Death & Jellyfish

Continuing with parts of the last two days’ topics, I was reminded while writing those posts not only of the vastly varied wonders of my wanderings this past summer but also of the way that they all tend to reinforce my natural inclination to fall into pensive abstraction, thinking of how I fit into this gargantuan scheme of things. Abstractions of all kinds are so prevalent in nature as it is…the marvelous patterns and textures, repetitions and variations everywhere lending themselves to a sort of meditation that, for me, affords space for deep rumination on the grand existential questions as well as the minute beauties within them.

While my species has tremendous tendencies to be wasteful, it seems to me that nature wastes nothing, unless you count the prodigious extravagance of miraculous beauty that often seems to serve no special adaptive or functional purpose. For instance, a live jellyfish undulating through the sea has, simultaneously, the remarkable power of its sting to stun or kill much larger and stronger creatures, but is so delicate and ethereal in appearance that one could easily imagine it a mere soap-bubble, shattered by the slightest atom of touch or breath. A dead jellyfish, washed ashore, may well retain something of that bubble disguise until it has begun to desiccate, and still have some mysterious touch-me-not danger to it; a dead jelly in the kitchen may become food for yet other creatures, chefs and diners who know something beyond its tissue-thin and vaporous appearance. But until it is cooked to the point of becoming somewhat opaque, it also retains an astonishing, magical interior that’s visible through its transparent and translucent outer layers, a living artwork of curlicues and tangled tendrils, pulsing, fluttering threads and striae of rich, delicate color.

What all of this makes me think is that if I, too, am a work of nature, then perhaps I may allow myself to harbor the ambitious hope of being transcendent in the same simple, elegant ways that other creatures are. If I am not spectacular in life, going about my business in this little part of the universe with undistinguished and plodding ways, then at least I will dream of what I can eventually become in death. As I disintegrate and return to the slight molecules of my primeval parts, I would like to think I can renew some other portion of the natural order, feed new beauty with my humble dust. If I can go to my last sleep with this possibility in my heart, I will go willingly, and gladly ready to fade myself to nothingness; what follows will surely be a new kind of joy. It’s the nature of things.Photomontage: Natural Abstractions

First Time for Everything. Including Endings.

Photo: Inukshuk Marking the Way to Other Worlds

We all have our own journeys to make and our own paths to follow…

I just read an intriguing article in the New York Times about a 23-year-old woman who, dying of brain cancer, determined that she wanted to have her brain cryonically preserved in hope that future medical advances will allow her to revisit the land of the living by transplant—or, more likely given the research that she found so profoundly fascinating and promising that she had already begun to study it seriously herself before her death—by way of her memory and personality infrastructure being reconstructed digitally. A sort of human-AI replica of herself that could ostensibly, hopefully, experience the world she now saw shrinking away from her at such a rapid pace. The idea is far from new, and the desire understandable, if complicated. Twenty-three years seem to constitute an unfairly, an abysmally, small portion of the usual allotted lifespan.

It’s hard, if not impossible, for me to empathize fully, since I’ve already more than doubled that span myself. In my nearly 55 years, I’ve seen enough more of my own life and that of many others, and of the vicissitudes of time and the world, that I wouldn’t choose to extend my own existence, or repeat it, no matter how marvelous and joyful my life has been, no matter whether I die tomorrow or fifty years from tomorrow. I feel strongly enough about it that I possess (and have shared with my loved ones, not to mention doctors and lawyers) an Advance Medical Directive that states my intent never to be kept in stasis by artificial means if I am determined by experts to be irreversibly in a state of brain death and/or inability to act in any such way as to sustain my own life by taking in my own hydration and nutrition. I find the concept of prolonged dying far more repellent than that of dying too soon for my preference.

But I can also imagine that, if I had discovered at age 21 that I had a condition guaranteed not only to kill me inside of two years but also to gradually deprive me of my autonomy, my physical and emotional freedoms, and my sense of self before that oncoming day, I might have had quite a different perspective. Twenty-one-year-old me had so many unrealized hopes and dreams and so little experience of how I fit into the world that I would at the very least have felt like my life was the ultimate bit of unfinished business, a conversation with greater intelligence and extraordinary adventures that I had entered blindly in its midst and could never participate in fully. Still, I suppose I’m simply not a gambler. The possible ways in which the universe I know, however slightly, can and will change before any such radical medical possibilities are realized is at best off-putting to me. Since everything and everyone I’ve known at all, let alone loved, will presumably be long gone or greatly altered, to what and whom would I be returning?

