I’m listening to Iron and Wine. It is a little depressing.
It isn’t depressing because of the death aspect. The spreading of ashes around the yard doesn’t frighten me a bit. In fact, I am uncommonly comfortable with the concept of death. Maybe that is in part due to the losses that I have endured already, and the many people that I have “laid to rest”. Maybe that is also due, in part, to the times that I have had to face my own mortality.
It isn’t something everyone faces. Many people don’t sign the pre-operative forms that express that you may not come out of this procedure but are consenting, nonetheless. Many people don’t hear the diagnoses that make you wonder if you will still be around next week or next year or next decade. Many people don’t get the calm, and totally bullshit, speech about how “you needn’t worry because it might be nothing, but we need to make certain”. (If they really believed it was nothing, they wouldn’t need to make certain of anything, obviously. They do think it is something. They don’t refer you to specialists for normalcy.)
So, I’ve stood by as they lowered friends and family into the ground, and I’ve known the threat of death enough times to know that I don’t want to be put in the ground, but scattered to the wind. But the thing that makes me a bit depressed about the Naked As We Came song, is that I haven’t really imagined scattering someone around the yard, or them scattering me. My visions of death are rather sterile, and not at all attached to the presence of persons loved or who love me. I always seem to imagine my end in ways that connect with bright lights and cold metal tables, and not with the loving gestures of saying goodbyes and sending on those whom we have known with grace and beauty—casting them into the universe in their new ashen form, and in doing so, letting them go.
I remember after my friend Charles died, I spent a lot of time around his place and his family. There was something comforting about being near them, and they were just a bunch of good guys, in general. One day Pops, Charles’ dad, blurted out, “Catch!” He tossed me a little box wrapped in brown paper and I caught it.
“That’s him,” he said, almost too matter-of-factly.
But it was very matter of fact. It was a fact that this little box of ash held all the matter that was Charles. Charles + fire = this little six pound box. Holding him in my hands was not really all that significant. It had been significant to hold him before, but now all passion and connection and feeling was lost.
I’m not cold and crass in the ways that that statement might seem to express. I said my goodbyes as he lay dying in the street…crying out to the sky with a voice so pained that it hardly seemed my own. Sometimes you feel pain in ways that make your own pain foreign to you. I have that experience a lot, actually. Probably because my childhood made me an expert at dissociation. I can stuff my pain into hidden places and not find it for ten or fifteen years.
But I digress…
So death is not the struggle—not the thing to fear or fight against. But the not having someone who scatters those ashes is a fear. Or maybe not a fear, per se, but more of an unfulfilled longing.
My dad recently chose to impose a DNR and remove medication from my mother. She is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s and has spent most of this year in a nursing facility. My dad cared for her for the past several years, but she is unable to communicate, and doesn’t always cooperate, so it became impossible for him to keep caring for her at home.
I watch him now (or listen to him, I suppose, since I haven’t seen him in a year) and I see the ways he mourns this loss, slowly and deliberately moving through a grief and a death that doesn’t seem to have an end. Alzheimer’s is brutal that way—it takes so long to bring about the end.
I see him care for her in ways that I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago. It wasn’t that they didn’t love one another. I think they always have on some level. There were worse times and better times in their relationship, for certain, but that is what you sign on for when you vow “for better or for worse”, right? But these last few years, watching him become her caretaker and watching her slip from adult to teenager to toddler in her mindset and capabilities, I have seen something beautiful. I have seen a kind of love that my parents never allowed one another in their younger, more prideful, more strategic periods of living. Because when it all falls apart the need for one another becomes so great that all the other things sort of disintegrate. The need to be right, or to dominate, or have things be fair, or to maintain your autonomy, or any number of things that we insist upon in our relationship, all faded away for them and they became wholly devoted to one another. And some of that devotion was borne out of the reversal of their roles and an ability to show a side of themselves that was previously held in check or deterred in some way. My mom was always a control freak, until she lost control of her own mind. And my dad was always dependent by default because of that. And this period in their lives has flipped that relatedness on its head. My dad is the one in control and my mom is dependent upon him for all things. It allowed parts of them to be brought to life and strengthened their relationship, even while it slowly brings an end to their relating to one another.
And, while I don’t wish a slow, debilitating death upon anyone, least of all myself, I find myself envious of their experience in some ways. The romanticism of giving up everything for the one you love. The commitment to keep fighting and keep loving someone else through the thick and thin of life and relationship. The beauty of a history that can be passed on and can create legacy where once there were just a couple of lives. These things are the things that my life still hasn’t held.
And it isn’t that I am desperate for those things now. I’m not. I’m rather resistant to the idea of being tied to someone or not having autonomy or dealing with the complicatedness of joining lives. But there is something about having those things in my old age, in the spreading of my ashes around the yard, that seems very desirable, and the knowledge that I do not have that is what seems depressing, at present.
Of course, my beautiful daughter would scatter me to the wind with love and blessings and grace. I won’t just get dumped in the trash, thankfully. I’m sure that all the goodbyes spoken and felt will be beautiful and loving and good. But, that care and love and building of a home together are still such lovely ideals.
And here we have it again. The life of contradiction. The dichotomous being that I am.
I want to be alone, but I want to build a life with another. And you can’t really do both, I don’t think. I love the “both/and” option, but I don’t know that it is always a possibility. I can’t really avoid relationship and also have an ash scatterer in my life. And that is also depressing. Because it means I need to choose. And choosing means summoning a bravery that I’m not sure I currently have at my disposal. Because both options require what I haven’t yet got. One requires the opening of the self to the risk of being hurt and damaged in new ways. One requires giving up the ideals and the futures that Naked As We Came offers, and letting go of the ash scattering love. Both seem too difficult to accomplish today.
They are too difficult to accomplish today.
And they were actually too difficult for any partners in history to accomplish in a day. I suppose that is a comfort. It took 45 years for my parents to find the place where this transformation happened and I could see their love in this new light, so it might take some time for anyone to develop this idyllic relationship.
Your ash scatterer doesn’t just magically appear, I suppose. They are forged over time.
That seems a bit less depressing. That offers a bit more hope.
Maybe I can still build a home…after I am ready to risk. Certainly not today. But maybe someday. Maybe soon.
Hopefully, before I become ash.