You might not have paid death any mind at this point in your life, or maybe you have but you don’t consider yourself good friends with it, merely acquaintances. We all have a relationship with death. The moment we are born is the same moment we start dying. It doesn’t matter if your youth is bountiful or if you need to ingest a cocktail mix of pills to keep your body in check, we are all irrevocably, inextricably tied to death.
Such morbid thoughts, aren’t they? Is this healthy? Am I sane? I’m not sure. I think I am. We all have dark thoughts that play together, singing an ugly melody that we tend to keep under lock and key — like an old diary with contents that would bring us shame if revealed to the world. Each of us has thoughts that we wouldn’t dare utter out loud, even to those we hold dearest to our hearts for fear that we would be judged or shunned. But we must embrace our darkness in a healthy way. There is a “monster” inside all of us—what happens with it depends on your environment, your circumstances and your choice to either nurture it or discipline it.
When you experience a tragedy or trauma, you are that much more aware of your own mortality and how fragile your life actually is. You are that much closer to death, even though you don’t want to be. You have an intimate knowledge of it. You find yourself wrapped up in it; it’s one of the things that you wish you didn’t know so much about. They say knowledge is power, but you wonder if this is true when death is your teacher.
It’s difficult to acknowledge this; writing about it feels like I am teeter tottering along the edge of life and death and one misstep could push me over to the side I don’t want to be on. There’s this great vulnerability that I feel in every cell of my body. I think of it as allowing someone to cut me open and put my insides on display by opening up the flaps of my flesh like an inviting door, a grand entrance into a sacred space. Talking about it makes it real, as if I’m somehow breathing life into death.
When I was a preteen, we (well, my mom and dad) bought a navy blue Pontiac Sunfire — I’m not sure exactly what year the model was, 2002 or 2003, something like that. It was a decent car. It did its job, got us from Point A to Point B. I will always remember how I absolutely hated its design, more specifically the way the hood and headlights curved downwards. I don’t know why but something about the way it looked irks me to this day.
For some reason, I started to see Pontiac Sunfires everywhere. What was happening? Were people ignited with a burning desire to drive this car after we bought it? Did we start a trend? No, we weren’t hip trendsetters ahead of our time. This was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) in action.
After experiencing or becoming aware of something for the first time, do you ever notice that all of a sudden this thing, whatever it is, keeps showing up everywhere you go? Like reading a new word for the first time. It’s as if your awareness of its existence has triggered its increased presence in your life. Of course, this is simply your brain playing tricks on you. You’re not actually seeing this thing more often, you’re just noticing it more often.
After my dad passed away, death kept making seemingly random and unwelcome appearances in my life.
The hospital room. My dad lying, dying on the bed.
The hot flames of anger flickered deep inside of me. And for a few moments, I screwed my face up and hot tears ran down my cheeks, I was ready to turn into a monster. I wanted to break something, anything. I wanted to shake his bed and punch the wall. I wanted to scream, I wanted people to be scared of me; I wanted people to see me, hear me and feel what I felt. But the moment was fleeting, I breathed in and out and thought about how he would hate to see me behave that way. As I felt the electricity buzzing in my heart and the heat rising in my face, he was still and already turning cold. I will never forget softly touching his hand and forehead and how his cool skin felt like against mine. Blood no longer flowed through him like the waters he floated on with his family as he made the treacherous journey from Vietnam to Canada after the war more than 30 years prior. I couldn’t keep my hand on him for longer than a moment, treating his skin as if it was burning hot rather than cool. I could already see that he was gone and I didn’t want another reminder. Ironically, I find myself wanting reminders on occasion and if I concentrate hard enough, I will myself to feel that same sensation on my skin again.
As I felt the electricity buzzing in my heart and the heat rising in my face, he was still and already turning cold.
Despite the fact that his body was now merely a vacated vessel in which his soul used to live, I tried not to disrespect him. I thought, what’s the point of causing a scene while our family surrounds him? The pain I saw in my mom’s face was something I had never seen before — and something I never want to see ever again.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t held back because the anger and frustration I feel are still mounting and I am afraid that one day, I will explode. When I’m least expecting it, while I walk to the bus in the morning for work or take a shower, anger will swell inside me the way a balloon does when it’s being filled with water, the lip of its opening tightly hugging the faucet like taut skin. Maybe it’s these quiet moments that help trigger these thoughts. After all, it is in these moments that my brain is free to wander and explore the most painful memories in my psyche…and the most morbid parts of my imagination.
With my dad’s unceremonious exit from the living world at the age of 60 came a slew of dead bodies. On TV, death was abundant and ironically, full of a vibrant energy that living things could never hope to possess on the 6 o’clock news. I kept receiving news that friends and families of my own friends and family were dropping like flies. On social media, people were busy saying their farewells to loved ones. Those words would live forever, unlike the person that those words were intended for. There was a constant stream of RIP, RIP, RIP. I love you. I miss you. I will always remember you. You were one of the funniest/kindest/ sweetest/most thoughtful people I knew. Does anyone ever openly talk about a person’s faults and shortcomings after they die? Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair as they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. Bad manners.
One day my ex-coworker found out her grandma passed away thanks to her cousin’s Facebook status. A gasp as she covered her mouth, a sudden exclamation of “Oh my god”, tears welling up in her eyes as she stared at her computer screen in disbelief and a quick exit through the door to gather herself. RIP. Regrettably, I didn’t know what to say to her as much as I tried to find words that wouldn’t fall flat or come out awkward. It will be a long time before I forget, if I ever forget, the sad fact that she had to find out through a goddamn Facebook status.
My awareness of death certainly wasn’t a tragic revelation; people die all the time. But I was — I am — rapt by death in a way I hadn’t before.
I can’t tell you how many times I imagine random acts of death happening to myself or whoever I’m with at the moment. A brutal car crash. A nasty slip and fall. Other gruesome scenarios that I don’t even want to put into writing. These thoughts invite themselves into my consciousness and leave as quickly as they come. The images flash before my eyes and disappear. Sometimes I tell myself how fucked up I am for allowing those images to exist in my head, no matter how fleeting. It’s as if I don’t have control over my own mind. Sometimes I wonder how many other people share the same fucked up imagination as I do.
The thought of death still unnerves me. Sometimes it makes my skin crawl but it isn’t some uncontrollable beast that paralyzes me. Accepting it as a simple reality can be liberating.
In Meditations, a collection of personal writings full of wisdom, Stoic philosophy and spiritual reflection, Marcus Aurelius writes:
“So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us. Now you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.”
Wherever life takes us, death will follow. Don’t view death as a foe; accept it as neither bad nor good, just something that is. I’m not suggesting to welcome it as you would an old friend, but to see it as a reminder that no matter what happens, life shouldn’t be something to take for granted.