The Birth of Death

Although I find the expression “passed away” a weak and distasteful euphemism for the term “died”, I admit that I myself have used it many times, when deep down I’d much rather have not. Hard to say whether I acquiesced for the comfort of my audience, or because on some level I’m a coward and lack the integrity to put my money where my mouth is.

This needs to stop.

I am so weary of the ways in which this current, first-world culture regards death. I am weary of the way in which we neglect the subject. I am weary of the trepidation with which most of us approach death. It drives me nuts. No, I take that back. It doesn’t just drive me nuts. You know what? It makes me angry. Seriously.

Here is the point at which I must express myself through a mild rant….

Do we not all understand how cemeteries pollute the air and waste people’s time with all that goddam lawn-mowing and weed-whacking? Do we not understand how embalming is horrible for the environment, and how it will not keep your loved one ‘as is’ unto eternity? And why do we just assume once a loved one is dead, that their body must be immediately whisked away from the premises, as if it was now a loathsome thing to be avoided?

You’d be surprised how many things around the experience of death are either taken for granted or are never even questioned in the first place.

Funny how you plan the shit out of everything in your life, yet when a family member dies, you’re all of a sudden thrust into the middle of an administrative vortex, making decisions with no prior information – and no bargaining power whatsoever. Death deserves as much planning as anything else. After all – this could well be one of the biggest ticket items of your life.

Depends on whether or not you’ve made some plans.

Once, while I was sick and confined to my bed for a few days, I set out on a little research project. I’d long had a list of unanswered questions which I could never justify carving out the time necessary to address. This was at the top of the list: Is it legal to be buried on your own property? There simply wasn’t enough online information at the time, so I found a couple of funeral directors and got them on the phone. I called different states, too. And I took notes. The consensus was “yes”.

When my boy was about eight years old, we’d had a conversation about death and where the bodies of dead people go. He’d accompanied me many times to the town cemetery on the hill, following along as I meandered through the headstones, matching up family members and imagining aloud the details of life back then. He’d understood that these were people just like the two of us, whose homes had been right here in Greenfield. He’d understood the concept of once-living people now lying in repose under the sod. And, as we’d seen a whole lot of dead animals at various levels of decomposition on the side of the road or even in our chicken run, none of this death talk was inherently unfamiliar to my son. In fact, I think it was precisely because he’d grown up like this – with a mom like me, and on a farm where creatures often die without warning – that he came to have his own feelings about death and what to do with a body once it was no longer living.

My young son told me that he himself wanted to be laid out in the woods. He told me that he should be put into a slight depression in the ground, and covered with leaf litter. I admired his thinking. We never wished to waste anything here; scraps always went to the chickens, paper and such went to the burn bin, and the resulting ashes were subsequently shoveled onto the garden or into the woods. (We called this method “going back to God”.) I told him how much I loved the idea, but that strangely, it was likely illegal. He protested adamantly, driven to the point of tears. He insisted it was the right way to put your body back into nature. He told me that it was the only way he wanted his body to end up. I calmed him by saying that I would do everything I could to make sure it would happen.

A dear friend of mine saw to his own burial in advance of his death. A craftsman and a farmer, he built his own casket and even dug the hole with his backhoe, right there on his property, not far from his house. In his mid-thirties he had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and after a couple of years it was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer. While he still had enough physical strength left, he set about to make his final arrangements. My life at that time was in Chicago, and he was then living with his wife and three children in the hills of upstate New York, so sadly I wasn’t able to be there. I heard he hosted quite a party. And afterwards, he began his decline in earnest. Then he died, was put into the casket he had made for himself, and was buried in the grave he’d dug. His friends backfilled the hole. Can you imagine anything more perfect? Me, I cannot.

I hold this man’s ending as an impeccable model of closure.

It seems simply crazy to me that we in the first world are so forthright about every last goddam detail of our lives, broadcasting our dramas on public platforms and rushing to share our every insight and opinion, and yet when it comes to the only experience which we all have in common – aside from being born – we are virtually silent as a collective. Sure, there are groups – there are always groups – who come together to discuss death and its related concerns – but as a society on the whole we are not very comfortable with the subject.

