Recently a friend asked me what I felt about my own dying.
I fluctuate between three responses to the idea of my own dying and death: fear, acceptance, hope. Several of my poems deal with the threshold between acceptance and hope, but I know many people are allergic to poetry so I will risk repeating myself.
The fear relates more to the dying than to the death and it relates more to the effect of the multiple sclerosis. Because I cannot turn over at night, I have to take a pill to get to sleep which doesn’t work gradually. Rather, I am lying there fully awake and then I am still fully awake but it is morning and in the missing bit I must have fallen asleep. I have become anxious that I will stay awake all night. So I lie there, virtually in rigor-mortis; sometimes my legs feel as if I’ve been standing in a glacial lake; it is pitch black and I am waiting. On the worst night of all I felt as if I was already dead: ram-rod stiff, bitterly cold, it was dark with an eternity of waiting. It was only the cat’s warmth against my shoulder that reassured me that I was still alive.
Even after the bad night, the fear had diminished in daylight, but I still live with its residue.
My usual state is acceptance. I have no trouble with the physical body being mulched into the earth and coming up next spring as grass, explored by birds and insects; the minerals and salts of my body becoming part of the world as long as our planet exists.
This idea of the cycle of existence has been very much part of belief systems for centuries. For me, it was Loren Eiseley who pointed out that Christianity changed our thinking by introducing a linear perspective. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. A human life is the middle and we know nothing definite about the beginning or the end. Shakespeare describes it as “undiscovered country” which still suggests co-ordinates of place and time. We have no language to describe the unknown and have to resort to the familiar.
All the great religions have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to find words to describe this unfamiliar experience for which we have no words, the experience that our human life is but the middle and that the beginning and the end go on for ever.
I have experienced moments when time has seemed to stop, or there has been another dimension of light, or that I am so much in the present moment however mundane the activity I am engaged in, that I am fully focused. These moments of awareness are not something which I do myself; they always feel like gifts.
From my own experiences and what I have read about other peoples’ I have glimpses that this life is not all there is. The acceptance is always with me, occasionally darkened by fear and, more often brightened by hope.
In the days when the earth was flat
was it considered limitless
infinity backwards and forwards?
Or did the sailor set out
into the unknown
unsure whether he would arrive
at an ultimate boundary?
As I approach my final years,
I am facing the same ambiguity:
where is my beginning, where is my end?
My ancestral beginning
is lost in the mists of time.
Of my caesarean birth
I have only a fictionalised account;
my mother's pain
and my own outrage
at the abrupt eviction
have been edited out.
As for my ending:
like the sailor venturing
into the unknown, I do not know
whether I will achieve a landfall.