Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband died. The book is a tragic account of how disillusioned she felt in the months following the death. I love the deep but somehow frank way she observes the world. Every page presents a string of thoughts that feels so fresh and special but also everyday and obvious. Like: whoa, but of course.Didion explains how part of her brain continued to believe her husband was going to come back for months following his death. She didn’t want to throw out all of his shoes, for instance, as he’d need at least one pair if he came back. Does it get any more whoa-but-of-course than that? The notion is insane but somehow makes sense.
I’ve been walking more slowly and staring at the wall a little too long because my grandmother is suffering in the hospital right now and my mom has been talking a lot about the concept of “dying with dignity” and every time she does I feel my stomach drop. And then comes the floaty thing a brain does after an intense emotion passes through it.
I get it. I get it. At a certain point the life-saving measures are prolonging the inevitable and causing more pain. But isn’t that kind of everything in life? Prolonging the inevitable?
Dying with dignity. It’s all very noble-sounding and logical when it’s a concept discussed over dinner. But when applied to a person who has thoughts and feelings it feels less peaceful and round and more gut-wrenching and sharp. Grandma just told me last week about a woman who, years ago, came into her store, put on a fur coat, and then ran out without paying. She told me that. Last Tuesday. She’s alive. It’s the only human state I really know or understand. Maybe it’s the only human state there is.Didion talks about “the great divide” between the alive and dead. How even if you know for a long time that someone will likely die soon, it still feels shocking when it actually happens. The emptiness that follows. The person is there in one moment – their heart and mind and presence – and then they simply are not. They are gone.
As much as I don’t want my grandmother to suffer and as much as I want her voice to be heard, my brain is so jarred by the prospect of her just….not being alive. Because right now she is. The fur coat! Tuesday! So I hold onto the notion that just one more day will do the trick because any other line of thinking feels defeatist. But maybe when it comes to the elderly who are sick and suffering, defeatism is a little more like realism.
Maybe maybe maybe. The uncertainty swirls around in my brain like a poisonous fog. Sometimes in life I really hit my stride and sometimes the maybes stick to my feet like cement blocks. And sometimes I’m running and dragging in a single day or within an hour or minute and I suppose that is just how it goes when you have the privilege of being alive. We change and oscillate and grow and backtrack and wonder and move and think like the sentient meaty skeletons that we are.I was pedaling home from work last week when it suddenly occurred to me to steer my bike up onto the sidewalk instead of riding in the bike lane. The sidewalk on this particular mile-long stretch is a 20-foot-wide path between the busy street and the water. It’s not that bikers aren’t permitted to use it; I’d just never thought to. Within seconds I felt like the dimmest person on earth for not having done it sooner. By moving ten feet to the right my commute completely changed. Suddenly the honks were quieter, the traffic lights dimmer, the exhaust fumes a distant memory, and the pleasantness of the salty wind in my hair rivaled only the sun gently warming my now up-turned face. Ten feet? That’s all it took? How many other things am I doing slightly wrong?
If something as seemingly straightforward as my commute just needs a small perspective shift to look and feel completely different, surely we can apply this principle to something as malleable as our collective amble towards death. But, of course we can. Just go pull out an old yearbook and read some senior quotes! It’s the journey, not the destination! Life is beautiful! It’s not about the juxtaposition of life and death but rather the difference between riding in the bike lane or ten feet to the right!
But death isn’t rainbows. It’s at the end of the road where the lanes are whittled down to one. And no matter how many cute fridge magnets I read about the beauty of the journey, it’s scary as hell to actually see someone face the destination, even if it’s in old age. The rosiest of glasses can’t alleviate the weirdness that is your consciousness being zapped from your body. It’s shocking and sad and requires me to hold a lot of thoughts in my head at once: She has lived a great life. She is surrounded by loved ones. She is in immense pain. Death is a natural thing that happens to all of us. This is 0% about me. She is loved. She is old. She is ready to go if it comes to that. But it might not come to that? But it will eventually. She’s okay she’s okay she’s okay with it. If I keep all the plates spinning it kind of makes sense.
When it comes to the reality of death there isn’t a lens that makes it easier to swallow. At least not one that’s scaleable. But I guess part of being human is the complexity that comes with our self-awareness. Not everything is easy to swallow nor should it be. There is a certain beauty to something being bigger than my little mind can comprehend.
In the words of Heather Havrislesky:
“Being fixated on big uncertainties sometimes points to a more general inability to live in the moment. Being present is a skill. You have to practice it, and it doesn’t come easily for most of us…[but] feeling haunted by a big question is okay. You can’t just shove it away sometimes. But it’s also true that sometimes, you can lean into that haunted feeling and just let it be. “