THIS BODY DIES
Updated: Aug 3
“Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch”
~ Yehuda HaLevi
We said goodbye to my friend Daniel today. Some of us swam. Some of us paddled our canoes. One of us cradled the small glass container with the snap-on plastic lid that held his remains.
I remember the first time I saw the remains of a cremated body. People commonly call them ashes but they’re not actually ashes. At that temperature everything that can be burned is completely burned away. All that’s left is the mineral remains. And what remains is so little.
The first cremains I saw was my mother’s. Wrapped in a teal and gold scarf that had been stashed in my brother’s luggage when he brought her back from India where she had died unexpectedly, shockingly. Where she had what was probably, for her, a good death.
We stood in the frigid February wind on the shores of Lake Ontario, and looked at the softball sized parcel and all I could think was, “that’s it?!?”
Death feels like it has always been a major character in the story of my life. Like many kids, there was the seemingly endless stream of goldfish and tiny turtles that were regularly flushed down the toilet, of course. But I don’t remember crying about them. The fish were all named Goldie (I can’t remember the turtles’ names) and I knew that they didn’t matter. Or more accurately, I had already learned that they shouldn’t matter. Even as a small child I knew that they weren’t nearly as significant as the immeasurable losses my mother and grandparents had survived two decades before I was even born.
I believe in being honest with children. Maybe I learned this because, as a Jewish child growing up surrounded by Christian children, I never had the option to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. My mother was, as far as I know, or as far as she knew, always honest with me. Advised, I’m sure, by Dr Spock, she explained things in clear, straightforward, unembellished, age appropriate language to her somewhat intellectually precocious daughter. Sex. Birth. And the Holocaust. At only three years old, I knew where babies came from, and I knew where so many of my ancestors had gone.
Clear language, yes, except as we looked at and named the people in the few treasured photos she said “they died”. She didn’t say they were murdered, which would have been more accurate. But I guess even she couldn’t wrap her mouth around that level of honesty to her small child, or maybe even to herself.
The language we use matters. It shapes the way we think. It says a lot about our culture and how we conceive of the world. In recent years I’ve noticed a massive shift toward euphemism in our use of language around death and dying. Passed. Passed Away. Transitioned. (As someone with a lot of transgender people in my life, this last one always trips me up a little.) Or just Gone.
In the past year I started attending and then facilitating Death Cafes. Death Cafes are part of a global death positive movement, gathering people, often with tea and cake, to simply talk about death, dying, grief ~ no agenda, no objective, not a support or counselling group, just a space to discuss whatever comes up for those who are present. And it has been an amazing experience. (Except for that one time a guy showed up thinking it was a speed-dating event! But that's another story.) I’ve been so relieved to finally have a place, outside of my own individual therapist’s office, to just talk about death, dying, grief, and where they live in our lives and in our world. But even with Death right there in the title, the euphemisms abound and I feel like a bull in a china shop throwing around the D word.
But my mother avoided euphemism. When everyone except the children knew that my 34 year old father’s death was coming soon, they consulted with a child psychologist to figure out how to tell us something no one ever wants to have to say to their child. “Daddy died.” Clear. Direct. No room for misunderstanding. No space for hope.
“Oh those poor children,” the neighbours whispered out of our hearing, “this poor family.” And the hits kept coming. Every few years, it seemed, another premature death. I say their names because names matter, words matter:
Natty Yaseen in his teens
Steve Levine in his twenties
Sue Westmoreland in her thirties
Edith Adler in her forties
Julie Jackson in her fifties
(...and now Daniel Brooks in his sixties)
Friends and relatives gone, relationships extinguished, lives cut short way too early to believe in any kind of benevolent God. Death, I learned, could never be anything but earth-shattering and terrifying. Holocaust. Cancer. Suicide. There was no such thing as a good death.
By the time grandparents started dying after full long lives, I had no idea that death could be anything but tragic. My grandmother saw both of her children die before her. I had no idea how she got out of bed every morning for the rest of her life. I lived with the terror of being the last one left.
