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.