Unless you grew up in Rwanda, Afghanistan, or Iraq, the things that were dying all around you when you were young—the parakeets, hamsters, little green turtles, or especially goldfish—all shared the characteristic of being easily replaced at the Five and Dime (now, due to inflation, the 99 Cents Store). Until your first dog died, that is.
I remember mine, Tippy—who I wasn’t even aware was sick, although my mom later insisted that she was very sick, and really old as well—lying motionless at the bottom of the stairs, while I watched from above, still in my pajamas, as her lifeless body was carried away by my irritated dad (this was making him late for work).
The Natural Course of Things
As the years went by, great-grandpas and great-grandmas and then regular old grandpas and grandmas, would grow feeble and go on to their rewards but with the exception of the crazy kid in high school who drove his car into a tree at ninety miles an hour, the natural course of things prevailed. (Recently, near where I live, in the very wealthy community of Greenwich, Connecticut, some rich-guy dad who wanted to make his son the envy of the high school parking lot gave the lad a new Corvette for his sixteenth birthday, with the predictable result that he, and even more tragically, his young girlfriend, careened off the road and were killed.)
Then in your 60s, where I now find myself, the Grim Reaper visits more frequently as some of your contemporaries, who otherwise seemed perfectly healthy, even fit, are struck down by a heart attack or an aneurism or cancer or something and it sure starts to seem like death, while maybe not having your number on its speed dial just yet, does seem more and more just a phone call away.
I began writing this essay, arbitrarily I thought, on December 6, 2006, only to remember that it was three years before, to the day, that I lost one of my dearest friends to breast cancer. She had been diagnosed at the age of forty and did miraculously well for sixteen years, during which time, believe it or not, not only her sole sister but her mother, too, succumbed to the very same disease. (Her father had passed away many years before, of a heart attack, in her arms, on stage. She was a concert pianist and he, a concert violinist.) I was with all these women until just a few hours, even a few minutes, before the end. Meaning that for roughly five years of my recent life I was in the position of seeing three people whom I was very fond of “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
A Veritable Symphony of Death
My friend’s mother had grown up in Ukraine in the 1930s at a time when
Stalin had collectivized their farms and exported all their crops back to Russia, which by 1935 had led to death by starvation of over one-quarter of the population, including an estimated three million children. She had also been an operative in the Ukrainian underground during both the German and Russian occupations of World War II where, in a veritable symphony of death, the Germans had first come and killed all the Russians and their alleged sympathizers, then the Russians had come back and killed all the Germans and their alleged sympathizers, along with untold numbers of Ukrainians and their alleged sympathizers. (Not a good time to be sympathetic.) Consequently, she had the most cavalier approach to the whole business of dying of anyone I have ever met; so much so that on the first day that it became necessary for me to carry her to the bathroom she proclaimed, in her wonderfully thick Slavic accent, “That’s enough of this shit,” and left “This Bitter Earth” (the great name of a bar in Harlem) later that night.
My friend’s younger sister’s passing (thankfully, after her mom’s, who, no matter how tough, would not have been able to endure it), being premature, was more tragic. A wonderful and very successful singer, with one of the loveliest voices I had ever heard, and with a four-year-old son as well, she valiantly struggled to keep going, even to keep performing, but due to a brain metastasis finally collapsed and could not leave her bed. On the day before she passed she told me that three angels had come to her and told her that it was time and she had told them that she was ready. She departed with the next sunrise on a bright and beautiful April morning just days before her forty-fifth birthday. (Aptly, her Ukrainian name was Kvitka, which means flower.)
In the same way that the setting for her sister’s passing was in keeping with her nature, so was my friend’s, but unlike her sister’s spring, she enjoyed the winter, and so her last day brought a freak and furious blizzard that made it just about impossible for her two daughters and me to get to the hospital. Later, when leaving, though she was already comatose, I told her that I would be back to see her the next day and she managed a very sweet smile that told the whole story. The hospital called a few minutes later, while we were in the car “sledding” back home, to say that she had expired.
A Few General Observations About Death
Therefore, while no expert, I do feel qualified, based on these recent experiences, to make a few general observations about death.
Job one for each of us is to fight for life until the very end, out of respect and especially gratitude to the One who has given us life. Then when any further participation in the goings-on here is impossible, our souls begin a process that they are very familiar with and prepare to return to their own abode. This is something absolutely sacred.
One more thing, on a practical level, that I feel I must share. As the energy available to our bodies diminishes, functions that are less essential for sustaining our physical existence begin to shut down. But hearing, for some reason, even after mobility, speaking, seeing and just about every other thing is lost, seems to remain active. Therefore, one should not stand around the “unconscious” loved one chatting and gossiping as if there was no one there, something I have seen many times, especially in hospices. For while it is understandable that you might be nervous about the thing in your midst, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, loud and boisterous gatherings as if getting together for a Super Bowl party are really uncalled for. Even the apes show their dying more respect. So please, take your chitchat and especially your bluster down the hall.
To Make Life More Precious
Life after death, even if you believe those who say they have been and come back, remains a matter of faith; like when someone goes to a great vacation spot and while we have no reason to doubt their glowing report, we cannot be absolutely certain it lives up to all the hype until we go there ourselves.
A character on Six Feet Under, a popular TV comedy set in a mortuary (talk about a contradiction), when asked, “Why death?” simply answered, “to make life more precious”—probably the least speculative, most insightful thing that anyone has ever had to say about the whole mysterious business.
Featured Pic by Vladimir Menkov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, License
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Jeffrey Baker was a student for more than forty years of Sri Chinmoy, who named him Kalatit (Kal, time; atit, beyond). Called “our preeminent humorist” by his teacher, he was a frequent contributor to publications and events in his spiritual community and elsewhere. A card-carrying Baby Boomer, he attended the Woodstock Festival, performed in various rock-and-roll ensembles, and has a degree in ecology from The University of Connecticut. He’s been a gardener for the Rockefellers in Pocantico Hills, New York, and “the piano tuner to the stars” working with artists such as Billy Joel, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Richard Goode and Andre Previn. He has composed more than one hundred works in the classical as well as the theatrical genres. (https://www.reverbnation.com/jeffreybaker) His The Music of the Zodiac, has had more than 40,000 downloads. His corpus of philosophical treatises, Eat My Dust, Martin Luther, as well as a collection of epigrams, 1000 Pearls of Wisdom, and a group of essays on contemporary subjects, Blah, Blah, Blah, are available as e-books (Amazon) and in paperback (Createspace).