(As my friend Nora’s dying process extends longer than we ever thought it would, with days becoming weeks and flowing into months, those of us close to her are feeling both the grace and the strain. And how can we not consider our own mortality? She is only 54 years old. She has so much more to offer, and to experience. Here are a few of my ponderings from the last week or so.)
They say grief comes in waves.
If so, I’ve been caught in a storm the last few days, and emerged onto the beach battered and bruised.
I lay there most of the weekend, soaking in the healing rays of the sun and listening to the sound of gentle waves lapping at the shore (metaphorically speaking). After a storm, the beach stones tumbling with the waves makes such a comforting sound. Mama Ocean, Mama Ocean, all is well.
None of us really knows how we will meet our own death — with faith, with peace, or with fear.
We have our mythologies and our sacred stories. We honor the cycle of nature that teaches us that all things are born, flourish, die, and re-emerge again. We have the stories of those who have returned from the edge with tales of tunnels, ancestors, and white light. We have our beliefs. We have our faith. We offer comfort to those who are bereaved, and to those who are dying, by telling them it isn’t the end. But none of us really knows for certain what happens when we die. None of us knows if we will meet our own death with grace or with fear, or with a little of both, until it happens to us.
I heard a story, a long long time ago. I can’t even remember now where I heard it. In a certain Native American culture, they taught the practice of a death song. It is a song you would sing throughout your whole life, so that it would naturally come to mind when your death approached. It would carry you through your experience of dying.
For a long time, that song for me was “River is flowing, flowing and growing, flowing and growing, down to the sea. Mother, carry me, your child I will always be. Mother, carry me, down to the sea.”
And now it is Jennifer Berezan’s “She Carries Me.” She carries me, to the other side.
When I was 34 years old, I was in the hospital off and on for six months. It was the third out of four episodes of blood clots in my lungs, and it was the worst episode. I remember exhaustion, and weariness, and a soft gray fuzziness that seemed to permeate everything. I remember thinking that I didn’t even have the energy to be spiritual. At one point, the nurses brought my kids in to say goodbye to me. They were very small and I’m sure they didn’t understand what was happening. I remember writing a long letter to my dad, and telling him he was the best father anyone could ever hope to have.
I remember a vision, of sorts. Whether it came through my imagination or from an outer source, I don’t know. I experienced myself in a position similar to the tarot Fool, high on the edge of a cliff, arms flung out wide. Below me was the void, the black abyss, spotted with scattered stars.
And I breathed to the holy darkness: “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Then came the anticlimax. No white light, no tunnel, no ancestors waiting for me, no flights of angels singing me to my rest.
I just . . . got better, little by little. I returned from the edge.
That was 27 years ago.
I’ve loved a lot of people in those 27 years. Lost a lot of them, too. Made a lot of art, wrote a lot of words, sang a lot of songs. Gathered up a whole lot of beach glass.
And now my beloved mermaid sister is standing on that precipice.
How I wish she wasn’t.
Mother, carry me, your child I will always be.
Mother, carry me, down to the sea.