Staying Alive

The other day, while out walking with a friend, we took a detour on our way home and found ourselves in an old cemetery.

It was, as she put it, the sort of place Tom Riddle might show up to challenge you to a wand duel. The ground, bulging with overgrown roots, was uneven and covered over with long blades of grass that soaked us to the ankles. Most of the engravings on the oldest headstones were illegible; the inscriptions had been gently buffed to smoothness by the passing of time. Speckled with lichen and pushed by either weather or slowly shifting soil, the stones leaned drunkenly at different angles. We wandered between them, calling out unusual names to each other or pointing out particularly old dates. Some went back to the 1800’s.

We found a few sad ones; children, siblings, husbands who died in their thirties with wives who died in their seventies. We found a few interesting ones; a headstone marked the passing of a man named Lemon Booth who had died in 1910 (I pictured him as a kindly eccentric with a penchant for wearing yellow). We also found a slab of what we assume is a family crypt dug into the foundations of what used to be a church.

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Some people strongly dislike graveyards. They find them creepy, or depressing, or taboo in a way that makes their skin crawl. The thought of dead people underfoot gives them the heebiejeebies. Some people feel it’s almost sacrilegious to walk through a cemetery full of people you have no connection to, propelled by nothing but curiosity. Some think that cemeteries should only be for the broken-hearted. Some think that it should only ever be a private place for grieving and goodbyes.

I actually quite like them.

Not – obviously – during burials, when my heart feels like it’s being finely grated into ribbons of despair and deposited straight into the ground with the coffin… but after. Later. I find comfort in the fact that so it has been and so it will always be; humans losing loved ones and creating rituals to say goodbye, with something tangible to mark the passing of generally unremarkable people. That’s you, and me, and most people. We, the Wikipedia-entry-less.  We, the people who live important lives but on a private scale. We, the remarkable unremarkable. We live full, busy lives of friendships, and stories, and memories. We have favourite activities, and things we are most proud of, and quirks that are unique to us. We laugh and cry and develop habits and grieve and love and then, at some point, we die and leave it all behind.

Honestly, I hate the idea as much as the next person. Saying goodbye to loved ones has always been so hard, and although my grief stems from not wanting them to ever leave my life, a small part of it also comes from the sadness that comes with the thought of leaving my life. I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on their behalf, for their having to say goodbye to everything. I love this world, the colours in it, the smell of petrichor, the taste of freshly baked bread, the feeling of a badly-needed hug, the sound of a loved one laughing. I love this world, even with the really rubbish bits. Even with the tragedies. Even with the dangers. Even with the Trumps.

I like my unremarkable life. I like being alive.

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. I always think of this as I read the names on headstones, shaping the consonants beneath my breath, taking a moment to wonder about the person behind the name, and the life that person left behind.

It comforts me to think that over a hundred years from now, someone might find the marker of my unremarkable life and say my name aloud, wondering about me…

Keeping me alive a little longer.

 

 

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?