Growth, Change, Awareness
When I was a boy I didn’t like onions. Didn’t like mushrooms or olives either, but now I like them all. Tastes change. Other things change with age too - like fears. I remember being struck by fear the first time I encountered a dead cat. I was walking alone along a stream bed hunting for frogs and turtles to catch when I smelled something bad. Looking around carefully for the source of the awful odor, I noticed the cat’s head with parts of its jaw and teeth exposed in a hideous expression. It must have been hit by a car on the roadway above where I had left my bike. I could feel the trauma of its death still hanging in the air. Maggots crawled under what fur remained on the rotting corpse. It looked and smelled horrifying and I climbed out of the gully in a panic. I had seen dead frogs, turtles and snakes often, but not a larger mammal like a cat. I had petted cats and now had had a close encounter with a dead one. It struck me hard that everything dies and that some day I would too. That’s what I feared.
We all know this at an intellectual level sure as we’re born, but we usually avoid thinking about it, especially when we’re young. I’d been to funerals for grandparents and seen them laid out in caskets, but with so much make-up on faces and hands folded unnaturally around rosary beads, they looked more like mannequins than humans. That cat delivered me death’s unvarnished reality at an emotional level.
While a college student I worked as an orderly at a Massachusetts state hospital on the second shift. It was a chronic-care facility and people didn’t get better and go home. They only left when they died. When one did, part of my job was to wash the body, attach a toe tag, wrap it in a shroud, and take it down to the morgue. My first week there I had three. Luckily I was partnered with an experienced orderly because I was freaked. After a few months though, I got used to it. I had taken care of some patients for months as they got closer to their deaths and sometimes I discussed the subject it with them. I played cribbage with them. I met their relatives. I fed them, lifted them into bed, changed them, joked with them. Some died serenely. Others were consumed by fear. The difference was in how they perceived their deaths. After they passed, it was plain to me that they still existed somewhere, just not in the bodies I knew. As I took their empty bodies to the morgue where the undertaker would pick them up, I realized they had ceased to be people - they were more like abandoned houses no one lived in anymore.
Death can still scare me, but not my own. What I fear is the pain I’ll feel if a loved one should die before I do. There’s nothing I can do about that potentiality, so when it intrudes I put it out of mind. After two and a half years on that orderly job, some of death’s mystery dissipated. Awareness that it’s a certainty for each of us doesn’t diminish life - just the opposite actually. It enriches life. I don’t want to know when death is coming, but I’m better when I live like it could come soon.
Out for a sunset drive in my truck the other night, my wife and I drove up to the top of a hillside cemetery in Waterford and parked. The sun had set and we looked down the hill irregular lines of stones with hills beyond in fading twilight. A full moon came up and the air was crisp. Being in a cemetery at night used to scare me but I’m comfortable with it now. I guess that’s because I know now that death isn’t the end. It’s only the end of a stage and the beginning of another. Time was I had doubts about whether that was really true, but those doubts are gone now. I don’t feel the need to convince others because we all have to come to it in our own way. So don’t worry: I’m not going to preach. I only mention it because it changes the way I look at things - not just death, but almost everything. I don’t doubt anymore that there will be something beyond, but sometimes I forget it. Sometimes for hours I forget it, but then one thing or another will remind me. It might be a baby, a sunset, gently-falling snow, a smile - many different things can spark me to know it again. The duration of those forgetful periods is getting shorter. I hope there’ll come a time this side of the grave when the awareness is constant.