Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"To some I'm worse than an embarrassment, I am a death's head."--C.S. Lewis

E and I were talking the other night, discussing the future, finances, and what the possibilities might be.  I suggested to him that if we really wanted to cut costs, we could sell the house down the road and live in a tiny apartment.  He responded that that would be impossible with 4 dogs, and I commented that 6 years from now, we'd have 3 dogs at most, because our eldest is very ill.  He's been dealing with diabetes for almost 2 years now, and despite our vigilant treatment, the complications are getting worse.  Beyond that, he has 2 likely malignant tumors, one of which would be inoperable and largely untreatable.  We've decided on palliative care and enjoying what time we have with him.  It is highly unlikely he will make it another 2 years, let alone 6.

But it started a bit of a fight. 

"Why do you have to say that to me?" E asked.  He is upset by any commentary indicating that our dogs will not live forever.

"Well, it's not like you don't know, right?"

"Yes, I know, but I don't want to hear it.  Not everyone lives under a spectre of death, you know."

It came across as criticism to me, the "like you do" implied, which is how I believe it was intended.

"Yes, everyone does, because everyone and everything will die.  What varies is people's willingness to acknowledge that reality."

"I know that everything does.  It doesn't bother me; I don't think about it; I don't want to think about it; I can't do anything about it anyway, so I see no point in thinking about it.  And you don't have to say it."

I thought to point out that if it didn't bother him, talking about it shouldn't bother him, either, but I didn't want to continue the argument, and my feelings were a little hurt.  Hurt enough that I'm still thinking about it 2 days later, and writing it out.

Do live under a spectre of death?  I didn't think so, but honestly, I don't know.  And if I do, doesn't he have any sympathy for the circumstances that made that so?

To me, "living under the spectre of death" implies that I live in constant fear of death, see danger around every corner, and worry about dying.  I don't think that's true.  I don't fear death, but I do recognize that it is everywhere, that it is inevitable, and there's no sense running from it, in life or in conversation.  I live in resolute acceptance that death will touch me again and again, as long as live.  I never wanted to talk about death with A; turns out, avoidance of the topic provides no prophylactic benefit whatsoever.

It's funny, really; so many people will tell a widow that s/he needs to accept the death of her/his beloved.  What they don't recognize (and what the griever may not either, for awhile,) is that to accept the death of your beloved is to accept death, period.  Once you've reckoned with a very painful personal death, the mortality of every living thing becomes a matter of fact, and can and will be talked about like the weather.  At least, that's how it's been for me, but the widdas I know seem to be equally matter-of-fact; when life rips the blinders off, you can't really put them back on.  I suppose you could, but the force of will that kind of long-term denial would require is not something I'm willing to invest in.  I left my sense of death being a taboo subject in the smoking rubble of my pre-widowhood beliefs in a sensible, just world, like the belief that physically active men of 55 don't just drop dead without warning one day, and the one where good people in love are immune to all manner of badness and sadness, and the belief that all the people who love you will totally be there for you in your darkest hour and the many that follow it.
My acceptance of death isn't at issue here, in my opinion; it's theirs.

I didn't have any choice in the matter; Death visited me in a personally devastating way when A died.  Death could no longer be something that happened to other people.  Of course, E didn't have the relationship with A that I did, and therefore, while he was sorry for me, he didn't grieve; he didn't have to.  And he didn't embark upon the intimate relationship with the concept of death and the reality of being a survivor and a universe that cracked open when A left that I did.  To him, I live under the spectre of death.  To me, he is an innocent, and lacking in empathy and patience with my perspective, as innocents often are.

It is true that death is on my mind a lot.  (They say that's true of Scorpios, but I honestly cannot remember how often death figured into my thoughts before A died; I have no basis for comparison anymore, it's been so long.)  A's death, still, certainly.  The possibility of death among the ill and aged people I love.  Death in the world.  The seeming randomness of it all.  Sometimes it's my own, in those moments when I just feel so tired out by and bored with this life.  Lately I keep thinking that it was the worst thing possible for me to discover that I was an eternal being; when I was an atheist with no expectation of continuing beyond my three score and ten, every moment mattered.  No moments here matter all that much if life is infinite and ongoing, especially when the bad or neutral moments vastly outweigh the great ones.  There's no rush when eternity is yours.  My ability to appreciate the mundane (in all senses of the word) waxes and wanes, and although I am thoroughly delighted to sniff the roses in the pots in front of my house, somehow, that moment of delight is no match for the drudgery of the rest of the day.  If that's a sample of life, you can do the emotional math.

