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THE FINAL DEADLINEWhat Death Has Taught Me About Life
By Chris R. Glaser
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 Chris R. Glaser
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Friendly Deadline
You have more dead friends than Jessica Fletcher," a longtime friend once told me, referring to the Maine mystery writer of the Murder She Wrote television series. He was dead on, so to speak. I have so many friends on "the other side" that, at times, crossing over seems friendlier than it once did. At other times death seems terrifying, especially if it might be premature or "my own fault" or worse, before fulfilling some dream or vision. "I'd rather be waiting to die than waiting to live," I once wrote to myself. What I meant was that too often we postpone life, as if there were no deadline.
As a writer and editor, I have come to experience deadlines as friendly. I don't mean friendly in the sense of "soft" deadlines, but friendly in the knowledge that such and such a time requires having accomplished the goal of finishing an article, a book, or "putting to bed" an issue of a magazine. Most editors know that if you assign a writer an article with no deadline you are less likely to receive the article at all, unless the writer herself imposes her own deadline. So why not view death as the final deadline, one that insists we "get it" or "get it done" (whatever "it" is) during our lifetime?
As the ultimate deadline, death has taught me much about life. Death is an inscrutable, puzzling, and even stern Zen master ready to teach me whenever I am ready to learn. Death is a spiritual director for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, hearts to feel and minds to know. Death is the friendly opposition on whose rough headstone we hone our blade of life—a defining edge, as it were. Death is a soul-friend who shadows us all our lives and will be there with us at the end. My spiritual training and experience keep me mindful of all the ways by which God and the universe unveil what is vital—life-giving—even death itself.
Our religious traditions often attempt to shield us from death, promising eternal life, denying or demeaning physical existence, viewing earthly life simply as a "test" for "the real thing"—whether that real thing is some grander, heavenly existence, or what remains after we are delivered from the illusion of the material world. Death is variously viewed as a moral, natural, or necessary evil, a punishment for original sin or for thinking negative thoughts, a passageway to the kingdom of heaven or Nirvana, a resurrection or rebirth, or a deliverance from rebirth. "Go toward the light," has become a cliché in our time. I myself have written of death as a threshold.
But to write of death as a threshold implies a doorway and a door, a door closed or slammed in the face of all we know and leave behind. Beyond what we know lie belief and faith, valuable resources in life. But life is more than belief and faith: life is here and now, day by day, love and hate, pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, success and failure. Existentialism has served as a corrective to our complex methods of denial that we each must die—and thus also a denial that we each must live, now. Nihilism and the pseudo-nihilism embraced by culturally alternative black-clothed, mostly young people (nihilism as "style") appear to embrace the opposite: that we must die, now, in the midst of life—that our lives, in a sense, must be infected or infested with death, that whatever we accomplish is somehow diminished or defeated by death (So "why bother?").
My spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen believed that the fear of death leads to many if not most of our personal and societal ills. Using Jungian insight, influenced by James Hillman, he spoke of "befriending" death. So I write in the pages that follow of death as a friendly spiritual guide, a kindly if awesome teacher about what is vital, important, and ultimate. Death's lessons for me may echo its lessons for you, or bring to mind other lessons that your death experience has given you. Just as schools may give credit for what is called "life experience," so death experience may serve as an accredited course in the spiritual life, but only if we attend its lectures, study its texts, and reflect on its applications to life.
While writing this book I was invited to lead a workshop at a progressive men's spirituality conference. I was aware that working on this book had dredged up all kinds of grief, not just about death, but about life. I had had a dream in which I was working in a morgue, conducting autopsies of incomplete bodies that came in cardboard clothing boxes. I told my dream to a therapist friend whom I periodically meet for lunch, and I asked him what he thought of it. "Sounds like it has something to do with whatever motivation is prompting you to write this book," he said simply. Thus I was eager to hear the presentation on grief of a plenary speaker at the men's conference. But the speaker's talk did not connect to my experience, though I so very much wanted it to do so. On a feeling level, he made me vaguely uncomfortable—not because of the subject matter, but because he reminded me of a member of a church I served of whom we used to joke, "If so-and-so comes to visit you, you know you're dying." She was the Emmeline Grangerford of our congregation. You might recall that character from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the fourteen-year-old girl who wrote poems for the dead, often arriving at the death-site before the undertaker. As this presenter at the men's gathering announced (proudly? self-satisfied?) that as a hospice worker he had accompanied four hundred people to their deaths, I wondered more at the health of his inclination to do so and his keeping count than at the number, then questioned my own inclination to write this book. Was I claiming some sort of "bragging rights" about the deaths I had experienced? Am I trying to gain sympathy for my "woundedness"? Am I just a grown-up version of Emmeline Grangerford, writing prosaic odes to the dead in a kind of morbid preoccupation?
