Twilight over Tioga Lake

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What is the Real Near Death Experience?

I'm not trying to be morbid or anything.  But death is something that has kind of been on the mind. I attribute it partly to strife in the world, and to the fact that in a month I will be visiting a country that is currently at war.  This is something I have never done before.  And some people in my life are understandably concerned.

But how do I feel?

Incredibly fortunate.

I feel this way because I, like many, live a sheltered life.  It will be an incredible experience to go to a place where stability is not guaranteed.  It will be incredible no matter what.

It is not like I am completely unafraid of death.  I have recently developed a fear of flying.  And what is that really is about is a fear of dying.  It is not so much  about death, but that I don't want to stop living.  I don't want to miss out on what's to come.  But what can I do about it?  Not a whole lot.

There is the possibility of danger on my trip.  There is the possibility of that anywhere.  Life is the near death experience.  And that is exactly why we should live without fear.  Try to, anyway.

Here are a couple poems about this subject.  Spread the love and not the fear.

The Worm and the Word

I search for signs of death on this afternoon walk.

Like much of San Francisco, Buena Vista park once housed the deceased.

Their bodies were quarried long ago, but the headstones remain.

Fractured into large bits, they are much more useful as pieces of the walls that line the walkways.

Scouring the damp paths, something else catches my eye--an enormous worm, trying to burrow into the wall.

He is not the diminutive garden variety, but a long, engorged night crawler--being bright daytime, he is pulling an “all nighter.”

Boring into a stone wall is a futile job.  So I grab him. 

The violent disruption of work inspires a spasmodic dance of protest in my hand.

I watch, delighted.

I glance down at his attempt at penetration.  The stones were scraggly gray granite, except one.  

Ivory marble glowed ghostly from the earth.  A fragment of gravestone.

Still holding the creature, I squat down and drag my fingers across the stone.  It is bone cold smooth, and lovely.

I have to laugh.  The clich√© of it all--finding a worm, the eater of decay, digging near a gravestone!

Stroking my viscid  friend with my thumb, I see the one remaining word upon the grave--”DIED.”

My laughter folds into a thoughtful frown, as the mention of death often will do.

That is all that is left of this person?  No “Loving Husband,” “Cherished Mother,” “Beloved Brother” or “Sister?”  

No.  Just that he or she, some unknown time in the past, “DIED.”

As if to remind me of his role in all this, my companion waves his blind head in the air.

Where was the worm going? Is he finishing a job started long ago?  No doubt this annelid’s ancestors rendered the bones of ours.  Will his progeny feast upon our children’s children’s children?  

I see the word again: “DIED.”

But are the dead forever dead?

I look up at the eucalyptus tree.  That body now rests in the chloroplasts of leaves.

I feel the sun’s photonic fingers tickle.   The individual’s soul is beyond Antares. 

And all that is left to the rest of us is one word and one worm.

I look around at the cretinous mass of joggers and dog walkers and baby-pushers. 

We all brush death off, though the leaves and stars await us as well.

My clammy friend stirs, hopelessly trying to bore into the crease in my hand.

I place him in the soft dirt above the stone, with a nod of respect to him and the missing dead.

Someday, we’ll meet again.

Whispering Room

All I know about the Columbarium is that it has a "whispering room:" a perfect circular shape that allows one to whisper and be heard on the opposite side.

Sounds like a fun diversion, and I take my six year old companion Ali in a spontaneous moment.

We arrive at the stately and solemn building, my eyes glancing over the words "This is an Internment for Endowments."   Don't know what that means.  We enter.

Inside, the hushed air quiets us.  Lazy light drifts through stained glass, and we notice four orbicular levels rising above the open center.  

Look around.  We are surrounded by names.  Names on strange drawers built into the wall, and boxes, and shelves, and oh....I see where we are.  We are with the dead, with their dusty remains to this earth.

I keep fearfully still as I carefully explain to Ali.  Will he be frightened?  But no, he is calm and accepting, as children often are of these things.  Taking my cues from him, I decide it is safe to explore. 

Slowly we circumnavigate, trying to imagine these named niches as a living body.  They were once messes of flesh and water, blood and organs, disappointments and dreams.  Now they are neatly compartmentalized on a shelf.  So much simpler.

We see this "Internment" is more personal than your average graveyard.  There are letters, jewelry, toys, other possessions the deceased is allowed to "keep."  These artifacts speak of travels, interests, loved ones.

George has a stone hippo.

Kelly, a glass carousel horse.  

Otto--only 2 years old--a Hotwheels car.

Vincent--a Kit Kat!  Even the ashes of a cat are with one man.  I am astounded by the ingenuity of humans, even in death.

Outside of Richard's urn, there is a gathering of cards, teddy bears, and flowers.  I see "Happy Birthday!" and "I miss you" written on the cards.  I can't help to touch an antique metal tin among the offerings.  Now I have a connection to this man I will never know.

Ali, a boisterous little Italian, is unusually pensive and quiet.  I point out interesting items and read him names and epitaphs, and he takes it all in.  But I censor some unspeakable tragedies, like several family members who all died on the same day.  I can only picture an appalling accident.

We notice the drawers have handles on them, which leads to some questions I don't really want answered.  Can you ask to see your beloved's ashes?  Would you want to?  Do they continue to decompose until there is nothing?  Nothing to see, anyway?

Up and up we wind to the top floor, intruding our presence among the forever rested.  We decide not to try the whispering game after all.  Such a diversion would be abrasive.

There are many "Reserved" empty cases, so patiently waiting for their owner to come home.  One stands out-- a Post-it note attached to it says, "Ann--Now you never have to worry about leaving San Francisco!  --Jim."  Funny, sweet, and macabre.  I am a bit taken aback by this laugh at death.

I try to meditate on a vacant mini-lot.  How does it feel to look at your own "plot," knowing your dust will be there longer than you were on earth?

I think about it....

But all I can think is how small it is.  So small...and suddenly I am cramped and nauseous.  I tell Ali it's time to go.

Outside, we breathe the uncloistered air and take stock of our corporeal selves.  I brush myself off, as if particles of death stick to me.  But don't they always?  Living matter is formed from the dead....

Suddenly, a hawk lands so close to us!  It is viscerely alive, shocking to experience after being around the unseen fragments of former life.  The hawk should be hunting, but it just watches us.  We don't dare to move.

Ali speaks first, and finally his voice leans towards plaintive wisdom.  "Elissa," he asks.  
"Will you show me how to write my mother's name?  So I can find it when she dies?"    

Before today I may have found his question sadly strange.  But now this is serious.  

Statued under the hawk's hypnosis, I say, "Yes Ali, I will."  I will write down all the names.  Someday, every one of us will join the growing pile of dusts.  How will we begin to find the ones we love?

I have to smack myself from this terrifying trance.  

As we leave, I watch the hawk watching us.  It keeps watching us.  Watching us until we're gone.


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About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."