Content warning: death; semi-detailed description of a dead body in third paragraph.
Disclaimer: I post this at Lynne’s encouragement.
On July 31, 2016, I found my 79-year-old mother-in-law, dead on her bathroom floor, half naked. We received a call from Jean’s friend that Jean was unreachable for days, which was unusual. Lynne asked me to check if she was okay. They were estranged for good reasons, so whether she was dead or alive, Lynne wasn’t prepared to see her. I knew I had to do this for her, that she was not in a place to be able to handle such a thing, that if there was a body to be found, it would be far less traumatic for me; I tend to be tougher. We made some dark jokes to pretend we weren’t afraid. “I’ll see if your mom is dead, you take Penny and the compost out, ‘kay?” “Okay, same.”
Knowing there was a good chance I would find her dead, I turned off my emotions on command, as I do, and headed straight toward shock and sadness.
When she first moved into the ground floor apartment, she was so excited about the ceramic floor heater in the bathroom. Though it was summer, the heater was on, and she laid upon that heated floor for two days, crumpled, so small, between the toilet and bathtub. The smoothness of her skin on her back and bottom, like a baby’s, surprised me. Her face looked so wrong that I couldn’t bear to look. Her mouth looked melted. I would later learn, once her body was taken, that her dentures had fallen out, and a small pool of bile collected in and around her mouth. I reluctantly called out her name. I was afraid she would moan. I was afraid I found her paralyzed, in a coma, or… something else where I’d have to touch her to help her, but, really, I knew died and that it would fall upon me to break the news to Lynne and Jean’s friend Helen.
“Oh, no!” Helen cried out, like a wounded pigeon, then took it rather well. She was used to loss. “I only have one friend left,” she said.
What is this adulthood shit? What even is this.
Sure, I’m tough. But it was traumatic. Far more traumatic than I had expected, both to see her and to smell the foul odours around her, which lingered in my nose for days. Even the clutter on our bathroom counter triggered me later because Jean’s place was so cluttered. Lynne cleaned the bathroom for me that night.
I felt discomfited by how normal everything else felt in her apartment. I thought I would know as soon as I walked in, like I know in movies when a bad thing will happen. There was no aura, no ghost, no spirit, no sense that anything was different. There was no special tenor. Even the 20-year-old cat was blasé, napping on the bed. Time didn’t slow down, music didn’t play. All of her belongings remained for me to snoop through or take if I wanted. The next day, I brought home peanut butter, toilet paper, dried cherries. I ate them. It felt macabre. Why? The officers who arrived to make sure we didn’t kill her didn’t tip toe or whisper. Even her manner of death, so shocking to me, was not a shock to them. “About a third of people die on the toilet, having a heart attack,” he said, as she remained there on the bathroom floor. I felt like we were gossiping. There was no ritual performed. The moment was like any other moment. I wanted death to feel more special, ceremonial, and hallowed. Not even for her, necessarily, but for death itself. Having never lost anyone close to me, I wanted to feel reassured that when I do, the world will stop for me.
The trauma gave way to acceptance surprisingly quickly. The vivid memory of her face and body faded, mercifully, within days. A friend sent me information about how studies found that playing Tetris after a trauma can dramatically reduce PTSD symptoms. I had been playing Go Up, and distracting myself with Facebook. Maybe that helped?
It’s been harder, naturally, for Lynne. All of her family is gone. She was born when her mother was 40. She grew up terrified they would all die and leave her. In one vivid childhood nightmare at age four, all of her family died and Jesus visited her to bestow the consolation of some single-serve diner packets of jam, leaving her with a bad taste in her mouth ever since—for Jesus, not jam.
But it’s mostly been a transformative blessing for Lynne, with some resentments and anger disappearing at the realization that only a few things in life really matter. She has devoured several books, one of them being Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser, given to me years ago by my friend Katie, which she loved.
For me, this was a low-stakes encounter with death that served as a much-needed slap in the face. I am going to die. My children will one day die. Lynne will die. The highest of stakes for me. And while I am of course partially horrified and confused by it all, I also feel weirdly prepared now, as though I never knew before that we will all die and now I’m like, “Ohhh, okay. I’ll adjust for that. I hadn’t thought of that.”
I used to believe that death would be this spiritual journey from landscape to landscape, with reunions and revelations. I now believe that there is a good chance that consciousness is a thing separate from physicality, and that it may go somewhere after death, but that’s all I have. Surprisingly, at this point, it’s all I need. My ex-husband texted our daughter, “Death is really upsetting for people who don’t believe in life after death.” Not always harder than for people who do believe. The stories I believed in before never made sense anyway. No theories do. Any theory about death and the purpose of life meets a dead end at some point if you keep asking, “But why?” There will always be some mystery that will frustrate anyone who needs certainty. I rather like saying, “I don’t know,” and dwelling in the mystery. Which is not to say that I’m okay with theories on life after death being sold off as Real Truth without being complete.