Then on the morning of my 40th birthday I woke up and burst into tears. I’m going to die! My life had been defined by the deaths of so many others, those I’d loved as well as those I never had the opportunity to know. It was as if I never actually considered that I too would some day die. And this was the day I realized I would.
I launched into a six month midlife crisis that included a rather ill-advised decision to cut off all of my hair. When I emerged from this phase of my lifelong dance with depression ~ and as my hair grew back ~ I began to find a new relationship with death. It seems obvious, but it came as a revelation: We’re all moving toward death, some faster, some more slowly. And since I have chosen to be a person who lives a life of love, who loves many people, and who loves deeply, I will inevitably experience the flipside of love, which is grief.
This body was born.
All that is born will die.
This body will die.
As I age, it will seem to happen more and more frequently.
I will die.
I want to feel it all.
I can handle it.
In the years since that 40th birthday, I have gradually taken small steps that have brought me into closer proximity to death and dying, and further from the fear I have lived with about death. I was once scared of “old people”, but I suddenly found myself not only becoming one, but also working with them, through an incredibly joyful program called Dancing With Parkinson’s. But while the benefits of this beautiful and uplifting practice are extensive, it doesn’t prevent death. I have had to say goodbye to dancers, some of whom have chosen Medical Assistance in Dying or MAID , deciding for themselves when it was their time to die.
Following my mother’s dramatic, unexpected and impactful death, the one that made me an orphan, I did a Contemplative End of Life Care training, and became a Metaphysical Minister, both of which invite me to think about my own death, what a good death means to me, and even to write my own eulogy ~ an exercise I recommend highly. I wrote not only from my own imagination of how I’d want to be remembered, but bravely asked a few trusted friends and relatives to share what they might write about me and incorporated their impressions.
Lainie was described by her friends as cantankerous and compassionate, kind and feisty, beautiful and badass, humble and humorous, wise and creative, strong and patient, grounded, graceful and brave.
Toward the end of a lifetime of contradiction, engaged with the conflictedness of the human condition, Lainie finally found the calmness of her slow dance, even when the world seemed to be tap dancing out of control all around her. She approached the end of her life with the same open-hearted vulnerability with which she lived.
Lainie will be missed by more people than she ever imagined, who will think of her whenever they are moved to step into their own unique dance.
Some of us swam. Some of us paddled our canoes. One of us cradled the small glass container with the snap-on plastic lid that held Daniel’s remains. We travelled out to the little island that our children long ago named Baby Island. The ability to make the twenty-five minute swim a milestone of their growing up, growing older.
We huddled together, in the late afternoon wind, surrounded by pine trees and Canadian Shield, the air and the water so much warmer in July than it had been in February on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Our three families have camped here at Silent Lake together every summer for 27 years. We were young parents of young children then, some of them still just nurslings. It was a lot of work, but we were creating what would become a lasting tradition.
And now those babies are grown with partners of their own. And now we are older parents of adult children, unsure how we got here. And now we are all sitting, staring at the water, one of us cradling the small glass container with the snap-on plastic lid, thinking, crying, holding each other, waiting to do what we came here to do, what none of us wants to do.
Then the box gets passed from one pair of hands to the next to the next. There are words. There are poems. There is completely irreverent singing that would have brought the sound of his laugh resonating across the water.
And it’s 1, 2, 3,
What’re we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it’s 5, 6, 7
Open up the Pearly Gates
Ain’t no time to wonder why
WHOOPEE we’re all gonna die!
And then his baby, who I helped welcome into he world one early morning exactly 26 years ago, uses a stick to dig a hole in the soft earth beside a small pine tree, and one by one we each take little bit of the soft granules out of the box to put into the soil. And one by one we each take a little bit more and let the wind carry it out over the waves.
Some of us swim and some of us paddle, and we make our way back to the shore and back to our campsite to make dinner.