No matter what the reality of this still-fantastical urge is or can become, the crux of the matter is in my mind the natural human craving to see, do, and be ever more than we are when we begin. Intertwined with this is the perpetual knowledge that we are ephemeral and impermanent, though we seldom want to visit that recognition too closely. We will die. It’s not necessarily a terrible truth. But we’d probably all rather choose how and when, if we knew we could.

Photo: D is for Dead. We'll All Get There Sooner or Later

D is for Death. We’ll all get there a little sooner than we think.


Here’s a small conundrum, Friends:

How is it that, if each thing ends,

we never think of finitude

as normal—are we just too rud-

imentary to know that we,

the most finite that things can be,

are, too, surrounded by this, while

we live—or is this just denial?

Silly, that we fail to see

our butterfly fragility

as ordinary, simply clear

expression that our tenure here

is as ephemeral, at least,

as any insect, plant, or beast,

and that, despite our destined death,

our lives are full, from that first breath,

first movement, heartbeat, or first thought—

and that is plenty, is it not?

Photo: Now, be an Angel

Now, be an angel and help with the arrangements so nobody has to clean up after you alone.

While I was mulling on this, I put together a questionnaire for my family, because we, too, have been talking about how to prepare (as little as it’s really possible) for the practical and logistical aspects of our own deaths and how they affect others. For your consideration, I’ll share it here. No doubt you will think of additional items and aspects that can and should be prepared, especially as they would apply to your unique situation. Stuff it could be useful to have in writing for when you’re dying or dead, to help clarify and simplify it all for your family, friends, heirs, executors, lawyers, and/or future biographers/hagiographers. Or just stuff that might help you clarify how you feel about the whole process yourself. No judgments. No worries. Peace of mind the only goal.

(…and not in a Bucket List kind of way…)

1. Write down how you feel, what you believe, what you want, and why it does or doesn’t matter to you. This can be for you alone, to begin with, but it can lead to info that you might share with others later.

a. Consider what your medical beliefs are. I say Beliefs, because we tend to have personal, moral, ethical, and practical reasons for our choices, and if those are important, others should know in case of our being unable to speak up for ourselves for any reason, at some point.

b. If you have religious or philosophical beliefs that can affect what is done with your body, after your death, or in your name, it’s important to see that others have access to that info before they need it, or your wishes will remain unknown.

c. Make/have made and carry/wear a fairly indestructible card, bracelet, dog tag, or other device that can instantly inform rescuers of your medical needs and wishes, and you’ll save yourself and others a ton of grief if anything should happen to render you unable to speak or otherwise inform others. If you scale your info efficiently, you can even include emergency contact information on this device.

d. Both of these aspects of your wishes for personal care/disposal in the event of your incapacity or death can and should be documented legally, if you want any hope of enforcing them. Have a lawyer draw up a Medical Directive and Legal Power of Attorney for you, and file legitimate copies of those documents with your lawyer, your primary doctor, and your closest family member and/or friend (particularly whoever you would designate as your legal stand-in per the Power of Attorney and as Executor of your Will when you die), and keep a copy of each with your personal files, so that you can find them or have another person find them in the hour of need. Short, easy documents. But important.

2. Make sure that those to whom you’re entrusting this information will accept and support that trust. If you want your older sibling to carry out your wishes on your behalf but don’t know that he/she will agree to it or be able to perform that duty, it’s better to find out now and if not, hand the responsibility to another. It really is a responsibility, and work, and not entirely a privilege; if you can’t speak for yourself, don’t expect anyone else to automatically know what you’d wish or to choose to support your wishes. If you’re okay with that, fine. If not, be prepared. And insure that whoever ends up with the job has the paperwork to prove and enforce their authority on your behalf.

