield. I feared that if she let down her guard, death would surely enter. I feared losing Glory. I wanted to force her to concur with what Charles Lamb wrote in his essay “New Year’s Eve”: “I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger; no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave…. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.”

For the time being death has taken a back burner. Surgery restored Glory to her usual buoyant self. But I know Glory’s friend Mary has joined the Hemlock Society, a society that claims the right to choose your own death if need be. And I know the personal freedom and independence that Glory and Mary insist on in their lives continues into their future. Only days ago Glory reminded me that respect for life extends into not wanting to prolong it past usefulness. Both Glory and Mary embraced this world by always trying new things: theologies, philosophies, artistic expressions, medicines, traveling to Alaska on the Green Turtle bus — too many things to name. Currently, they are testing out a new herbalist and are experiencing renewed energy. This encourages me to hope that they are returning to their old vital way — trailblazing deeper and deeper into life.

This year an esteemed colleague, Don, a seemingly healthy colleague, retired. He had planned this summer to stay in a rented villa outside of Florence and to visit old seminary friends in Turin. He died within days after retiring; he never collected a single retirement check. Another colleague, Pamela, a woman who could wrestle me with her intelligence and pin me to the table every time, died at the age of 39; her tremendous intelligence and wit — and all of the ways she planned to use those assets — are buried now as well. And my dear and generous neighbor, June, died of colon cancer (or maybe chemotherapy) after a valiant two-year struggle. John Donne says, “Every death diminishes me,” but the truth is the world is diminished by all these deaths.

When I rejected God, I rejected the idea of the soul. Lately, I have allowed myself to talk to the dead without taking up the question of religion. Or God. And the idea of soul is only implied in my conversations with the dead. But what the right hand holds at bay the left hand fondles. That is to say, God slides in under the guise of karma or luck or a wish that utters itself like a prayer. I suspect this is a natural occurrence; spirituality shows up as a traveler on the road as the road darkens, just as Young Goodman Brown encountered the devil/man with the serpentine cane in the deepening gloom.

Sometimes I have imagined that rituals could help, could act like a bridge to a sacred territory. But we are a society that has divested itself of rituals. You can wear shorts to a wedding or an orange low-cut organdy dress to a funeral. On E Street in Chula Vista, a funeral parlor transformed itself into a travel agency; the shutters were taken down, the building was painted pink and plum, and palm leaves waved from the welcome mat.

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Comments

Altius March 23, 2011 @ 2:23 p.m.

"When I rejected God, I rejected the idea of the soul."

Curious, Ms. Luzzaro, that you would reject the soul when soul is the very thing that drew you to your friend Glory and your friends Buck and Betty. Their vivacity, which drew you to them, was not the product of their physical ingredients. We're all basically the same physical matter, but while most people live dull lives in front of the TV, Buck and Betty and Glory shone from within with something beyond the physical realm.

It's curious to me to that you, who were so drawn to them, did not see it for the non-physical life force -- i.e. soul -- that it was.

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Susan Luzzaro March 23, 2011 @ 6:03 p.m.

Altius, I think what I intended to communicate...is that when we are younger we can take a philosophical stance...better said, a tough stance. But life and death school us. You're right, Altius, the people I wrote about had soul, have soul.

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Susan Luzzaro March 23, 2011 @ 9:08 p.m.

Thank you for the flattering words railsplitter. Time is distance and I say the woman who wrote this is too wordy, and is too fond of her quotes (though I am still fond of them).

And I agree about the Grim Reaper, especially given the international news--one never knows what the bastard has up his sleeve.

May we avoid it ;-)

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simonsays9 March 27, 2011 @ 4:42 p.m.

Susan,

I found your piece elegantly written and moving: I read it twice. I had a piece (my first published) in the Reader last fall, and I'm honored to be selected by a publication that has writers like you. Also, I'm glad that I wasn't competing with you for the same space, because I'm sure of what the outcome would've been.

                 Regards,

                     Norm Simon
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David Dodd March 27, 2011 @ 9:04 p.m.

Very nice introspective writing, great job Susan.

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FlyingOwl13 March 27, 2011 @ 10:08 p.m.

This was beautifully written. Recently, a conversation about death and existential philosophy came up in my life last week and someone commented that our society rarely contemplates or discusses thoughts on the meaning of death. There are news reports on death, but that is quite different. It's refreshing to read something that deeply, philosophically, and thoughtfully goes into the subject of death.

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Susan Luzzaro March 29, 2011 @ 6:06 p.m.

I have read that Gertrude Stein died saying, "Ahh but what is the question?" Our lives are a question (also a roller coaster Norm Simon), but it would be nice to have an answer...

Thank you for the comments, Susan

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staranchor April 3, 2011 @ 7:51 p.m.

Susan, Some 2nd thoughts on Death since we last talked about it. Mary and I helped a good friend in Hawaii end her own life after a six year bout with breast cancer and the loss of her husband. Mary didn't fare as well. She tried to end her own life with Hemlock instructions but wasn't successful and ended up very sick and afraid to try it again or involve any of her friends because of the illegality they would face. She was courageous in refusing any life-saving measures after that but not without pain and discomfort. I've seen many people die of natural causes. Melissa had regular visitations from her husband, Dan Dicky, Phil said, "Death is exciting...It's like standing under a skyscraper during an earthquake", my Auntie spent her last day singing, "I want a Girl, Paper Doll, Sidewalks of New York", Ettilie died eating her lunch, and now as I care for my husband, his dementia takes me to Moscow for an extravagant dinner, To Victoria, BC to walk along the streets by the Empress Hotel and have High Tea even though he worries we're spending too much money. So who can say what goes on in the dying process? I can pretend bravado and say that I could end my own life but all of my religious training would probably mitigate against my doing that. I still believe your own fate should be an individual legal choice. Kervorkian had it right but like you I still see the beauty in my little cockatiel, Caruso, who mourns his lost mate singing endlessly beautiful songs, and my wild flowers blossoming in my front yard gives me great joy and reading your article makes me believe in the soul that Blake saw leaving his beloved brothers' body consoling his grieving family by saying, "Don't cry, I saw him leave his body and he was clapping his hands." I hope like Blake I can end my days singing a hymn...Thank you Susan for your wonderful words. It is amazing the changes life graces and challenges us with.

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Susan Luzzaro April 3, 2011 @ 10:45 p.m.

Star,

Your words are like someone running in front breaking the spider webs out of the path, Susan

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