From the Tibetan Book of the Dead
Soon we will all die. Our hopes and fears will be irrelevant.
On the luminous continuity of existence, which has no origin and has never died, human beings project all the images of life and death, terror and joy, demons and gods.
These images become our complete reality and we submit, without thinking, to their dance. In all the movements of this dance we project our greatest fears on death and we make every effort to ignore it.
I have just looked at my death clock on the net and I have either 17 years or 41 years left in this body depending on whether I am an pessimist or an optimist. My friend George would have died in 1984 if he were a pessimist; as it is, his optimism will keep him blundering on for another ten years. You get an extra 25 to 40 years for being an optimist. How cool is that?
So I have one billion two hundred sixty-seven million one hundred forty-two thousand four hundred sixty-one seconds to live as of a few seconds ago. Hmm… should I just sit somewhere safe and count backwards ?
While Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” as far as my own death is concerned I don’t intend to miss out on a nanosecond of it.
My most intimate encounter with death so far was when my mother left her body over twenty years ago. She was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and died less than six months later. For the last two months or so of her life her children took it in turns to live with her; I was with her for her last two weeks at home, before she went into a hospice for what we all fondly imagined was a period of respite for her carers.
After we had been shown around and Mum was getting settled into her room at the hospice, a social worker took me aside and asked me how I felt about leaving my mother there. I said I thought the facilities looked great and that Mum would be very happy there for the fortnight we had planned.
“I have to tell you that, having come in here, your mother may die a lot sooner than you and your family expect. Some people get angry and wonder what we have done to hasten the end but it seems as if people find it easier to die when they get some space away from the people they love.”
“What’s she telling me this for? Mum’s not dying,” I thought; but I didn’t say anything.
A couple of mornings later I was woken by the phone: “You’d better come in – Mum’s dying”.
When I got to the hospice all the other kids were there and Mum was unconscious. I couldn’t believe it; the timing was all wrong; we hadn’t even said goodbye!
I realise now, just talking about it, that there’s a part of me that still doesn’t believe she’s dead although it’s over twenty years ago. When I think about her, I don’t actually have a picture of her in my mind, I simply feel her, as if she’s in the room somewhere just outside my line of vision.
The thing I am most grateful for about those two weeks I spent with Mum before she died is that we managed to really connect, perhaps for the first time, as individuals. I will never forget some of the things she said to me during that time.
“I never would have imagined you could be such a lovely, caring person.”
“You know, I always envied you your sense of freedom.”
And, this one: “I know you’d like to see me in a track-suit jogging round the block with a glass of carrot-juice in my hand, but really darling, you’re flogging a dead horse.”
And then one night we did an all-nighter: I drank my way slowly through a small cask of white wine, as one can, and my mother took enough of her liquid morphine to make sure she was entirely pain free and we talked, about her life mainly. That night I experienced parts of her being other than the mother, parts I never imagined existed. I talked with a girl of about 15 or 16 years old, sitting on the sofa in her cotton nightie, a bit shy, a bit naive, but open to life and playful, certainly not dying.
I don’t imagine she had much chance to play at that age; she was working to support her widowed mother by then.
Just before we went to bed, she looked at me and said: “You know all those years I blamed your father because I couldn’t go to communion; well now he’s dead and I don’t believe any more.” She was a Roman Catholic and he was a divorcee.
But her death had all the R.C. trimmings, as would her burial a few days later. The priest was just finishing up his rituals as I arrived at the hospice.
What I noticed almost immediately I entered the room was that every so often Mum would wave her hand as if to shoo away a big fly or even a bee; it seemed to irritate her. I don’t know if it was the nurse who said something or if I had read it somewhere that people often hear a loud buzzing noise when they are dying.
Anyway, at one stage when I was alone with Mum in the room, I noticed that if I sat with her in a meditative space, free of thought, she would be perfectly calm.Then if I started to think again she would once again start to flick her hand at the imaginary insect. I must confess that my curiosity was so piqued that I experimented with it a bit to confirm my theory. As soon as I was sure that I was correct I sat there beside her bed in meditation, with her. I could now feel her presence as if my little game with her had hooked us up at a level beyond thought.
It was not easy for me to maintain this silent communion when the rest of the family came back into the room; they were not meditators and were experiencing all the usual emotional and mental upheavals that accompany the death of a loved one in our culture.
Shortly afterwards the nurse came in and said she was going to give Mum some more morphine to “relieve her distress.”
I said that I didn’t think she was in pain just that we needed to sit more silently with her and the nurse replied: “You mother said she didn’t want you kids to be upset.” To which I replied, “You don’t need to drug her for my benefit.”
“We wouldn’t do that,” she said, with the merest hint of a blush.
My older sister then said very clearly “Mum said that when she was dying she wanted all the drugs she could get her hands on.”
I felt a momentary urge to object rising from my belly, but then it suddenly felt ridiculous, the idea of having an argument with Dee across Mum’s death-bed. The subject dropped and I moved away from the bed and sat down in the corner of the room.
To my great relief I felt my mother’s energy again; it seemed to flow towards me across the room, almost as if she was seeking me out. It was then I knew: “She is still here watching in the silence and the drugs don’t touch her at all.”
Mum died later on that night when we were alone together in the room. I had left for a stroll round the corridors while the nurse gave Mum a wash the nurse called me back just in time to hold her hand as she left her body.
I could feel her life energy flowing through our joined hands and I instinctively opened my other hand to let it pour through me into the surrounding space. The room seemed to fill up with her energy.
I put on a tape I’d given Mum a few weeks before which consisted of music, silence and readings from Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus the Son of Man and I danced in that space full of her love, presence, energy – call it what you will. I was ecstatic.
I still remember Mary Magdalen’s description of Jesus from that tape:
His body was single and each part seemed to love every other part.
Shortly after, my brother Mike returned. We were sitting there quietly together when suddenly Mum’s voice boomed into the room:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...
Mike and I were both galvanised, then collapsed into laughter.
We had completely forgotten about the tape as it wound its stealthy way through a silent bit, in the middle of which Mum had recorded the prayer of St Francis of Assisi.
That was my Mum, still managing to have last word!
So when I think of it now, how would I have it different?
For a start I would have accepted a lot earlier that she was dying, rather than pushing my own agenda and trying to get her to fight it.
And you, my mother, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
With apologies to Dylan Thomas. It should have been more about her than it was about me, but I couldn’t see that. I was young and she was my mother. How dare she?
I know now that if I had accepted that she was dying, I would have been in a better position to act as a sounding board for her, as she made such decisions as when to call a halt to intrusive and painful treatments. I would have known whether she had simply been expressing a fear of unbearable pain rather than a request to be put into an induced coma.
On the whole though, my main feeling about my mother’s death is gratitude.
I am grateful to the hospice that they allowed me the space to experience my mother’s death in my own way; although, just as I had been warned, I did experience some resentment that it all happened so fast, that although they had warned me that it might, they hadn’t taken me by the shoulders and given me a good shaking saying “She’s dying! Accept it!”
I am grateful for the time I had with Mum before she died, but I am grateful most of all, that we were both meditators and could connect at the level of silence, beyond all the paraphernalia of life and death in the luminous continuity of existence.
It is in believing that you are separate from existence that you give reality to death.
“If you understand, if you see, if you can feel and experience that you are not separate from existence, that you are one with it, all fear of death disappears because there is nobody to die inside you. In the first place there is nobody at all, existence lives through you.”