I’m Not Dying, You’re Dying

Okay, we’re all dying, and I think about it a lot lately.

A collection of old black and white and sepia photos in and out of frames resting against a dirty white plaster wall and on a dirty stone tile floor.
Photo by Javad Esmaeili on Unsplash

For one thing, I decided to live as though I would die on my next birthday. I have 333 days to go. (If I’m lucky.) To that end, I am pondering hard truths and reading (mostly listening to audio books) a lot, some of which I get into later. #WhatMattersMostProject #WMMP

Finding What Matters Most

Secondly, it was the second anniversary of my mother’s death on February 1st. She had been sick for a couple years with COPD and cirrhosis of the liver caused by the genetic disorder Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, but she was taken suddenly by a perforated bowel.

I continue to grieve my mother daily, as I moved in with my dad immediately and live amongst her things with him. I sleep in Mom’s bedroom (Dad began using the guest bedroom a year or longer prior to her death to improve both of their rests as he religiously uses a C-Pap), cook in her kitchen, watch television from her special hydraulic lounge chair, warm my lap with her blankets, and pet her dog.

Though we did finally sell her bedroom set and I have some of my things around me now, I still open the bathroom cabinet above the sink and see her lipsticks… open the side drawers and find her makeup, her lady’s shaver, and her nail polish.

I tend toward the more natural. Mom was forever suggesting I might want to add a little lip, or lavishing me with praise when I did manage to wear some mascara, blush, and lipstick. But I haven’t been able to throw her makeup out. They mattered to her. And I like having pieces of her close.

I gave most of her clothes to Goodwill, but kept several items because they fit and were stylish. She had been well-dressed, gorgeous even, for much of her life. She only stopped when it became too much to worry about.

So, like Dad, I live with her all around me. She is here even though gone. And as much as I would like to change some things, it’s not just me that lives here. I feel confident that Mom would want me to make this my home, too, but I hold back, unsure about how much of my own touch to put on things. Of course I could discuss it with my dad — and I will. Eventually.

Like I mentioned earlier, as part of my #WMMP, I have been reading a good deal about death. And about life, or how to live better. I have read Stephen Levine’s “A Year to Live,” Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” and Nina Rigg’s “The Bright Hour.” Levine’s book is about living as though you will die. Kalanithi’s and Rigg’s books are about living and dying — both individuals had cancer, and interestingly, their spouses found each other in their grief and subsequently married.

I’ve also read “The Year of No Nonsense,” by Meredith Atwood, about getting past our own b.s. and self-sabotage, as well as the truly beautiful reflection on sorrow and longing, death and separation called “Bittersweet,” by Susan Cain. (“Bittersweet” deserves a better review than this, and I highly recommend it.)

Last night I finished “Walking Each Other Home,” by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush. It’s a delightful read about our heavy topic. Ram Dass says:

If I’m going to die, the best way to prepare is to quiet my mind and open my heart. If I’m going to live, the best way to prepare is to quiet my mind and open my heart.

Here, Ram Dass is urging us to give up the idea of separation and fear.

Later, in the chapter “Surrendering to the One,” Mirabai briefly describes a longer talk by her friend Gopi Kallayil given at a conference where he urges the audience to think of themselves as an ice cube. While the ice cube may seem like a separate piece of cubic iciness, when it is dropped into an ocean it’s individual identity disappears as it melts and merges into oneness with the ocean.

I’ve also recently read lovely pieces about death similarly being just a redistribution of our elements from the perspective of physicists.

Maria Popova wrote “What Happens When We Die” in her The Marginalian online publication:

Whatever our beliefs, these sensemaking playthings of the mind, when the moment of material undoing comes, we — creatures of moment and matter — simply cannot fathom how something as exquisite as the universe of thought and feeling inside us can vanish into nothingness.

She goes on to say that even though we know we are “borrowed stardust,” we have difficulty understanding the void and our own relationship to it. She includes quotes by Walt Whitman, Ursula Le Guin, and writer and physicist Alan Lightman that all touch on our sharing of atoms and the return of all of our component particles to the world to be recycled and reabsorbed.

In “Planning Ahead Can Make a Difference in the End” on NPR’s All Things Considered, the writer and performer Aaron Freeman offers the following advice:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

…According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.

Various shades of white to pale pink hearts floating like particles against a blurry background.
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

As I grieve my mother’s death and contemplate my own, I continue to touch, breathe, consume, and wrap myself in what remains here of Mom. I remember the warmth of her, the love that radiated from her. And I transform that love into unconditional love I can now hold more readily for myself and extend to others.

I think that in death we ultimately transcend our separateness and become one with the all — whether we want to or not. And, of course, we all must die. Memento mori.

Though I still want to animate the atomic remains of my mother into a close presence, she’s both my memories and now living her best life and death as a part of everything else.

Our mass and energy disassembles and reassembles and transfers and transforms again and again, merging with all around us. All of our varied and disparate stories are the same in this way, no matter how we live or what we think. We truly are all connected. We are all the same. And maybe that which we are at its most basic level is, I hope, pure loving energy (individually aware or otherwise).

As written in the story linked at the start of this piece I am living this year of my life as though it’s my last. I would love to have you join me in asking ourselves “what matters most?” You can follow me here on Medium. I may also start a monthly group practice based on Stephen Levine’s book referenced above, A Year to Live. Please comment or message me if you’re interested. And please leave suggestions for other books you would recommend on the topics of death and living while dying in the comments. Thank you!

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