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?

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.

The Last Place on Earth

digital collageIn Profundum Maris

Deep in the ocean, fathoms far,

Beyond the reach of the brightest star,

In the abyss of the secret sea—

Seemingly past where life could be

Sustained—lies a billowing bed of kelp

That waves in the dark, where sleep, where help,

Where mystical mending music calls

As the tides turn back and the current falls,

As the storms above relent, abate,

Becalm, bring peace—it is not too late

To dive in the depths with delight, embark

On the garden path of the ocean’s dark,

Miraculous beauty, unseen, immense,

Suffusing the soul in every sense,

To lie in the rush as the seas roll by

And think it a joy too fine,

To die…digital collage

The Intersection

Lacking, as I do (see yesterday’s post!) any real sense of direction, physically or otherwise, in my life’s journey, I kind of live it in the middle of the intersection. You know, when the traffic slows down and the smog clears, it’s kind of exciting and always interesting here at the crossroads.digitally doctored photo

There are not only all of the events and incidents that brought me to the place where I stand at any given moment, but so much more that enriches life in the intersection. All of the peripheral things that I didn’t do—yet, anyway—lie somewhere nearby, should I change course or take notice and choose to move accordingly. There are all of the other people who come and go up and down the same roads and walkways, and there are all of those who cross my path at any given intersection, and all of their lives and adventures are influences on my own travel, even on my moments of standing absolutely still there.

And then I move on, often without any greater sense of direction than before, but also, often enough, with an optimistic sense that I will soon find myself having yet another unexpected, very unplanned trip through yet another unknown intersection.

Here I am. Now.

Honey Badger is not alone. Dead people don’t care, either. Even if they’re going to be reincarnated, they couldn’t possibly care less, I assume, about what anybody thought of them in life. The past is a lock.

What matters, if anything does, to the dead as much as to the living is what’s yet possible (if that includes reincarnation). The only way to get to the future, furthermore, is to be present in the present. All of the yesterdays that ever were can only be altered—at least without a time machine, which, of course, must be built in the present or future since there isn’t one yet, other than the hard to find Vernean one or the wonderful TARDIS of course—by improving the outcomes of those yesterdays in the present and future. Funny how that all works.

But what it tells me is that while I can (I very much hope) learn from the past, there’s no benefit in dwelling on it. And I don’t even think there’s much to be gained from living exclusively for the future. I’m not guaranteed one, after all. I could be caught unawares by a fatal disease, slip on a blot of mud and fall off a cliff, or be eaten by aliens tomorrow. And I can’t be sitting around knitting my brow and fretting over whether anyone will express admiration and gratitude for the wonderfulness of me after that happens.

I’d like to be way too busy until tomorrow, or whenever that cutoff time arrives, to expend any real energy conjuring up what grand eulogies I’ll get and what perfect art will be applied to my tomb, when I’ll be much too dead to care. Not to mention that whether I’m cremated [post-mortem, thankyouverymuch!] as I intend or it’s because there’s nothing left of me but my socks and hat after the aliens ingest me, there won’t be any need for a tomb. In any case, joy and contentment should be usurping all of the space that any such thoughts would aim to occupy. I prefer to think that I’m living out my eulogy, and lest it be of any interest to anyone but me, the most fitting one I can imagine would be that I was too busy living to sit around for a funerary portrait.

I know that I am loved. That is the best of all possible epitaphs I could possibly desire. And it’s a cheering enough thought to keep me occupied for as long as I get to be in the Here and Now. I guess my job is to pass it along to those in my immediate vicinity, my small orbit, so that they might be able to make the same

Passages of Time

photo montageJeunesse et Tristesse

We two, when we were very small,

Walked hand in hand down avenues

Studded with poplars and long views

Of granite pavement, pale and tall

Sun-sprinkled shops, apartments set

Above them on whose balconies

Perched men like birds among the trees,

Eyeing our youth with vague regret—photo montageHow could we know, young as we were,

The brevity of these our strolls,

How every hour more swiftly tolls

Than the preceding? To be sure,

The marvel of our living lies

In sensing little of the thought

That what short summertime we’ve got

Measures in spans like butterflies’,photo montageAnd realizing late in age

On balconies, as children pass,

Our tenure’s brief as leaves, as grass,

As words washed from the novel’s page

By tears dropped silently, this truth

Too hard to tell to little ones

Passing in hand-held joy, the sun’s

Brief rays alighting on their montage

Final Residing Place

graphite drawingResidential Issues

The beaver builds a dam-fine house,

The mouse, a hole-in-one,

The moose and goose, while on the loose,

Take shelter in the sun;

The pigeon curls up in her nest;

Raccoon believes his den is best.