I’ve hosted a handful of Death Cafes. Just the idea that there is an international group founded simply for the purpose of providing places for people to convene and talk about death is proof enough that the need for such a forum exists. And yet still, even among the most progressive populations, this is just not a well-discussed topic.

In future, I mean to change this if I can.

Many years ago, after my first job playing music for essentially forgotten and dying people in the most low-budget of nursing homes, it occurred to me that many of these people were the last of their clan, and they faced dying alone. I began a little inquiry, asking the workers when people usually died – what time of the day or night – and how they went. Was someone there with them? (There is such a thing as “active dying” and health care professionals can usually tell when a person is entering that phase.) Almost every one of these residents died alone, many in the wee hours of the night. Few were ever accompanied by another human. I asked if there was such a job as sitting with someone when they died.

They told me that there was not.

Well, as it turned out, there actually was such an occupation. And while I had experienced a short moment of elation in thinking that I’d just invented the new vocation of “death doula”, I soon learned that there were folks who’d already navigated this terrain. Turned out a “death doula” was actually a thing. But there was a punchline: it wasn’t a thing for just anyone. It was a service available only to a privileged population. There was no money to pay someone to sit with a dying person in a poorhouse of elder care.

This is such a heartbreaking reality, and it’s long had me wondering what I might possibly do to help improve the situation. As I see it, the best contribution I can make at present is to share my thoughts on death and the dying.

I do believe that one day things will be different. That one day our culture will place more value on frank and open end-of-life discussions. But personally, I think it’s going to take many decades. And it’s going to take folks like me who are ready to help start the conversation.

So friends, please consider this post to be the birth of a discussion on death.

Numbers Game

When people say “Age is just a number”, I usually don’t respond. Because I do not agree. And in a mere few seconds I cannot possibly convey the degree to which I do not.

Age is represented by a number, and that number tells a whole hell of a lot about you, no matter how you spin it. You can have the most youthful, energetic presence in the world, but still – seventy-five is not thirty-five. Period.

I don’t mean to sound snarky. But then again, maybe I do. Sometimes snark is what it takes to get folks’ attention. And if you’re willing to go there for a moment, I invite you to see things from my perspective….

Crazy 45 was of the opinion that, like a battery, a person is born with a fixed amount of energy which is depleted over the course of a lifetime. For as much as we laughed about his ridiculous theory, the basic phenomenon which he was trying to express is real. We are physical machines living in a physical world, and physical shit degrades. You simply cannot do the same things at the age of eighty that you could at the age of forty. Everyone has a shelf life.

Numbers are the benchmarks by which we mark change – good or bad. We need to know where we stand in order to know what needs improvement.

Back in the day – say in my mid to late twenties, when my body was in its finest natural form – I began working out because I wanted to finally present to the world as the badass I’d always secretly felt myself to be (in my school years I’d always carried a few extra pounds and I wanted to change that). I hefted my own equipment numerous times a week and never accepted help from anyone, it was a point of pride. I would routinely lift very heavy amps and keyboards in and out of the trunk of my car with a good degree of ease.

At the time, I’d thought that working out in a gym was helping me to maintain that strength (as well as helping to define my arms for sleeveless stage wear), however the truth is that it probably didn’t matter all that much. I was young; I was already fit and strong. I coulda carried that stuff around all day with the same amount of effort whether I worked out or not. And regarding the weight, although I might’ve lost a few pounds thanks to aerobic activity, for the most part in my twenties I stayed within the same five-pound range. And if you were to have told me what my new acceptable baseline weight would be several decades hence – I woulda thought you were crazy. I am now what I would’ve termed then as huge. But numbers change. New normals emerge….

Skip ahead a few decades, and I have actual proof on paper of the benefits of exercise. These days it seems my exercise is in some ways making up for the natural vitality of youth. I can see an advantage which I did not in my twenties. Numbers, apparently, do matter. And it seems the older one gets, the more they matter.

