Like it or not, impending retirement has set in motion for me thoughts of the final retirement from this life as we know it: death.
Not that I haven’t already done considerable–willing and unwilling–dying along the way. “Dying to self” as some spiritual writers put it.
No doubt, to me, retirement itself is a kind of death—an ending to work life as I have known it.
And yet, since I am still alive (vertical and cogent, as I put it), it is equally an invitation—a mandate, honestly, if I wish not to be wasteful with my time and energy– to live fully whatever amount of both gifts I have left.
It’s the dying part I’m thinking about, and how, no matter how close we are to others, our thoughts about death and dying, in this culture of ours, tend to be hidden.
For lots of reasons, explicable and inexplicable—even to me, I’ve always pondered death.
I have no idea for sure, but perhaps a near-death incident when I was a toddler has marked me in ways that I’m not aware of consciously.
Once, when as a mother, I allowed my children to eat potato chips in the sight of their panicked grandmother, my mother finally “confessed” the reason for her repeated advice–pleading, almost, really–not to let them eat them.
As a toddler, I accompanied my parents on Sunday car outings. Kneeling between my parents on the front seat, I regularly faced the three elderly nursing home passengers in the back seat, joyfully interacting with them, enjoying their attention.
Seems as if on one particular outing they shared more than conversation. They shared their potato chips, one of which got caught in my throat.
When my frantic mother tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the chip, my father sped the car to the nearest hospital, at which point I was already blue. As the story goes, he was racing up the hospital stairs, carrying me in his arms, when suddenly, the chip dislodged itself.
Fast forward a couple of years, when, no longer a toddler, but still a preschooler, I clearly remember the following incident.
My aunt and uncle took me to visit some friends who grew some kind of little seeded berries, which they gave me to eat. Somehow, at some point in the eating, I knew that I could not account for one seed. I hadn’t consciously swallowed it that I was aware, but I knew it had inadvertently gone into my mouth without coming out again.
I clearly had been taught not to swallow any inedible seeds or something terrible would happen. Apparently the most terrible thing I could think of was dying.
Not wanting to get into trouble for mistakenly swallowing the seed, I didn’t tell anyone about the missing seed incident/my impending death–not my aunt or uncle, nor back home, not my parents.
But as if I were saying it to myself this morning, I clearly still know and hear myself saying, “They will be sad when I die.”
Could it be that I connected the potato chip incident with the missing seed? Could it be that under four years old, I knew what it meant to die?
In any case, that evening, when my mother brushed my teeth, guess what? That blessed unaccounted for seed, which undoubtedly had become lodged between my teeth, suddenly popped out.
Hooray! I thought to myself. I’m not going to die.
And I never–not then, not any time before they died–told my parents about what transpired with that “stuck seed,” not even when I learned about the “stuck potato chip.”
…Oh, an interestingly, in connection with the potato chip story, my mother told me that the person after whom I had been named was one of the women who sat in the back seat of the car the day that the potato chip got lodged. (Ironically, could she have been the one to give me the near-fatal chip? I wondered, but I never asked.)
And of my name, of which I never was a big fan, I especially did not like the meanings I would find when I did name searches as a teenager: barbaric, strange.
But more recently, I do like the updated, more PC meaning: mysterious.
Mysterious. I always did and do like mysteries. I like pondering philosophical questions. I like wondering. I like being introspective. I like thinking about not only life, but death.
That’s one reason I became a hospice volunteer. That’s one reason I am grateful for the time in retirement to befriend death.
…It’s the dying, the losing independence, that, if I’m honest, I fear more. And that is why I am grateful for working with others to better understand, prepare for, accommodate to the future that is unfolding.
What mysteries of life and death do you find yourself now pondering?