I believe you must ultimately face your fears.
Small fears are all around, like the fear of bungy jumping, exams, public speaking, disease.
But for me there has always been one big fear. In an early memory I am playing in our gravel driveway counting my years ahead: five, six, seven, eight. Those ages put a comforting distance between me and death, the concept of ‘never, ever.’
When I was a little older, I prayed every night that my parents, brother, dog and bird would lead ‘healthy, happy, long lives.’ Longevity mattered.
I developed a fear of being poisoned. The sight of a toadstool, or even an innocent mushroom, would convince me I had put it in my mouth. I even believed my saliva was poisonous. I would secretly spit into my hand and wipe it on my dress.
I outgrew such childish lack of logic, but the death fear remained. It didn’t spoil fun or hamper normal growing up, but it hung in the background, as it does still, sometimes at night or in the low point of afternoons. Reminding me that someday I would lose all that was familiar on this beautiful blue and white planet.
Although I shied away from death, I was also attracted. I became a nurse, partly to witness the end of life. I watched people come to terms with their mortality – and do precisely that. There was much to admire.
Outside of work, I occasionally became involved with dying or bereft people. It was as though I fell in love with them – a spirited, vulnerable fifty-two year old with lung cancer forced to die in a nursing home; a cousin who clung to the hope his wife would survive and who finally lay on her hospital bed with her favourite dog as they stopped her respirator; an acquaintance whose husband died slowly at home, herself battling with unexpected cancer and pain.
My father’s death was a pivotal experience. He struggled to let go, his body, his house, his family, friends, memories, being alive. Just as I think I will struggle. He had no religion or loss of a desire to live or great unhappiness to make dying easier. But he met the enemy and raised himself above the situation.
I soothe myself with old sayings: death is as common as birth, and as necessary. Everything dies and will die including the unborn, the earth and the sun. Death makes life precious. All true. But still hard. Preservation is as deep an instinct as fear.
The impact of the riderless horse, the empty chair, the grieving dog, flowers cast into the sea, still hits home.
However, apart from the fact I have no choice(!), I believe I can prepare myself for the inevitable and die the way I want to: appreciative of a good life, inspired by and mindful of others, loving and accepting. The last milestone. Perhaps it is not the somber event I think it is.
I will not know until the enemy, if that is what it is, appears.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.