I’ve had an emotional rollercoaster of a ride over the past year – figuring out what would define me after mom duties ceased, wondering how on earth I was going to make a living post-child support while also dealing with depression and panic attacks – and so my health-related numbers have been all over the place. My blood pressure has historically always been good, so when it spiked this past year, my doc was concerned. What was to blame? Had anything changed? Yes. I was incredibly stressed. I’d begun to drink a lot, and I’d ceased working out almost entirely on account of an injury. She pointed out how different all of my numbers had been when I was working out – and how they’d all gone up since. It was shocking.

And so I began a restored campaign to take back my health. After a few months of greatly reduced alcohol intake, an almost vegetarian diet and routine exercise, my numbers – chiefly blood pressure and cholesterol – were back within the normal range. My arms didn’t look like the ones I’d enjoyed in my youth, no matter how many pounds I could curl (in my current natural state I cannot lift the weight I could two decades ago, proving that age really does affect our latent physiology), but the numbers now definitively proved that exercise was indeed making a difference.

The older I get, the more important these markers become, because my biological reality reminds me that my life is on the physical downslope now, and I mean to optimize my experience for the remaining trajectory. Please, don’t protest. It will likely be an enjoyable time, and there may be wonderful adventures still ahead, but I am on the other side of the hill. Quite likely you are, too.

Youth is something of a guarantee that things will be on track for optimum health (if one doesn’t struggle with eating disorders, substance issues, disease or depression – those situations change the game entirely). If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you’re most likely in a nice, stable zone. Trust me. If you’re there now, don’t fret too much about improving yourself. Nature is on your side for the moment. But add on a few years, and you’ll have to re-define what being “normal” means. It might mean ten or twenty extra pounds. It might mean higher blood pressure or increased cholesterol. It might even mean that getting through winter seems to take more out of you than it used to. And eventually, if you want to keep those numbers healthy, you’ll have to take some action.

We all like to think that our looks aren’t the most important part of the life equation. That it’s our quality of life that comes first. But it’s a vain world in which we live; our looks are inherent to our quality of life. Our mental health – our very outlook on life from the moment we rise out of bed in the morning – is very much defined by how we feel – and look. It’s been said that Queen Elizabeth I had all of the mirrors in her chambers removed as she began to look older. Wisely, she did not wish to waste her precious energy in fretting about the heartbreak of the inevitable.

In my recent trip back home to Chicago I visited a few nightclubs and heard some bands play. I wondered, as I looked out at a sea of aging musicians and concertgoers, just how were these folks all feeling about their aging process? I saw men who dyed their hair just like I do, and this time I give them a pass. Cuz there is no doubt: gray hair signals to the world your true age; it implies a certain feebleness and infirmity. (Sure, there are a few lucky souls whose looks are even improved by silver tresses, but they are in the minority.) And we live in an ageist culture here in the US. You get old, and the younger population can’t help but see you as somewhat irrelevant (if they even see you, that is). Argue against this if you like, but I believe it to be true.

Having been gone for almost twenty years and returning without benefit of having seen these folks in the interim, I noticed the changes more keenly. We were all older. It was almost shocking. I’d left when I was young, and I’d returned in late middle-age to a roomful of men whom I once knew but now could no longer recognize at a glance. For me, every visit, every party or reception required I make a little internal adjustment at the new countenances of my old friends. I couldn’t help but wonder if all of them were doing the same for me. After all, I wasn’t thirty-eight either.

Believe what you want, but I assert that getting old and remaining physically attractive are directly at odds with each other. And I think we can all agree that youth and beauty signal power and relevance to the world in a deeply visceral way. On some level, I think most older people pretend that we aren’t truly aging (because in our minds we still feel young) or at least we try to downplay it. Hell, I know I’m still pretending. And I might yet give in and choose the needle. I might. Why not? I color my hair….

In assessing the path ahead of me, I plan on having one more relatively active decade left. And I mean to play the game of life as best I can. My feelings on this may change as the years pass, but at this writing I am committed to doing what I can to temper the reality of looking older as best I can.

I know my age, and every infirmity related to it. And even if I should choose to lie about it – the numbers definitely won’t.