3. Write down everything you consider crucial for anyone to know when you die.

a. First and foremost, if you own anything more than the clothes on your back, and/or have any responsibilities to or for anyone or anything you believe has any practical implications (you have debt, a job, or pets, for example), MAKE OUT A WILL. A true, legally written, recognized, and filed Last Will and Testament is the most enforceable and obvious choice in the US, but at the very least, you should have something written by your own hand and witnessed by a reliable person or two, and preferably, also a copy or two in their hands. And update it every once in a while, or when major changes occur in your life (births, marriages, divorces, deaths). But whether it’s a legally recognized document or your hopeful letter of intent, write down anything that you can imagine might affect any persons or entities for good or ill if you die, and what you hope will be done about it if possible. Who will look after your pet rhinoceros, Fluffy? Who’ll inherit your platinum toothpick collection from you? Liquidate your assets? Settle your accounts? Tell your boss or your teammates that you’re not running late or just playing hooky this time but really, truly, extremely deceased? Important stuff, but impossible for anyone who doesn’t know every tiny detail of your life to guess out of thin air.

b. Record (legibly!) all of your business information and any vital personal records that will help your heirs and successors—or the landlord or police—to locate anything essential. Names and contact information for your immediate family members, crucial friends and associates (both personal and business). Account information: where you bank, what kinds of assets you hold, account names, numbers, locations, keys, and codes that will help your protectors to sort out your business as quickly, legally, and easily as possible. Keep a copy of this information in a safe but accessible place in your home or office, but also keep copies with a lawyer, your will executor, your personal representative, and/or at your primary banking institution (in a safe deposit box, for example). The more trusted people who know how to gain access to this information, the less fuss to find it.

c. If there is anything that you are not positive you’ve both told the people around you and put in writing somewhere that someone else can have access to it on your death (if you have the slightest doubt, go and look right now, and put it in your own hand immediately), it’s time to do your homework and rectify that.

4. Include in all of your written documents what you want done with your remains and to memorialize you. It’s amazing to me how few people actually plan and arrange for disposal of their body or what might be done in their memory, assuming that whoever outlives them will willingly take on the tasks, or at the least, not considering what a burden this could become to others. Just say what you want, and then if no laws and none of your survivors differ radically, it’ll happen. (If it doesn’t, it wasn’t going to anyway!) So ask yourself, and answer, too.

a. Are you registered as a potential donor (organs or whole body)? Does your mom (or anyone who needs to) know? Do you carry a card indicating your donor status? Does it say if you have an unusual blood type or medical condition that would affect a donation, like that you were born with three lungs and no spleen?

b. Do you prefer to be buried or cremated? Preserved as a mummy or by taxidermy? Embalmed and laid out in a crystal coffin for display at the local shopping mall? Who knows this? Have you prepaid for any such treatment of your corpse? Did you get any required legal permits for the permanent location of your leftovers? Keep copies of receipts, itemized descriptions, and info about the location of any other services or items for you may have prepaid: clothing, if you wish some specific outfit (those chic neon latex chaps, or the peacock-embroidered straitjacket, perhaps?) for open-casket viewing; a casket or urn; a grave or a niche in a columbarium. Do you prefer that your disposal and memorial arrangements be made through a particular funeral home or mortuary?

c. If you intend to be interred, do you want a headstone or a sculpture marking the site, and if so, do you have a specific design/designer in mind? Does anybody know this? If you get tucked into your grave thinking that a nice bit of Michelangelo-style marble work would do nicely sitting atop your head, but you don’t actually own or have access to any such thing, nor have you mentioned it to anybody, you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise should you peek in from the afterlife and see that there’s a thrift-store Halloween headstone repainted with your name on it there instead.

d. Do you want a funeral, graveside, or memorial service, a wake, or a gigantic pool party? Yes? Then, how about designing it yourself? Why not write out the program, the location of choice, the readings you want and who should read them, songs to be sung and by whom, what brand of single malt Scotch must be served or what piñata shape you require, or who will play the jigs and reels at the wake in a sackbut-and-Krumhorn ensemble. If you’d rather that none of these programs, shows, parties, or gatherings happen, say so, but I’m pretty sure people will do what they want to do to console themselves over your death, so try to be open-minded about it, too. You’ll be dead and not in a position to do much about it. Get over it, bub.

e. Is there anybody who needs to be/insists on being involved in either your end-of-life care or the tidying of your affairs after you’ve died (body disposal, memorial arrangements, legal representation of your estate, inheriting from you, and/or the actual creation, performance, or enactment of your memorial plans)? Make sure that they know what your intent is, and that anyone else who is involved or affected by this knows, too. Preferably, in writing. You could even make that a part of your contact list (see 3b above).

f. Are there any specifics of your will or your estate-disposal plans that, similarly, involve any persons or institutions that would be best spelled out in detail? Are you planning that your business, favorite charity (me, of course), church, alma mater, bowling team, or other organization will have a special scholarship, a 60-foot-tall bronze statue, or an item on their permanent menu commemorating and named after you? Do they know that? Do your executors and heirs know that?

