thoughts on death post header when do i get the manual

Thoughts On… Death

thoughts on death post header when do i get the manual

I remember my first dead body.

That makes me sound like a serial killer. Let me rephrase.

I remember seeing my first dead body.

It was my maternal grandmother’s – my Yaya’s – and she was lying in a coffin with white satin lining. It was propped up, almost standing to face those coming to pay their respects, and she was pale. Unnaturally pale. Much paler than I had ever seen her. Her expression was serious, her mouth turned down at the sides. There was no joy in her face at all, which was very unlike her. She was a woman who was always smiling, always laughing, always trying – like a stereotypical grandmother from a storybook – to feed you delicious food until you burst at the seams.

She was a woman who was always shuffling around the kitchen, or fanning herself with her abanico as she leaned back, out of breath from laughing, sighing “Ay!”

She was a woman who always took the time to pin a brooch to her breast and put lipstick on before going out, who always sprayed herself with perfume and made sure each blonde curl was in place, and who had a faith in God that stayed with her even after hope had been abandoned.

Now she lay, silent and still, in a box behind glass; an unsettlingly strange and wrinkled doll in a building of tears and heartbreak. She no longer looked like herself. She was missing that spark that made her her. This wasn’t my Yaya, this wasn’t the woman who would envelop me in her arms and kiss me over and over again until I wriggled away laughing. This was a husk. A shell. This was the discarded coccoon of a life well-lived, of a woman well-loved.

Death frightens me.

Life frightens me.

It frightens me how fragile we all are. It frightens me that we go through life as thin-skinned human popsicles made of nothing more than a pinch of star dust and earth, brought together and animated by an ember of life.

And when that ember is extinguished or extinguishes itself, leaving behind the curling smoke of memories and loss in its wake, it can be suffocating. The after-effects of the end of a life can feel like your heart is in a vice, and every thought of the person you loved and lost is a turn of the screw.

Death is something that enters into all our lives, and it visits more often the older we get. We like to ignore it, skirt around it, pretend it won’t touch us with its long, cold fingers, but it does. It will. It is unavoidable.

When it will come to us is largely unpredictable. It can slip in and out of our lives at any time. As we grow older, we become more aware of its presence; we look over our shoulder every so often and do things that we hope will make death pass over us, at least until we are old and infirm. We stop smoking, we exercise, we eat healthy food. We become more risk averse. We understand the full weight of life. If we’re lucky, we accumulate loved ones and experiences and hobbies and passions that we don’t want to say goodbye to, and so we shrink back when we feel death nearby.

Don’t pick me. Don’t pick us.

We support our friends in their times of grief. We cry with them, because we know the pain. We may not feel their loss, but we feel their suffering. We read terrible, tragic stories about strangers and feel sorrow, but also relief; glad that it didn’t happen to anyone we know, glad that it happened to someone else, somewhere else. No matter that their grief is just as profound, just as crushing as it would have been for us.

Death is busy elsewhere, and we have the audacity to feel safe in its absence.

There is a unique and precious freedom that comes before we learn about mortality. As children, we exhibit a recklessness that we lose around the same time we begin to comprehend the concept of consequences. Even though this is obviously an important part of growing up, I’m starting to think we could all do with adding back a little of our childhood bravery. I know I could. After all, we don’t know when death will come to call.

Is there anything to be gained by dreading it the way we do? Is there anything to be gained by pressing ourselves against the wall, hoping to make ourselves invisible?

I’m not suggesting we all go BASE jumping in the morning.

I’m not suggesting we start a diet consisting solely of donuts*.

I’m just wondering out loud whether we – I – should live a little less fearfully. There are things I haven’t done yet because a thin, reedy voice in the back of my head makes it its mission to spook me every time I think about them too hard. If I talk myself out of things I wish I had the courage to try, am I really living my life to the fullest? I can’t keep putting things off for an indeterminate ‘someday’ when I don’t know how many somedays I have left. I should make the somedays today.

And so should you.

I hope that when death comes for me, I have lived a long and full life. I hope that like my Yaya, I leave behind memories of love and laughter, good food and good company. I hope that like her I have time to say goodbye to those I love, and that I face it with courage and acceptance. I hope, but I don’t know.

So in the meantime, I’m going to try to live fearlessly… or at least, less fearfully.

Same same, but different.

 

 

*Although how delicious would that be?

 

 

 

Pedal to the Metal

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Have you ever been go-karting?

Not kiddie go-karting. I mean proper go-karting with a real track, and fast karts, and onesies that smell like manliness and oil, and helmets that make your head loll they’re so heavy?

I have.

