|my sister, Debra, shortly before her death, meeting her newborn niece|
Spring has sprung in Northern England, and everywhere life is blooming. Magnolia trees burst with pink and white flowers, their sweet scent wafting along with the evening winds. Baby lambs, their legs still wobbly, hover near their mothers' stomachs, with tender young faces that seem to be smiling. Birdsong fills the air, the cacophony so loud at first light that, often, it startles me awake. The sun warms dark black dirt in the allotments nearby, as gardeners turn the earth with their shovels and hoes to prepare it for planting. Our spirits are uplifted, our hearts filled with hope that, perhaps, the long winter is behind us.
Life unfolds all around me, but I live, also, in the shadow of death.
We are taught that to everything, there is a season. There are poems and bible verses and dharma teachings and even songs written about it. But most of us choose to ignore what looms so closely. We want to revel in the spring. We carry on as if the autumn will never reach us. We don't want to acknowledge the season of death.
It is different for those of us who have faced great loss. We know it is ever present. We know that there is a thin, delicate veil between life and death. We have seen it. We have watched life slip from our loved ones, and death overtake them. It has happened before our very eyes. We can't turn back, dancing only in the joy of spring. We have seen and felt the dark days of death's winter.
The photo above was taken at Thanksgiving, 2007, three weeks before my sister passed. She was too weak to go anywhere, so the family gathered around her, at my house, where she slept, most of the day, in the hospital bed I had set up for her. Our niece, Alberta, had just given birth to her first child, and her husband brought the baby close to my sister, so she could take in the smell of newborn life.
The photo is such a poignant reminder, for me, of the juxtaposition of life and death--my sister Debra, leaving this world, just as my great-niece, Lily, enters it.
Last year, at this time, I, too, stood in the juxtaposition between life and death, and somehow, a part of me must have known it. My good friend, Barbara, had just said goodbye to her husband, who died of liver failure, too sick to benefit from the donor one they had procured for him. I learned how she had to tell her husband that there was no hope, then had to witness his deterioration, and, finally, to turn off his life support.
Though I did not know Chris, Barb and I had been friends for over 30 years, and her loss was devastating to me. I couldn't imagine how she summoned the strength and the courage to weather this tragedy. I grieved for her, and I began to obsess about the possibility of losing Stan. The trajectory of life had often been similar for my friend and me. I was frightened that maybe this was an omen.
My friends, and Stan, himself, tried to allay my worries. They soothed me with kind words and told me that it was only my fear of loss that was at play. They assured me that such a terrible event could not happen twice.
Last April, our mild winter easily gave way to the new life of spring, and the warmth in the air was palpable. Stan had just begun a new position at the Buddhist Centre, and he was excited about its prospects. But he was feeling tired and worn out, and his stomach was bothering him, with sometimes excruciating pains. After a sleepless night of increasing discomfort, I drove him to the GP, and he ended up in hospital. Diverticulitis, they said, with a large abscess that had spread infection through his body. He was placed on IV antibiotics for 5 days, and sent home with another 5 day round of them.
He was slowly recovering, by the 1st of May, so I carried on with my plans to go to New York to visit my son. I saw my friend Barbara, there, and sat with her in her grief. Still, I worried about losing Stan. But others assured me he was on the mend. I had to remind myself that this tragedy of my friend's was not about me.
When I returned to England, Stan was distant. He said he was not feeling himself. There was nothing particular that he could point to, to describe it. He said he just felt tired. We figured it was part of the long path of recovery from his recent illness. Then his son was found dead, and our focus turned toward making funeral plans while swimming through our shock and grief.
Two weeks later, Stan was gone. That thin veil between life and death was lifted, once again.
After we drove to my home, having left his body at the hospital, I stood at the stone fence overlooking my beloved hills. It was summer, and the heat cast a swirl of haze over the village. I rested my body against the cool stone, and phoned my son and his girlfriend. They are not usually so easily available by phone, and had just emerged from a 7 day, silent retreat, but they answered. And they were on the next plane from New York to meet me in my sorrow.
As the first anniversary of my husband's death draws near, I replay this sequence of events in my head, and on the page, over and over. It feels important to me to remember it. I write to put into words all the confusion and clutter that lives inside me, to untangle the twisted and knotted threads of this complicated grief.
I have been visited by the spectre of death. It is a visitor that refuses to leave me. My intimate connection with this unwanted guest has changed me forever. I hope that, somewhere, beyond the immediacy of this grief, my understanding of the thin veil between life and death has made me kinder. I hope it has made me more patient. I hope it has helped me to recognise what truly matters, in this short life, and to put aside the petty irritations and quarrels that cause so much suffering.
I will live, always, with the shadow of death. I hope it helps me to savour the sunlight.