i. Does anybody know exactly what you want it called (i.e., the Earnadene McDazzler Rocket Science Scholarship, the Buzwell & Battyann Furfnik Memorial Pencil Dispenser in the company lunchroom, the My Hairiest Cousin Trophy awarded annually on the date of your first haircut, or the Biennial Klaankie Soap Carving Contest)? Write it down. Tell people. Tell people where you wrote it down, too, because as much as they adore you, they’ll forget, even if you die tomorrow.

ii. And make sure that the institutions or persons on the receiving end know that name and also the exact amount of money that you intend to dedicate to it (a concrete amount, the income from a concrete amount, or a given percentage of your estate). No surprises, no complications.

5. The purpose of all of this, of course, is partly to protect everyone who’s ordinarily around you in your life when you do die, but also to protect you as you’re nearing the end of that life. Give you the best chance of being dealt with as you’d prefer, both in emergency or end-of-life care and after you’ve died. The more you arrange now, the less you have to wonder whether you’ll be treated as you wish, or whether it’ll be especially difficult for others to accomplish. If you can’t do it for your own sake, do it for the sake of those who care about you. If you can’t do it for their sakes, do it for yours.

Digital illo from a  photo: What Do You Get For the Dead Person Who has Everything?

If you really can’t take it with you, how about figuring out what to do with it before you go?

To My Health!

To all of the world’s citizens who don’t get to enjoy gloriously good health: I am sorry. I am very, sincerely, truly, awfully sorry. I know that I’m incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed a life of mostly stupendous health, with few bumps along that road. I’m just superstitious, or pragmatic, enough to recognize that only a few little atoms or cells, a small dose of good luck and a platoon of guardian angels, or a couple of nanoseconds, separate the deathly ill from the sparklingly healthy among us, and all of this knowledge or intuition makes me all the more pleased with my incredible good fortune.

Photo: Nasal Catarrh

How’s *this* for a compellingly charming and romantic read! Imagine reaching over to the bedside table for a little light bedtime perusal and finding this lovely tome in hand. Among other things, I suspect I’d feel the urge to get right back up and wash my hands, imagining who was previously thumbing through the book!

Once in a while I get a little tickle from the universe to remind me just how lucky I am to be a healthy human. Most of the time, it’s nature and circumstance showing their cockeyed sense of humor by putting jocular hints and signs in front of me as I go along my way. It can be more pointed and poignant, too: those whom I love and hold dear, along with so many who are not connexions of mine, battle poor health and infirmity and imminent death every day around me. This is the painful and stark reality of our mortal condition. None of us remains untouched, unscathed.

Photo: Steam Baths

This vintage sign always amused me when it still hung street-side in Seattle. Now, it lives Underground there, where it’s seen only on history tours of town. Once, it might have signaled (besides the subcultural club scene with which it was once associated) an old-school nod to better health. Me, I hope very much that I will stay on the better health side of the equation for a good long time before I, too, go Underground in my own way. Meanwhile, I’ll be careful to keep my “lower level” steam cleaned. Wink-wink.

But I will remain grateful forever, knowing as I do how near the precipice we all dance and how finite human existence will always be, for the long stretches of grand health I enjoy. If there’s any way for my wishes and hopes, prayers and positive vibes, to reach even one other person on this earth with equally blissful health, I am committed to putting those tendrils of care and hope out toward each and every one as well. And I salute, in great hope, to your excellent health!

Death and Perfection

My friend said to me not long ago something that got me thinking about death, specifically about the way that love and other relationships are affected by it. What I was thinking about was, mainly, that until any of us dies, we not only cannot but perhaps should not be perfect; if it were possible, what would be the point of continuing? I hear people talking, often enough, about how there might be people alive today who will live to be 150 years old, perhaps even twice that, and my immediate reaction is Why?! Is there really so much important stuff any one of us is going to accomplish in two or three of our current life-spans that we ought to crave living several lifetimes?