The reader may judge otherwise, but I have acquitted myself because I know myself too well. First of all I have practiced the very human trait of avoidance, not so much of talking about death but of being around death itself. I've only been around death because that was my job, either as a friend, a family member, a volunteer, or a minister. I kept careful boundaries in terms of my involvement, even during the AIDS pandemic, to keep myself from possible morbidity or burnout by becoming overly focused on death and dying. And I never counted, especially my friends who died of AIDS, because my friends were not to be treated as statistics. Ironically, though the speaker on grief did not help me with my own, during a break I learned of the unusual death of yet another friend which I will recount in a later chapter. That story will stay with me longer than anything the hospice worker said. Grief lingers longer than any attempt at cure.
I was stunned by a friend in college who announced that he had just attended his first funeral. He said he came out of the church and saw the shining sun and blue sky as if for the first time, and smiled grandly and thankfully in response. The experience made him want to fully embrace life, the central teaching of death, in my view. My surprise came from hearing that he had never been to a funeral before. My parents never shielded me from death. As protective as my mother was of her children, I don't think it even occurred to her that children should not go to funerals.
My first encounter with death was that of my maternal grandmother when I was five or six years of age. It revealed the terror and grief death brings, as well as its homeliness and familiarity. We lived in California and most of our relatives lived in the heart of the United States: Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. The report of family deaths always seemed to come by way of early morning phone calls. For years, I came to associate early morning phone calls with death, especially if my mother picked up the phone, because she would stare blankly (pensively?) into space in silence for what seemed an eternity, attentive to the voice on the other end of the line, and my heart would begin beating rapidly as I awaited another pronouncement of death. My brother felt the same way, and when my mother would answer, "No, we already subscribe to the paper," or "No, we don't want to take another magazine," we would breathe sighs of relief, but then, annoyed, take my mother to task for frightening us by her deer-in-the-headlights look. She did not do this on purpose, though she did play a game that could be considered cruel by today's entirely too fastidious child-rearing standards. As a practical joker, she would play dead occasionally, and I remember panicking a little each time, fearing she was not pretending, shaking her vigorously to get her to move and laugh and open her eyes, which she invariably did. That is, of course, until the day she actually died. All of us were practical jokers in the family, perhaps (for us children at least) an Irish trait we inherited from our mother's side, sometimes a little sick or twisted but always intended in good fun. This also gave us leeway to withdraw a stinging remark by claiming, "I was only joking." So when my brother, the family's master of practical jokes, called to tell me decades later that Mom had passed away, my first inclination was to say, disbelievingly, "You're kidding." Fortunately, I held my tongue. But I am getting ahead of my story.
I can't recall whether the phone call about my grandmother came early in the morning, but I do remember my father being there (called home from work?) and my mother screaming her pain and her grief in their bedroom early one morning, collapsing, sobbing, on the bed and then the floor, cursing the doctors who had treated her mother, blaming herself for not being there. This prompted me to declare to my brother and sister in all five-year-old seriousness, "I'm going to kill those doctors when we get there!" They shamed me with the stock reply of elders that I was too young to know what I was talking about.
Over the years, my grandmother had been in and out of Mt. Carmel hospital, the Catholic hospital in her small hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas, with a mystery ailment so serious that my mother, the eldest of five, had to quit college to oversee the family. Her family was Baptist, not Catholic, but the nuns were very good to my grandmother and her brood of Protestant heretics. My grandmother had made a quilt for one of the sisters to show her gratitude for her care. My mother also seemed quite fond of the sisters, and, an inveterate reader, took their tips on Catholic writers to read at a time when Baptists and Catholics were condemning one another from their respective pulpits. The spiritual practice of the quilt recipient required her not to accept the gift directly, as I recall, but first to use it for a patient until the latter expired. "Expired" was a curious term for me as a child, making me wonder why we don't have "expiration dates" on us like packaged food, but less puzzling when contrasted with "inspired," that is, breath breathed into the first human being.