It seems that every one abroad

Creates his ideal home,

Yet every head at last, when dead,

Will end up in the loam.

Therefore, I say, enjoy your port,

Your burrow, hovel, cubby, fort,

And be advised that what you’ve prized

Won’t be your utter last resort,

But rather you’ll take company

With all the beasts moved on

To their reward under the sward,

And to the dirt begone!graphite drawing

Car Crash Bad

I almost crashed the car. While I make no claims of being an outstandingly skillful driver, I do credit myself with being a pretty sensible, legal and even careful one. But I’m not infallible, either. I’m just very glad I happen to be lucky, too.

So my close call was just that, a close call. It would have been my own fault as well, because although I did wait and look all directions and not see any cars coming my way since the one that was was behind something bigger the whole time I scanned that direction, it jolly well was there and it was moving rather quickly. Possibly even faster than was strictly appropriate in that stretch, but I was still the driver that started to turn left at the light directly in front of that oncoming car. Our respective guardian angels were evidently working overtime, because both the other driver and I were able to brake and steer out of the situation fairly swiftly.

A split second’s difference, and our cars could have been demolished, our selves injured or even killed. That accident being technically my fault would have been utterly irrelevant outside of legal terms and in practical terms: both of our lives stood a hair’s-breadth from being forever altered, not to mention the effects on all of the life-dominoes that would inevitably be downed or redirected by that incident. All because of a single mote’s collageAnd we two, and all of those around us at the intersection, in the following second or two regrouped and continued just as though nothing had happened at all, if perhaps with a dash of adrenaline pumping.

Isn’t that the way that we live every day, every moment, though? Whether through wickedness or stupidity we go astray, or merely by happenstance or sheer momentary bad luck, we are at risk every instant we’re alive. As a person who copes with exaggerated anxiety (thankfully, mine is treatable), I could easily find excuse in that for any amount of paranoia and become anything from a perpetual pessimist to an emotionally crippled hermit. But besides being impractical, that’s a hideously unappealing plan for existence.

My solution is to keep working on my vigilance as far as paying attention to the details in day-to-day life, hoping that others are doing the same and we’re all generally watching out for each other, too, and assuming that my good luck, guardian angels and/or serendipitous circumstances will always tip in my favor. Beyond that, knowing that I can’t control any such things, I know it’s best to just turn off the switch, to let go. I even like to think I can be on the lookout for more excuses to be delighted with life and let the accidents be ones of tripping over unexpected joys. There’s far too much fine and happy stuff in the mix that should not be missed or wasted.

Life, that’s

The Waiting Game

Life as we know it in the present day is characterized as a hurry-up-and-wait proposition. We tend to bemoan the pressures at both ends of the spectrum with something like a sense of martyrdom, thinking this push-pull unique to our era. But it’s always been so. One only has to study a smidgen of history to recognize the same complexities of speed and sluggishness, and note the same anxiety regarding both, in our predecessors.

Now, I’ve never been pregnant or had a child of my own, but I have it on reliable authority that that process is rife with opportunity to experience the perfect distillation of both forms of anxiety. I can say, from my years of babysitting and cousin-watching and then a couple of decades of teaching, that regardless of the legal or moral or biological relationship, the ties we have with those younger than ourselves bring out such parental fears, anticipation, dread and excitement with greater intensity than pretty much any other kind of connection can do. Terror and hope will always intermingle in the heart if we have any concern for the young, filling the stasis of Waiting from the moment of their first cellular appearance and well beyond into full adulthood.graphite drawingLife and safety and comfort are all such tenuous things, it’s a wonder we don’t all burst into spontaneous flame from the sheer tension of our worries and our desires. The only assurance we have is the history demonstrating that our forebears somehow survived their concerns over us, and theirs in turn for them, back into the far reaches of historic memory. The tipping away from apprehension and toward faith in what lies ahead is the gift that enables us to wait, no matter how illogical and impossible it may seem.

Aloft & Alighting

graphite drawingAngels in the Aviary

Of winged and wondrous beings shall I tell,

Whose incandescence fills the deepest wood,

With brilliance, dazzling, pretty as it’s good,

And singing lays clear as a silver bell–

Take wing, you also, soaring wide abroad,

To sing elated tales of what is seen

From over oceans, forests rich with green

And storied mountains–palisades of God–

Let each take flight, to race the sands of time;

To see along the universe’s rim

All future iterations growing dim,

As at such speeds our eyes glaze up with rime–

Of angels such as these I tell my tale

And bid you join their swiftest ranks to fly

Above the oceans, forest, land and sky

To loveliness beside which all falls pale–

And cry, sweet birds, for happiness that we

Are joined in such angelic company.