It’s past midnight, and I’m sitting in my dark bedroom lit by this computer screen and the moon-brightened clouds moving across the dark windows. I’m thinking about this swirl of death and dying around us all the time, and sometimes, much more so, like this spring. Since mid-March health crises, my mother-in-law, who has been on hospice for months before then, has been fading away. A week ago, I helped officiate a memorial service for my sweet friend and student John, who died at 70 from cancer while writing astonishing poetry about life and death. Meanwhile, our dear friend Charles is transitioning from being lovingly present in a gonzo kind of way (advanced cancer and/or pain meds) to sleeping much of the time. And today I took Forest to see Barry, a delightful man in a fragile comatose state, so Forest could say goodbye after working as a farm hand at Barry and Barb’s place.
It’s a strange time. It’s a beautiful time. I keep the phone close, know certain conversations may be the last (or the last in friend’s or family’s bodily form), and check Facebook, email, and my own gut inklings. I hold Charles’ hand and put my other hand gently on his chest for a minute, look into my mother-in-law’s eyes and bring her a cookie, and think how much I don’t want them to die.
Because dying is such hard work, I sing old Hebrew prayers, Sufi chants, Quaker songs for those around me in fear and pain, slips and pieces of sound that have carried me through many times. While I’m not obsessing over stupid shit to distract myself from this these endings, I sing the songs in my head right before sleep to aim myself toward more of what matters and away from my anxious heart.
Sometimes I handle it gracefully, listening and offering help. Sometimes I’m far more of a basket case than I had imagined, ready to take great insult at tiny mishaps as if my shiny, thick fur of resilience has been shaved off, but then again, I figure that many of us are roaming bundles of nerves at any given time. Sometimes I read books and articles about dying, trying to get a handle on the smooth vessel without a handle, searching for some easy answer in this pressurized time.
At my best, I look at and learn from what’s here: reality is startlingly beautiful and strange. “What do you love best about this life?” I asked Charles recently in a very surrealistic, funny, and joyful interview for the obituary I plan to write for him. “You!” he answered quickly with shining eyes that told me he was so in the moment and so alive in love that he would say this to everyone right now, and he would mean it.
What do I love best about this life right now? I pause, return to the roving moon through the ridges of clouds and trees. “This,” I hear across the horizon of my life, deathwatch or not, all of this tender time when I can put my yearning for solid answers and dates on the shelf and see how even dying is beyond my small ideas about it.