Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life and death

Last Sunday, the last day of our vacation, we spent half the day at the beach in Virginia. A few hours after getting there, the guys all still in the water, I lay on a towel in the sand reading The Unknown She, an inspiring book by my talented elementary school friend, Hilary Hart. I read these words, by Jackie Crovetto, a woman that Hilary interviewed in the book -

"Look," she says emphatically, "if I were told I had three months to live I would spend all that time with the ones I love. So why shouldn't I live that way right now? If you really bring in the reality of death, would you treat other people and yourself the same way you do now? Would you have made the same choices and decisions that you made today or that you are planning for tomorrow? When I listen to the news and hear about the rise of some dictator or the power struggles and atrocities we all at some time get embroiled in, I always seem to be left with the one thought - Why have we forgotten that we are mortal? Why have we forgotten that on the day we die all that we have grasped after, all that we have sought to control and have power over will be as sand flowing through our fingers? Many cultures have understood that one has to face death, know death and include death...As a society we are failing to provide for this primal need of our young men...[Women] have a deep instinctual understanding of death and how life and death exist in the same moment. We experience it in how we give birth, which is to stand on the very threshold where we cross into life and death, and through the cycles of our bodies, and the cycles within our daily lives. We know that life includes death, and we can live from this place of oneness! In tribal cultures people used to be so aware of death that they knew when their life was drawing to an end."

While reading this, I thought of another inspiring book about living fully - Patti Digh's book, Life is a Verb - essays provoked by having lived with her stepfather during his last 37 days of life. I put down Hilary's book and closed my eyes, burrowing my body into my few feet of Virginia Beach sand. The sun seemed to dance with the breeze against my skin. I was lulled by the sound of the waves and the families around me. I felt as if I floated above my body and pulled back into space, leaving my tiny frame back on the spot of beach where it lived for that moment. But then, in the next moment, I felt the deepness of earth's thick layers below me.

A few voices from behind me rose above the regular rhythm of the other beach sounds. They sounded panicked. I opened my eyes and turned towards them. There was something happening on the boardwalk next to the beach. I saw an upturned bike and a few people gathered round it. I imagined that someone had been hit by a bike while crossing the bike path. How awful. A few more people approached the scene. A girl who had gone there earlier to rinse off at the outdoor shower came running back to her mother next to me saying, "he is really hurt mom, come quickly." I resisted the urge to join those adding to the confusion around the accident and waited for Nicolas and the boys.

Twenty minutes later, the boys out of the water and ready to get in the car for our long trip to GA, the boardwalk crowd was even bigger. We rinsed off in the outdoor shower that was a few feet from the scene and looked over. There on the cement was a man surrounded by three EMTs, all working together to bring him back to life. His skin was chalk white. A guy standing near him turned back to someone he knew in the crowd. He held up three fingers on one hand and then held up six right after. This man had only inhabited this body for thirty six years. He wasn't especially big. He had been riding a bike. I suppose he may have had a heart attack. We quickly left the scene. We could still see that the ambulance hadn't moved once we had walked to our car, a few block away. At that point they had been doing cpr for over half an hour. I fear he never came back to life.

The kids were not disturbed by this scene, which surprised me. Gillen pointed out that he had seen a kind of grin on the man's face. Maybe they don't live in fear of death, as I did around their age. A few days earlier, while watching Billy Elliot on Broadway, Gillen had cried into my shoulder during a scene when Billy talks to his dead mother. Their awareness of death is less about fear than about grief. For now. I feel glad about that.

In about a week, my mother will have been dead for twenty years. She was 46. I do think she knew that she was going to die. I wonder if she felt like she had lived fully. She was such a vital woman, we all felt more passionate about life when we were with her. But there must have been much more choreography that she needed to give and she had only just begun sharing moments with Wilson, the love of her life.

I hope the 36 year old man on a bicycle had more moments of peace and joy than not. I hope he'd expressed much of what he most deeply needed to say.

Having a few reminders lately, again, of our common fate, has made being alive with those I love around me that much more vibrant, and sweet. Life is indeed about living.


kelli said...

Beautiful words Madeline, you brought me to tears. Living, that's what it is all about, wonderful living :)

Sara said...

Oh, this is hard to hear. I've been having similar thoughts lately. Thanks for the reminder.

mindy said...

well said. well needed. thanks.

Sandra Dodd said...

I thought about death quite a bit yesterday. Someone even recorded my last words, in case they were--my last advice. Maybe it will show up online somewhere. It was about giving our kids condoms.

I did brief Keith about what should be done with the Monkey Platter festival (ask Beth to coordinate it) and SUSS (cancel it; no money has been collected yet). I told some people my yahoo ID and password, and to make sure the site was paid for. :-)

Luckily, I've amassed some thing that don't need to be gone when I'm gone, but that will be gone if, somehow, the monthly payment isn't made. (No, I guess The Internet Archive will keep it available, secondarily...)

Sandra Dodd said...

I meant to say I'm not as near to death as I thought I was yesterday. I went to the emergency room on suspicion of a blood clot in my leg, but they ultrasounded me and there wasn't one.

Madeline Rains said...

I am beyond glad that is was a false alarm. Man.

It is good that you have such great relationships and have been living such that your possibly-final-thoughts ran to logistics.

Clem said...

You wright so well, you Have to publish your book! :D
I would buy the 1st copy!!!!!! :D

Gillen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madeline Rains said...

I love you Clementine. : ) You, my amazing niece, are quite the photographer. Did you see the picture you took of Remi, in the slide show I linked to last week here? I really like the one I took of you and your mom.

Persephone said...

you, my friend, are awesome.

Clem said...

Yes, I saw the picture! I love it! I took all your pictures and put them with my pictures on iphoto!
I love them all, but you didn't put pictures of you...!

Have you heard about Benjamin!? my new cousin!!! :D
I am sure that Damien, Stacy and Henry are so happy!!!!
I am so happy too!! even if i wanted a cousine...! :D

mamak said...

Wow. What a moving post. I think about death sometimes and how I need to enjoy everyday as it's a gift. But somehow through out the busy hectic days, I forget. Nice reminder.

CG said...

And I think about how valuable it is to think about what if we did live forever . . . because, through our kids (and the rest of the population) we do. Power-over is always about *rightnow* rewards, not living forever consequences. It is important to do what is really important, but not just for right now but also for always.

Madeline Rains said...

So true, CG. I love that quote about thinking seven generations ahead with every choice we make.