Have you heard the one about the girl who went to a therapist to talk about difficult relationships and ended up trying to make friends with her own death? It's kind of a funny story...
It's true, I am living in fear of the most inevitable thing in life - death. I'll be having a totally ordinary or even exceptionally pleasant moment, and suddenly a picture of my death by any number of different accidents, illnesses or just plain old age will rise unbidden to the top of my mind, and a low grade panic sets in.
A couple of years ago, there was a terrible and tragic accident in downtown San Francisco. A man was on Mission Street, at a corner where there also happened to be a bus stop. He was trying to hail a cab, and stepped off the curb behind a bus that had stopped to unload passengers. Another bus was coming toward the stop, ostensibly slowing down to a halt. Somehow the driver of that second bus got confused, and accelerated instead of braking. The second bus slammed into the first bus, and the man hailing the taxi was crushed between them, dying instantly.
A co-worker of mine was close friends with the man who was crushed between the buses. Had, in fact, recently been best man at his wedding. Something inside me broke a little listening to my co-worker describe the agonizing minutiae that comes along with a sudden death. No one knew the password to the dead man's Blackberry, or his computer at work. No one had his bank account number. I have had relatives and friends who have passed away, and I didn't even know this man, but for some reason hearing about his death made the reality of my own mortality come rushing in like a muddy river.
One of the most frustrating things about this is that just a few short years ago, I was practically fearless. For instance, in 2007 I took a bus ride in India. In the middle of a raging monsoon thunderstorm, the bus ascended the foothills of the Himalayas, surfing the sides of sheer cliffs on a one lane road with blind intersections at every curve. Lightning was streaking through the air around us and little pieces of the road were washing away. On that bus ride, I didn't once think that anything disastrous would happen to me. Fast forward to 2011, where a drive across town on a sunny day can leave my palms sweaty, as I imagine all the different ways I might perish behind the wheel.
It occurred to me that this might be something to bring up with my therapist. We had a chat about the subject, and I learned some important things.
1. It's normal to fear death, most people do, and sometimes it is literally like flipping a switch. We get older, and one day we wake up and our mortality is sitting on the edge of the bed, handing us a cup of coffee, asking, "What are we going to do today?"
2. The more attached you are to things in your life, the harder the idea of your death is going to be. (This is something wise folk [like, say, The Buddha for example] have been saying for thousands of years. I know they are all waiting for validation from a slightly neurotic, wholly unenlightened woman in Northern California, and so I say unto them - you guys were totally right!)
3. The more comfortably aware you are of your death, the happier and richer your life will be. My therapist recalled a passage from a book by Carlos Castaneda, where a shaman advises him that Death, sitting on his left shoulder, is his most powerful teacher. This reminded me of a story in the wonderful novel Population 485 by Michael Perry, where he talks about going deep into the woods every now and then, lying down on the ground, and getting completely still. He imagines his heart stopping and his body slowly fading into the very earth that he reclines upon. It's his way of nodding "howdy" at Death, and acknowledging that soon enough the two of them will be shooting the shit together in eternity. I think this is marvelous and heroic, and I really want to be like that. Which brings us to another lesson….
4. You can't force yourself to feel better about death, or control your thoughts around it. There isn't a quick fix, it's a process of healing and practicing new perspectives. My therapist likened it to holding a little bird in your palm. You can't squeeze it or hold onto it too hard, because it will freak out and fly away. You have to let it sit there, gently, and leave it be. That is how the truth about ourselves comes to us - a little bird sitting quietly in an open palm.
I like the idea of this gentle little bird so much that I think I am going to picture my death that way. A soft, downy thing, solid but also ethereal, perched on my shoulder, singing its song in my ear, reminding me how beautiful and rich and amazing it is to be alive.
So this is my latest big bad goal. Heal, change my perspective, let the truth flow and listen to the song of my little death bird. Hopefully, as time wears on, I will deliver myself from the invasive thoughts, the angst, and the low grade panic. Perhaps some day soon my mortality and I can sit down and enjoy that cup of coffee together as friends.