Looking Death in the Face
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
It will be Singapore’s 46th National Day in two days. Forty six is a good ripe age. As Arundhati Roy says in her book The God of Small Things, a viable die-able age. It’s how I’ve been feeling late, die-able. Hence, this post.
Are your worried about aging? Fearful of death? Have you come to terms with the inevitable. Do share by leaving a comment.
With each birthday, death becomes more forward. Good face days become fewer and farther apart. Your skin care bottles begin to sport words like ‘revital’ and ‘rejuvene’. One day, you discover that, notwithstanding the stuff in the bottles, you have lost your jaw line. The short walk uphill to the corner shop seems to lengthen each week. You need a whole day to recover from trysts with the significant other, and curiously, they seem much less interesting than before. After a while, you even begin to wish that the significant other would exhibit less ‘interest’ !
Without noticing it, you begin to scan the obituaries. Pictures of people you know appear with increasing frequency, then those of people you worked with or were in school with you, and finally even pictures of people a whole generation younger than yourself. Death is making her presence felt with a vengeance now. You may refuse to recognize her, but sooner or later, whether you are ready or not, she is there , staring you in the face. And, you have no choice but to say her name.
I have become a woman of a “certain age”, and morbid as it may sound, I have begun to feel death stalking me.
Now, when plagued by a stalker, there are three possible courses of action – make a police report, hide, or turn around and look the stalker in the face. Since the police do not usually ‘interfere’ in personal matters, and since stalking by death is more than anything else an intimate affair, the first is ruled out. All the police can do is issue a certificate after the event. Hiding doesn’t work either. It postpones but cannot avoid the final inevitable encounter. That leaves confrontation. This is not usually advised in cases of stalking. When badly managed, the consequences have been fatal. But since we’re dealing with the subject at hand, whyever not?
On that reckless note, I have recently embarked on a project which is likely to last the rest of my life. I have decided to make my acquaintance with death, take a good hard look to see what there is to see. Maybe I’ll be scared witless and die. On the other hand, maybe I’ll learn something. Maybe in the process I’ll finally understand what Morrie Schwartz, whose dying was famously documented in “Tuesdays with Morrie”, actually meant when he said, “Learn how to live and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die and you’ll know how to live.”
So what do I know about dying? And, how am I going to live on the basis of what I know?
Fact Number 1 – I began to die the day I was born and I will continue dying until I’m done. Metaphysical, that one. It implies that living and dying are all one thing happening side by side; every step bringing us to our prime is also a step towards being done. Indeed, the wise women have it that when one thinks growth, development and change are done, then one is indeed done with life. I don’t have a choice about meeting death, but in the process, I am going to cram in as much living and growing as I can.
How long will I have to live and grow before I’m done? According to the Department of Statistics, Singapore women now have a life expectancy of 80.6 years. So give or take a few years, I’ll set my seasons of learning, doing, resting and agitating to that timetable. For me, as a woman of a “certain age”, this implies almost as much living going forward as I’ve already done from birth to now, and that is a good long future. Considering how much I’ve changed from adolescence to now, the possibilities ahead of me are are bedazzling -enough to give indigestion even to the glutton for change that I am!
However, a life expectancy of 80.6 years is no guarantee that I will live to 80.6. And if I am still alive at 80.6 years old, then statistically half of all the people I know are likely to have died . I will thus be lonely in old age unless I learn to seek happiness in both solitude and relationships with new and younger people.
Fact number 2 – I will experience decay as I walk towards death. Over time my body will weaken, my mind may go, my character and personality may fall apart. I can accept this theoretically but having seen it happen to my near and dear and experienced its beginnings in my bones I would really rather not go through the whole shebang if I can avoid it.
I remember my grandmothers, both of them substantial women, who emitted a subtly musty smell. It persisted and grew stronger with each “big” birthday, presenting itself even after numerous applications of Johnson’s talcum and 4711 eau de cologne. My daughter and young niece have confirmed that this “fat old lady” smell exists a generation later, on their more substantial great aunts. I have substantial woman genes. Unless my vegetarian diet does wonders in later life, I anticipate that one day my grand-daughter, who is not yet a speck in anyone’s eye, is going to give me a hug and wrinkle up her nose at that same smell, the smell of death.
This particular prospect horrifies me, not to mention my fears of re-living my mother’s increasing absent-mindedness, my mother-in-law’s change from a Confucian model of rectitude into a raging virago and finally absolute senility.
There is a cure for hang-ups like mine in this regard. It is a meditation practice in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. The idea is to contemplate my body as only a bag of flesh and bones which ages, falls apart, dies, is buried, rots and is eaten by maggots and then becomes nothing. From this meditation, I am supposed to learn that everything passes and my body is not me, it is illusory. Everything that happens to my body can thus be viewed with detachment.
I am not yet capable of such detachment. Indeed, I am so attached to my bag of flesh and bones that, despite years of meditation practice, I have not even tried to do this particular meditation. Perhaps. In time.
Meantime, I will accept that my body, my mind and my character may go, comforted by the lovely little internet message a dear friend sent me, and which in the spirit of such things, I now pass on:
” Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, a good wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “WOO HOO what a ride!”
Fact number 3 – I won’t be all gone when I’m gone; something remains. Yes, even when the bag of bones and flesh has turned to nothing, parts of me will still abide. There is a certain way of tilting the head, common to my husband and all his brothers, that is said to come from their father. My grandfather’s strict and business like parenting style has left its mark on a whole generation of cousins brought up on daily timetables drafted by my father and his siblings. At some stage my body may not occupy physical space, but I will still be lodged in someone’s mind space, my legacies may still sit in the material world.
Its up to me to shape the kind of mind space that I leave behind. Before leaving this space/time continuum, I had better have cleared all my debts monetary and emotional; asked everyone for forgiveness; forgiven everyone I can. Let me leave, as far as possible, only good thoughts and good consequences. Beyond that, what modes of thinking and being have I engendered in those I have been responsible for? Will my children have discerning minds, compassionate hearts and good habits, or will my imperfect ways taint the next generation and even the one after? I hope it will be the former, not the latter.
Will the world I now live in have changed in some material way because I have lived? I hope so. Will I be able to leave programs that do some good, writings that someone can be inspired by, a building to house someone? Not at the moment. Not so far as I can see. But, there is still almost as much life going forward as back. Perhaps, when the time comes, I will have lived better than I’ve lived before, learnt more, done more, be able to leave more that is significant behind..
Today, right now, I am not yet ready to welcome Sister Death, hold her in my arms, kiss her on the cheeks, let her put her mouth to mine.
But, age mellows; acquaintance over time makes the strange familiar, the fearful welcome. By looking death in the face now, and over and over again, perhaps, when the time comes, it will be easier for me to answer her with the yes she demands.