It was a couple of years ago when my friend and I sat on the porch and talked about “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” He’s mostly retired, has a garden and a goldfish pond, and is very much engaged in relationships with family and friends. Somehow it was easy to talk about our lives, the brevity of them, and to be at peace with the idea that one day we would each be part of the earth in a different form.
Since that day on the porch, my oldest child got married, my younger brother died, and two of my favorite people on the planet are slowly dying.
I like the married couple, and I’m trying to be a good mother‑in‑law.
by Gika Rector
My brother’s life was shorter and tougher than anyone would want, but he seemed to have made peace with much of it, and was spending time doing what he loved to do. He died suddenly, apparently in his sleep.
The part about the people who are slowly dying is hard to sort out. They’ve lived rich, full lives, and are leaving the world a better place because of their presence. Certainly they’ve enriched my life in lots of ways. The slowness of their dying means that we’ve already lost much of who they were and how they interacted with the world. Their brains just don’t work the way they once did. Short term memory is gone, and odd fixations have emerged.
They mostly look the same, but every now and then I’m startled by how old they look, and wonder how strangers might see them. How could a stranger know the intelligence and passion and drive that once lived here? Could a stranger see the curiosity and dedication and learning? Probably not.
One of them is quite confused; the other depressed, perhaps even suicidal. How can this be? Hard to watch, and hard to understand. The one who is confused is trying hard to work it out. Trying hard to get organized, have important meetings, and prepare for a trip. The other is quite unhappy, resentful of the situation, struggling to find a way to make things different.
There are still moments of ease and clarity, warmth and good will. Intellectually, I can see that this is a time of withdrawal, winding down, and letting go. Emotionally, I’m wondering why it has to be so challenging and why I can’t “make it all better.”
My front-porch friend once said that we each choose our own way to die. I’ve puzzled over that concept for a really long time. Is it true? If so, what does it really mean? My best guess is that how we live is a part of how we die. Are we curious and present? Are we responsible? Do we look outside ourselves for someone or something to take the blame or to fix it? Are we response‑able? Do we resist the reality of our living and dying? Does that take us away from our purpose on the planet?
Do we have a purpose? I’ve heard and considered a number of answers to that last question. We’re here to love one another, or to learn to love one another. We’re co-creators. We’re here to be fully human.
I like that last one. We’re here to be fully human. Another meaty morsel from that same friend. And again, something to puzzle over for a long time. To be fully human means so many different things. To live, to breathe, to laugh, to love, to die—maybe slowly or maybe quickly. And perhaps the best way to be fully human is to experience the richness of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The fullness and the wonder. As sad as I am to watch dear ones wind down their lives, I’m equally grateful for the richness and grace that their lives have added to mine. I think they know that, and I hope it brings a little richness and grace to their current experience.
And for all of us, my favorite quote, from a stone somewhere in India: lift your heart, open to grace.