Last week, Chris forgot his lunch at work and I drove it out to him. I have to pass a cemetery to get to his workplace from home, only I never noticed it before.
I noticed it this time. And in that moment, I had a very small panic attack, something that has been happening more and more often.
These are not debilitating panic attacks. Someone sitting next to me, having a conversation with me even, wouldn’t notice. They manifest as a tightening in my chest and a fluttering in my stomach and a sudden mental picture of my death.
I don’t see my body. I don’t picture my funeral or casket. Nothing so tangible.
It’s just a moment of no longer being part of this earth, no longer being alive. I don’t like it.
Death has always been an abstract idea to me. I couldn’t imagine my soul no longer inhabiting my body. Maybe this is a symptom of getting older, feeling one’s mortality so profoundly. Or maybe I’m just really screwed up in the head. I hope I’m not psychic.
The truth is, although I may have a lot of complaints about my body: too flabby, bad hair days, I don’t like my nose, I’m not photogenic, I do really kind of like my body. And I like the things having a body allows me to experience. The idea of my body rotting in a grave or (and I prefer this) being burned to ashes isn’t very appealing to me. I know that I won’t be in it anymore. I won’t feel pain. I probably won’t even care by then. But I do now.
There are millions of people and probably even more animals that once walked this planet thinking and feeling and living and they’re all gone. They cease to exist, suddenly, out of nowhere. Because even if you’ve suffered with a fatal disease for a while and you know it’s coming, when it happens, it is out of nowhere.
My step-grandmother died of cancer. She lived with it for a couple years, and by the last few months was bedridden. In the last few weeks, she mostly slept and barely spoke. We all knew it was coming. Still, I didn’t expect it to actually happen.
I was newly 16 years old and my father and I were in Buffalo visiting because we knew there wasn’t much time left to say goodbye. I woke up one morning to find everyone in the house standing in her bedroom, so I joined them. I stood in the back by the doorway and the Hospice nurse told me my grandmother had slipped into a coma in the middle of the night and wasn’t going to wake up. I stood there in stoic silence until the nurse said my grandmother’s heart had stopped and it was official.
Tears welled up in my eyes and a lump rose in my throat. I choked it down, held in the tears, picked up the phone that was next to me and called my mother to tell her what happened. My father and I would be coming home to get her for the funeral.
The death wasn’t violent or unexpected. It was quite peaceful, frankly. But now, 17 years later, I still remember it like it happened yesterday. I will never forget it. I’m unsure how to process it, that she was there and then she wasn’t. And I know I don’t ever want to not be there like that. Not ever.
I’m not afraid of what happens to the spirit after death. I expect any one of many possibilities: some form of heaven, reincarnation, remaining earth-bound and moving through a parallel dimension, watching the living go about their lives. Or something entirely different. Maybe the Egyptians had it right and if I have a heart lighter than a feather, I will become a star.
But this body won’t be with me. And it’s served me well. I don’t want to forget it, but I also don’t want to think about it.
The idea of death, to me, is as amazing as the Big Bang theory: that once there was nothing and then there was a universe. But how could there be nothing? And I mean truly nothing. Because in order for the Big Bang to be true, there wasn’t even empty space. A “void,” as it’s often described, implies there was empty space. But there wasn’t. There was no existence. There was nothing. Wrap your minds around that! Think about it for a minute, and if your brain remains intact, keep reading.
I could probably write an entire blog – not just a post or two – about astronomy and the theories that go with it. It’s an amazing thing. It’s incomprehensible. And so is imagining one’s own death. Because I exist in my own mind. And if my mind, my Self, ceases to exist, then so do I. And that’s just not acceptable.