I certainly have no desire to live extra long if it means that I will have to get another job or six in order to afford it, and retire, if I’m lucky, when I’m 215 years old. Or if it means that I outlive whole swaths of people I have liked or loved or admired and have to struggle to make friends over and over again. Or, most especially, if it means that my slow-aging compatriots and I live in a world full of people who can survive all sorts of diseases and previously life-threatening injuries, but not necessarily with a very desirable quality of life, or worse yet, we exist like crammed masses of crawling and buzzing insects in an ever-decreasing amount of space relative to our numbers, scrabbling and battling for resources that couldn’t possibly expand to enrich all of us, let alone with any sort of fair distribution or generosity. If the current chatter ever gets a whole lot more encouraging about the long-lifers spending equal attention and energy on making the world more peaceable and the people in it healthier, kinder, happier, more generous, and a whole lot wiser, then I might consider living “forever” of greater interest.

My friend’s comment also prodded me to think about how death has affected my own life and the relationships within it. To revisit the many what-ifs about whether I could be better than I am, had I cherished and understood my long-gone relatives and friends more wisely and profoundly. About whether I can still garner the strength and intelligence to improve if I pay attention to the lessons I did learn, or maybe can still learn, from them. Certainly, I have wondered enough times what my life’s sojourn, and I within it, would have looked like if various loved ones had lived longer, not to mention how different the whole world could have been. Something in me always eventually rebels at that thought, however sorrowfully, for there is a large part of me, too, that knows how easily I become fixed in my thinking about even living persons I know and forget to reevaluate our relationships, to renew my commitment to them. And I know very well that those who have died remain perpetually frozen ever after in the way that I perceived them and our living interactions. It’s so much easier to be a devil or a saint when you’ve ceased living and can never again do or be anything new to change the balance of the known and the imagined.

And this path of contemplation returns me, of course, to wondering whether it will matter especially to anyone else that I did exist. I have no children to carry on my genes in a direct line, for better or worse. Most of the people who fill my days, no matter how valued in the present time, will continue on their life paths and I on mine, and the majority of us will lose contact and even forget each other, and that is natural enough and no terrible thing, either. But when my dust rejoins the remaining carbon of this known planet, will it matter?

And will I live in memory as devil or saint, or simply and satisfyingly, as an ordinary mortal being, fixed, perhaps, in the amber of another person’s memory just as he or she knew me and never more or less? I can’t answer. I don’t need to answer. I’ll go the way of all living and dying things. I will mingle my dust with all of my fellows’, and with everyone who has gone before or after us, and if any spirit lingers on, may it be—for all of us—the best that is remembered, and the rest forgotten and trodden into our survivors’ own life paths, going wherever they, in turn, may go. If the mountains of our remains raise them up any higher, then so much the better that we both lived and died.Photo: Enfold Me in the Green

Enfold Me in the Green

Enfold me in the green breast of the earth

And gently speak my name with love once more,

Then turn and take your way to what’s before

You now, that all the world will know your worth

As I was blessed to know it in my time—

That hand, unstinting in its tender care,

The scent of rain around you everywhere,

Your slightest whisper in my ear sublime—

That now you’ll speak to other waiting ears.

For now I sleep; let earth be the embrace

To keep me kindly in my newer place

While yours will others bless in coming years.

I thank you, now I need no more the sun

That shall be yours until your day is done.

Sleep Writing

I know that my brain works overtime, coming up with strange and atmospheric stories while I sleep. Maybe it’s meant to balance my waking laziness. I won’t ask! Here’s another one of those few from which I have awakened with a crystal clear memory. Not of its putative symbolism, of course, if you’re wanting to analyze my weirdness for dreaming surreal tales with death in them that are somehow not nightmares but simply strange and (literally) colorful, unexpected nocturnal in-head cinematic confabulations.Photo: Wheat Field

Text: Color Coded 1

Digital illustration from photos + text: Color Coded 2

Keeping Watch with Love

Text: BrevityJust because there are designated days (All Saints, Memorial Day, Defence Day, Anzac Day, Volkstrauertag, Poppy Day) for recalling those we’ve lost doesn’t mean in any way that we restrict our respectful, loving and admiring remembrances to those days. Those whom we hold in our hearts remain there, living or not, forever. That’s our path to peace.Digital illustration from a drawing + text: May We All Rest in Peace

The guarantee that we will die, and that all of those we hold dear will die too, means we will do best by finding ways to embrace and recall, most of all, the good and the uplifting things from their lives and ours, and expand on such things for the sake of our finest predecessors’ honor, if not our own.

