I’m in California tending to my dying mother. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying - over decades of my parents’ illnesses - not just days and weeks. Mostly, what I've learned is about living, how to live and what is important.
At my mother’s bedside, hours stretch on indefinitely, one indistinguishable from another. Outside, it’s another day, except it's a warm November day, bright sun against a blue sky. The living are busy with the tasks of living and making a living. The dying are busy in their own world, between worlds.
I recall two poems by Mary Oliver. "In Blackwater Woods” starts
Look, the trees
their own bodies
And I notice the persimmon tree, its leaves now turning bright orange, setting the tree ablaze with color before it it drops its last fruits and leaves. People can be like that too, glorious, shining out for others in an unexpected season of their lives.
To all of us, Oliver says,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Long ago, the poem, "When Death Comes," became my anthem for living. I’ve never forgotten it. It changed how I live, and hopefully, how I’ll pass from this world.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Poems from Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1
Thoughts for creating success in the second half of life.