THINKING ABOUT DEATH SO… THIS IS IT?
May 29, 2020. I woke up this morning blinded by a slash of spring sunlight.
I got up and walked out towards the sun on the balcony. I sucked in the fresh air in a big gulp. I looked own at Walden pond and watched two large families of Canada Geese putter about along the water’s edge. The doe and fawn that visited daily in winter, often curling up in the snow below, wandered by and nibbled on the bark of a tree that appears be their treat, and the main reason for their frequent visits to our condo. The warblers are back, their radiant yellow breasts flit by like rockets, while a lone hawk swoops for some unknown prey. No sign of the coyote and her kit today.
I see the magic in the environment better than I ever have before. I know things now. I see how tightly woven I am into fabric of all I see. I am linked inseparably by over 4 billion years swimming in the evolutionary stream. I am the environment!
So out of that first Big Bang where my energy swirled, churned, and boiled and finally coalesced to forge my little sliver of a life. I am in awe of the magnitude of existence. As Mark Twain said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Yes, billions of years. I marvel at how long we have been at work. How long did it take to evolve a gall bladder, my tonsils, my kidney? Why did evolution leave out the one gene which evolved to protect my kidney from developing cysts? At a road cut through the Niagara escarpment in the Bruce Peninsula I marvel at the tick tock of time, and layering, beginning 415 million of years ago in multiple distinctive geological formations – Lockport dolomite, Queenstone shales, one after another of millions of years of sea bottom deposits.
Where did this grain of sand on my beach come from? How long did it take to get here? How was it originally formed?
There’s this and there’s that. There’s a billion years and there’s a life, there’s it and there’s me. I am just a grain of sand. Why did I matter? How does one see one’s significance in this blink of existence?
I’m shaken from my reverie by the shriek of an ambulance. It pulls up to our condo entrance. I look around say aloud. “So this is it?” I wonder, whose turn it is today.
As I approach my mid 80s I find I am thinking about death a lot, especially cooped up during this pandemic. I know it can happen any day and it will be most likely be by surprise. Each day is another blessing.
But is it unhealthy to think about death? Numerous studies have some surprising conclusions. One revealed that thinking about death makes you healthier…. and happier. The reality was noted, ‘that when we actually think about death, it actually elevates our mood and makes us happier’.
In another study, participants wrote about death each day for one week, and the researcher noted, “… participants, have been reporting lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self- esteem and increased intrinsic motivation”.
On a generational study of self-esteem, I noted that the teen years are at the lowest level of self-esteem (especially girls). Self-esteem rises steadily into the 40s and 50s, till at around age 80, then self-esteem plummets to below the teen years. It’s not surprising.
It’s a matter of… is that it? Depression and lack of self-esteem are chronic conditions of the elderly.
I’ve learned to ignore when I am talked over, dismissed, walked over, ignored, simply because I am old. No one in our culture wants to hear the political opinions of a senior citizen, or on any subject, for that matter. All we do is show up to vote. I do fight the emptiness. But it is brief when I reflect on my history. I am buoyed by my memories. My memories ward off depression and loss of self-esteem.
As the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, wrote: “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”
I am enriched by my memories. At times of the day I have memory flashes of incidents, people, family, that I haven’t remembered or thought about in over 70 years. I suddenly remembered today at the age of 7 or 8, 50 running barefoot down through a cedar forest on the face of the Lake Ontario shoreline at Fairport Beach (now Pickering), soaking in the distinctive odour of a cedar forest, and feeling the soft crunch of drying cedar fronds underfoot. I remember minute by minute, the hours in hospital hoping for a healthy baby, having already lost one son, Joshua, and twin boys who were still born. Lindsey’s birth was cause for sheer elation. Dozens of long forgotten memories tumble out. My stories of my family growing up, of my travel adventures alone on the road, of schools, colleagues and students, stories of teaching and learning.
Joan Didion mused “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. Yes! “Narrative is a primary act of mind.” (Barbara Hardy). As important as it is for children to hear or read stories, it is important for the elderly to tell their stories. As Catherine Bateson expressed it, “Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories”. They erupt out of me.
I have been telling stories ever since I began teaching, but only now think of myself as a storyteller. As one student from the early 1960s at Richmond hill high school wrote on my Facebook recently: “Jerry, your stories have always fascinated me, since way back in grade 9 geography class at RHHS! Well I remember tales of you sleeping in the Taj Mahal, adventures on the kibbutz in Israel etc. Absolutely magical for a young girl who had never even left the province.”
The psychologist, Jerome Bruner opened my eyes to the fact that argument and story are two ways of knowing: “two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality… a good story and a well-formed argument are different, natural kinds. Arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their life-likeness.”
I told stories as I taught, and now I have written up and posted my stories as they bubble up from me on the internet. Students from decades ago and students from my most recent years of teaching at York have found my blog or my Facebook page where I post my stories. Dozens respond with comments like these: ”I truly hope you know the joy you continue to bring to everyone you touch!” Russell wrote. “Thank you for sharing your life’s journey with all of us!”
In response to a recent story, super cool Frank, a student from my last class at York wrote… “You’re a gentleman Jerry, and an inspiration to every living being you’ve come across.” And colleague, Sharon Moss commented: “You’ve impacted so many lives, how could you not celebrate?! Your experiences remind me of a Hopi quote, ‘The one who tells the stories rules the world!’”
It is stone cold silent on Walden pond. I whistle softly to assure myself that I am still alive. How glorious to be alive! To have lived this life. An integral part of the web of life I behold. I turn to the sun and close my eyes. The sun dries my tears and washes my face. I realize my life now is crystallized in memory.
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