Yes, I’m a sometime speed demon, and in case you’re wondering, yes, I do rock the child-sized onesies. The combination of child-size onesie and adult helmet makes me look like a bobblehead of The Stig.

It’s a good look.

I’ve always had a great time on the track. I’m a rubbish driver – running alternately on equal parts of adrenaline and sheer terror – but I have so much fun! I put my foot to the floor with irresponsible delight and go hot all over with excitement, and then I hit the brakes hard when the fear that I’m about to flip over turns my entire body to ice. I accelerate so fast my head flies back, and I can’t see where I’m going because the gravitational force pins the top of my helmet to my headrest… and then I brake so abruptly that I slam forward against my restraints and knock the breath out of myself.

Start and stop.

Back and forth.

“WHEEEEEEEE!” and “AAAAAAAAH!!!!”

Lately I’ve been thinking that in some ways my entire existence is like that. I live my life the way I drive my go-karts; racing ahead with life and plans and ideas, and then coming to an abrupt and sometimes painful halt when fear overwhelms me.

I’ve been doing this for a long time. Probably since childhood, although it’s definitely felt more pronounced since becoming an adult. In university, I first decided to go for a broad, general Arts degree (philosophy and English lit.), only to stop dead in my tracks a few months later when I started to feel afraid that it would be of no use to me. So I decided I wanted to do animation – a huge passion of mine – but was too afraid of trying and failing, so settled on graphic design because it sounded like a safer, more practical choice. Then I panicked at the idea of not being good enough for the safer and more practical choice, and in an abrupt and inadvisable 180°, then decided to go for something intentionally difficult (Japanese Language). I quickly pivoted again when I felt myself struggling with a subject I had chosen on a whim, that I never cared for and had no real interest in.

Which, you know… BAD. *smacks hand*

Eventually I realised that I was constantly, desperately looking for escape routes at every turn, trying to avoid the difficult and unpleasant feeling of Not Feeling Good Enough. I realised that I just have this innate knack for self-sabotaging in the worst way. In trying to avoid obstacles in my path, I tend to leave the path entirely and instead end up on the bumpiest off-road tracks that are often far more complicated and impassable than the original obstacle. I just get in my own way. It’s very unhealthy.

So I went to see a counsellor.

She was very kind. She mostly stayed silent and whenever there was a long pause she would say, “…And how do you feel about that?” which always made me want to laugh. I didn’t find her hugely helpful but she was very nice, so I felt bad about ending our sessions. In the end, I waited until there was a natural break for the holidays, told her I’d reschedule in the new year, and then never did.

… Still cautiously avoiding the bumps in the road, obviously.

I went back and tried another counsellor, and he was far more helpful. Instead of “sessions,” our appointments felt like strategy meetings. It felt less feathery-strokery and more proactive. University became less about finding ways to evade my fear, and more about putting my head down and bulldozing through it. There were quite a few obstacles in my way, and they were the kind of obstacles that made people ask if I wanted to pack it in, but I knew that I needed to make it to the finish line. I wasn’t sure I would be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t get out of there with a degree.

So I gritted my teeth and I lowered my head and I stuck it out and I got out of there with the piece of paper clenched tight in my fist. Nobody can take that away from me. My degree now lives in a locked drawer, safely tucked away as a reminder that I am capable.

These days I’m a bit better at catching myself when I feel the fear take over. I recognise it and know that logically, I’m being an idiot. I know not to let it rise over me like a tidal wave, because if I do it has about the same potential to smash my life to smithereens. I still struggle to work through periods of time when I’m Not Feeling Good Enough. I know now to rely on the fact that I have occasional bursts of self-confidence, and that’s really all I need to press my foot down on the accelerator and get going again. Hopefully the gap between bursts will narrow over time until I can hopscotch across my river of insecurities on self-confidence stepping stones. Maybe one day my biggest anxieties will be covered over by a sheet of self-belief that will allow me to skate right over them. I’m working on it.

I have a picture in my head of what I want my life to be, but it looks… fuzzy around the edges. It looks undefined, like I’m looking at it from a distance through a mist. I can see the hazy shape of important parts of it, but the details are missing. I know that in a lot of ways, I’m still afraid. What if – with all my speeding and stalling and stopping and starting – I never get there? What if I flip my go-kart?

For now though, I’ve learned to stay the course and ride the bumps in the road. I’ve learned to enjoy myself in the moment, rather than focus tunnel-vision style on the things that worry me. Not every pothole is a catastrophe. Not every hill is too steep to climb. Putting pedal to the metal can be as exhilarating as it can be terrifying. It doesn’t have to be a smooth, straight stretch of road; the journey doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good.

Anyway, a bit of uneven ground keeps things interesting.