Calling All Saints

This is a day designated by the Christian church for the remembrance of all the good, fine people who have lived, illuminated our lives, led the way for the rest of us, and now are also gone before us in death. Recollection, commemoration and admiration of those who have lived as great-hearted souls on the earth and set an example, large or small, of excellence for those of us who follow is, I think, a practice that anyone of any stripe, religious or not, can embrace; we are certainly all made better by such meditations, especially if and when we are made stronger by their guidance to follow in our honored loves’ radiant footsteps.Photos + text: How Sweet the Moment

Spending a day in remembrance of loves lost is bound to be bittersweet, of course. When the bond has been close in life, it remains so in death, and however the pangs of loss may subside over time, on a day devoted to thoughtful recognition of our trusted and beloved friends, mentors and avatars of all things great and good, the pain can be as sharply new again as in the first sweep of sorrow. But if I am genuinely mindful and respectful of their gifts in life, I think that this can be transformational and healing and comforting, too.Photos + text: Bittersweet

Can I live as a reflection of my most-admired angels? It’s too tall an order for any ordinary mortal, I know. But that’s exactly why I think we have these living and loving models among us: to show that in community and mutual, loving support and with determined and patient growth on our own, greater things can happen than if we try to do significant and meaningful things independently. We are raised up by the waves of support around us. How can I not be grateful for that! This realization sweetens the day perceptibly. Do I wish that I could have my lost loves back again? Who would not! But I wouldn’t trade one tear, one iota of the hurt and anger and grief I’ve felt over any of their losses, to miss out on recognizing the beauty and joy and brilliance that they brought to this world in their too-short tenure here, and I know that some lights seem so bright in life that they can blind me at close range to what’s more easily discerned, when seen from this greater distance, as having the distinctive shape of an excellent soul.Photos + text: Last Lullaby

Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower

Swimming Upstream

Some days are easier than others. Ask any salmon. It’s really amazing, what salmon have to accomplish to make the journey back to their home waters to spawn, fighting the elements, predators, and tough currents all the way over whatever massive miles they’ve wandered, just to get back to where they started, and spawn, and die.

Life is short for others besides us humans.

Some days, I do feel like I’m swimming upstream the whole time, battling my own set of challenges, and know that no matter what the celebrations back in my home waters, the end of the story is always death. The way of all things.

But far more often, I’m thinking that if life is already short, adventure-filled, quite possibly arduous at times, and certainly unpredictable, then I’d better be making the most of the journey. Whenever I can, I should be leaping and laughing, and making a pretty big splash as I go. Anything else is just drowning in slow motion. Bon voyage, everyone, I’m away!Digital Illustration: Fish are Jumpin'

Remembering Them All

Memorial Day is a US holiday begun after the American Civil War to recognize and honor the service and sacrifices of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

I have an immeasurable horror of war and every single thing associated with it.Photo: Memorial Day 1

But on our recent visit to Puerto Rico, as we were walking around the museum ruins of  a fortress in San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, looking at the remains of its heavy battlements, at its cannons and their tracks in the gunneries, at the sparse quarters of the soldiers who served there, and at the museum signs telling the stories of El Morro’s past, I remembered too that the vast majority of the people who are involved in wars hate them as much as I do. War is chosen and declared by a tiny minority in even those bands or nations that instigate the wars. The rest, soldiers included, pretty much have it thrust upon them, and I can’t imagine anyone who dies in battle had any desire to do anything other than to defend or capture whatever or whomever he or she was sent to defend or capture, and go home peacefully. Even some of those who declare the wars and enlist willingly to fight in them probably often have done so with a sense of rightness, if not righteousness, in the cause.Photo: Memorial Day 2

I looked around the Castillo and, for all of its historical interest and the beauty of its locale and weathered stone walls, the birds and iguanas and wildflowers decorating it quaintly, what I saw was a memorial to the many lives lost, soldiers and civilians, natives and outsiders, adults and children, the good and the bad alike. All because humans aren’t famously good at sharing their world with each other and resolving conflicts without violence. I will always have a horror of war and all the loss of life that it brings.Photo: Memorial Day 3

But I am, honestly, grateful to those who have—willingly or not—paid with their own lives for the lives and welfare of others, and I remember them not only on this designated day but every time I pause to reflect on the high cost of peace for our oxymoronically named species, man-kind. Seems to me that there’s no better way to honor soldiers for their service and sacrifice than to end the potential for any more such work and eliminate all wars forevermore.Photo: Memorial Day 4