In any case, if death is merely a doorway (and even if it isn't), if it is a natural part of life as much as birth is, then we should be able to talk about it as openly as we do birth.  For Pete's sake, pregnant ladies are habitual oversharers, and they are encouraged to be; I see baby pictures taken in utero, and the whole world, for better and worse, discusses this particular passage, in gory detail, right down to how many stitches the episiotomy took.  But if you matter-of-factly discuss the inevitable death of your dog, or anyone else, well, the world gets angry at you for being so ill-mannered, like you just took a dump on their best Persian rug.

I guess that while I learned pretty quickly that no one wanted to hear about my grief and my loss and my sweetie after whatever they determined was a decent interval, I didn't realize that the moratorium extended to death in general.  I should have, because I remember not wanting to talk about it either.  But my death filter was shattered when I was widowed, and I'll talk about it without a thought.  I'll talk about death, and heart disease, and prognoses, and life insurance, and wills.  And this makes uninitiated people immensely squeamish and fidgety.

But it doesn't bother them.

What to do, then?  I can't unknow what I know, can't stop feeling what I feel.  E cannot know what he's never experienced, and he's pretty typically male when it comes to dealing with feelings, anyway.  Am I obsessed with death, or just through my experiences, totally in touch with it, unable to keep it at a safe distance anymore?  I think of what Octavio Paz said about Mexicans' experience of la muerte, and that, unlike most of the world, they don't fear it, but rather, the Mexican "chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love."  I don't love death, but I love someone who died, and I am constantly considering it in many lights.  The alternative was to pretend, to avoid, to fear it.  And I think some bereaved folks choose that path.  Maybe it works for them, but I have my doubts, and I know it wouldn't work for me.  I know, because I tried it time and again, and it failed me time and again.

I don't have a lot of patience with a world (or a husband) who wants to put its fingers in its collective ears and say "LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU"; my response to that is to think, "Don't be an idiot."  And maybe it's because not only are they being silly, because reality is reality, but also because in doing so, they deny my experience, deny my perspective, and basically tell me who I've become and what I have to say about it is unwelcome in society.   In doing so, they tell me to shut up and go away.  Is my frank acknowledgement of the death's existence any less valid than their denial of it?  I don't think so.

I'd like to ask some of the widows who are further out how death figures into their thoughts now.  Not just the death of the person you loved, but Death, in all its forms and side-effects.  Am I obsessed?  Or am I just a widow?


  1. You are SUCH a widow! LOL

    Of COURSE the blinders have been ripped off. Of COURSE we are completely aware of the absolutely inevitable nature of death.

    It's just one more thing we widows have to learn: How to zip it. How to not talk about it. How to sanitize it for those around us.

    But every once in a while, the ziploc bag we've sealed it in needs to be stomped on, so the contents can be smeared on that fine Persian rug.

  2. Yes. All of it, absolutely, yes. I get it. I agree with you.

    I don't have a spouse now to have to react to my matter-of-fact-ness about death and its certainty. And I only talk about death and widowhood with those select, few people who've proven over the last 5 years that they were okay hearing what I had to say. But for the most part, that means I only talk about it with other widows or people who've lost someone intrinsic to their life, like a parent or sibling. I certainly don't talk about it with my family or casual friends because, like E, I don't think they really want to hear it. Yes, they know--courtesy of Charley--that death can happen anytime without warning, but they still think (in my opinion) that it won't happen to them/again and that not talking about it grants a magical power to avoid death.

    For me, yes, death is a given fact in this world. So is that it can happen at anytime, to anyone. To me; to Anna; to my parents, Charley's parents, my friends, siblings, nieces or nephews....There's no protection or magical repellant for Death. And I don't really fear death or dying anymore. Best-case scenario, I can either be with Charley again or else stick around and continue to be with my loved ones in some way; worst case, nothing happens at all and I'm simply nowhere and nothing after I die, nonsentient and nonexistent. It doesn't mean that I like the fact of death any better or that I react any better to it when someone or something dies (our dog last summer being a prime example), but there's no fear for me anymore about Death simply as a real, tangible given in life.

    And apparently "magical" is my word of the day for how to describe other people's denial about death and their naive faith in avoiding the topic.

    "Like you just took a dump on their best Persian rug": I got the best laugh out of that. Thank you. ;o)

  3. Thanks ladies; I feel better now, and validated. I didn't think I was an especially weird widow, but I guess to civilians, we all are.