The immediate great regret of my mother was that she had not phoned her mother the Sunday before. Long-distance phone calls were a costly rarity in those days, especially for our family of modest income, and, of course, most were placed on weekends when rates were lowest. My father had persuaded her they couldn't afford it that week—I would think a source of recrimination toward him later, though I never heard my mother say that, then or ever, though she would explain this as the case matter-of-factly rather than accusingly, maybe recrimination enough. Perhaps, behind their closed bedroom door (always a sign that they were intimately engaged), or, more hidden still, within her heart, she did. I say that because I would have, but then, I've grown up in a litigious culture that blames everyone else but one's self. Ultimately, being a good Christian, she blamed herself. She was the one who moved so far away for the great love of her life, my dad, and she would have a taste of that experience when I did the same during the final years of her life. She would remind herself then (and be reminded by her sisters) that she had done that very thing long ago, and she would tell me so to assure me that it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, her love lasted longer than that of my "great love," but again, I'm getting ahead of my story.
No one in my family flew in those days, except my adventurous and independent Aunt Helen. We drove everywhere, and it was my father who did the driving, given that he was a professional sales driver for Weber's bread, and the fact that my mother never learned to drive. We drove the three-day trip to Kansas for the funeral, and I remember getting out of the car and seeing my Aunt Ann and Aunt Grace outside the family home to greet us, and the youngest, Aunt Grace, I think, embracing my mother, both in tears.
Being young and impressionable, I overheard a conversation about what I thought was a man's death at the funeral home, so when my father lifted me up to see my grandmother in her coffin, I did not recognize the kind and gentle stocky woman who had given me during my last visit a throw rug that I had liked; I thought it was the man they had talked about. Death does transform us into something not entirely like ourselves, which argues for the existence of something we cannot see: a soul, a spirit, an enlivening presence that makes us less recognizable as a corpse. But maybe such argument is yet another way we have of distancing ourselves from the deaths of those we love, like our need to dress them up and make them up to disguise their loss of life's color, as if about to awake and fix us Swedish pancakes, as my grandmother used to do. Viewings and visitations and wakes are less frequent now, and bodies are being cremated rather than being encountered, so we can remember them alive rather than dead. In my view, this does a disservice to our friend Death trying to tell us something. During a period in which I was considering my own cremation without a viewing, a friend who is a Catholic priest told me he wants to see me dead when I die, so he can say goodbye to the friend he loved.
It was not to be cremation for my grandmother. No, this was in the days when the casket was brought to the house, and so she lay there in the living room surrounded by flowers. My mother lifted the thin veil draped over the open casket so each of us children might touch Grandma's hand one last time. "See how soft her skin is," my mother said, which it was, though I didn't really want to touch her, and undoubtedly wanted to wash my hands afterward as if death might be catching. I was too young to appreciate the metaphor of the thin veil between us and death. My grandmother's body was there overnight, though I don't know if there was a round-the-clock vigil as I would later see in the movies, replete with candles and prayers. I do think the coffin lid was closed, tucking Grandma in for the night.
On a much later visit to her grave in the cemetery, my grandfather, her husband, who lived to be ninety-five years of age, said to me with his usual understated wit, "Yes, when you get to be my age, you have to come out here to visit some of your friends." Already his wife and their firstborn infant daughter were buried there, along with my great uncle for whom my Uncle Roy was named. I was named for both, bearing Roy as my middle name. My mother had had the dubious duty as a child to go with her grandmother to her Uncle Roy's grave to assure that my great grandmother would return, given the grief she bore at the death of her son. The family knew she would not do herself in if she had the responsibility of getting little Mildred safely home. Her Uncle Roy's death haunted my mother enough that to the end of her life she would not let us rock a rocking chair without someone in it because that had been done in her own home (bad luck even then) the day they learned of the young Roy's accident working on the railroad, crushed between two trains before the railroad got smart and moved parallel tracks further apart. "Poor little Mildred will have no more Uncle Roy," he had said to her on his deathbed.
Excerpted from THE FINAL DEADLINE by Chris R. Glaser Copyright © 2010 by Chris R. Glaser. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter ONE A Friendly Deadline....................1
Chapter TWO Death in Public....................18
Chapter THREE Death by Murder....................30
Chapter FOUR Transforming Deaths....................54
Chapter FIVE Death by One's Own Hand....................71
Chapter SIX Death by Plague....................79
Chapter SEVEN Precipitous Death....................96
Chapter EIGHT Death Made Personal....................105
EPILOGUE My Own Death....................128