In the meantime, Lynne and I feel distinctly aware that we’re getting older and could die any moment. She has at least one leg stuck in a bog of existential angst, while I am full of joy and gratitude. Somehow, life’s transience and possible pointlessness makes it more poetic, rich, wild and dramatic. Lynne is all, “I need to work less and sail more and travel more and live more because I’m almost forty and I could die at any time. Please, let’s hurry and think about all the problems and talk about all the problems and fix all the problems.” And like a stoned surfer, I’m all, “Relaaaax, maaan. Everything is going to be fiiiine. What a beautiful day it is today, the air is so refreshing. We’re so lucky to have each other, you know? Wow, we’re so lucky.”
Jean spent so much money on health food products and hoarded recipes she didn’t ever make but which gave her hope that she’d live longer. She was on every dating site imaginable, spending hundreds of dollars a month, on the hope that she would find love and companionship. She bought expensive face serums to buff away wrinkles. She had a lot of file folders. One was full of materials from the psychics she paid to give her winning lottery numbers, and a white folded paper pamphlet titled, Secret Document: Secret Instructions for Maximizing Your Great Lucky Day. One folder labelled “Cancer” was full of bogus natural health cures for cancer, while another labelled “Heart attacks” was empty. She died of a heart attack. If that is not a wake up call and a punch in the face…. She died with a face covered in the wrinkles of an almost-80-year-old person. She died alone, having pushed away the one person who could have most kept her from needing to spend maybe quite so much money on dating sites. It’s so sad that it seems impossible. How can anyone have such a sad, almost wasted life and die just so bitterly? If anything haunts me now, it’s this.
We get so much wrong. We prepare ourselves for certain tragedies then get struck upside the head with tragedies we didn’t expect. We brace ourselves, trying to outsmart life and death when all we succeed in doing is weakening ourselves so that when tragedy finds us, we’re more likely to be bitter, never quite recovering. I’ve decided instead that when tragedy finds me, I want it to find me mid-laugh. I want it to text me while I’m on a sailboat or in an air balloon. I want to have a deep reserve of joy and fulfillment from which to draw strength and reassurance to get me through the heartbreaks that are sure to come. I want to be able to clearly remember what it was like to be happy, so I can more clearly identify the pathway back to it as I navigate my way out of the thick forest of hardship. If we’re always living kind of pessimistic and dour, when terrible things happen to us, we won’t be able to choose the right people and life decisions to make us happy again because we won’t even remember what happy feels or looks like. I want to be able to feel my way to joy with my hands, because I know it so well. I want to be able to smell joy from miles away, its smell as familiar as my heartbeat, so that my steps through forests are calm, even though I’ve never been there before.
I am sure that happiness is like muscle memory. When we’re happy, it’s easier to bounce back from setbacks. We’re already in an optimistic state of mind, or brains flooded with happy chemicals, so it’s easy enough to say positive things in response to setbacks or upset. We say things like, “It’s not personal and I’m still worthy,” or “Something else will turn up and there’s no point fixating on this one loss.” If we say these things enough, they become more reflexive during hard times when our brain isn’t coursing with happy juice, and these statements can really make a difference as we say them, remembering how true we felt them to be at other happier times. The longer we can be happy and the more we can make the most of that happiness, the more happiness maps we’ll have in our brains.
While I’m in this happy and grateful state, reminded that life is short, I’m working on creating more positive thoughts about aging. I’m trying to associate aging less with death and more related to a life well lived. My body seems suddenly older this year. The front of my thighs look like a 45-year-old’s or 50-year-old’s. I’m 36. I’m not sure what happened or if it’s reversible. Am I just chronically dehydrated? Lacking muscle? There are so many other changes. And, like, I care. It’s discombobulating to look in the mirror and not quite recognize my identity or self-image. I look back on photos of me at age 31, shortly after my divorce, and I looked amazing but genuinely had no idea. I missed the whole thing, so worried about losing my hair, about my eyelids and cheeks drooping, and fearful that my vagina was a giant bat-infested cavern only good for shelter during a storm when you’ve taken a wrong turn on a hiking trail. I was so worried about that that I cried about it, once. Since then, a physiotherapist discovered through ultrasound that while my core muscles pretty much do not fire at all, my pelvic floor should enter drug smuggling contests. And I never pee unless I want to, so what was that crying bullshit? (Damn Patriarchy….) I could have been enjoying my youth and instead I was cashing in all my investments, preparing for retirement.
I want to feel alive while I’m alive. I want my psychological age and my actual age to be synced—neither feeling too old nor needing to pretend that I’m so young. I want to live in the present moment and sop up all the love I can so that if my loves are ever gone, I can feel them with me like blankets wrapped around my back and tucked under my chin. I want to resolve conflicts faster and to worry less about personal justice because I don’t need it. I want to make more pottery. I want to figure out the lessons in life as soon as possible so that they can actually be useful while I’m living my life, rather than a mere souvenir I leave for my kids and grandkids to enjoy, though I hope to do that, too.