While sitting with my mother a few hours before her death, I had one thought: this is what the mirror image of birth looks like. Both are ordeals, pieces of transitional work. She was exerting herself – to breathe, to get somewhere, to do something – even if that something or somewhere wasn’t quite identifiable. Then, when she became too agitated, the hospice nurse added medication, and things calmed down. The process became quieter and more internal, but it continued. It was inexorable.
Over and over, I have heard people who have witnessed it describe death as “beautiful.” I know more than one person whose experience of bearing witness to death reinforced to near certainty their belief of an afterlife. As usual, I’m an outlier.
I didn’t find my mother’s death beautiful, exactly. It wasn’t horrifying, either. It was authentic, gritty, and matter of fact – but on reflection, my mother was all of those things, too. So it makes a kind of internal sense. We are who we are as we die, as much as while we live.
More than anything, though, it reinforced my understanding of life and death as a collection of reliable, trustworthy processes that, with a few variations, mostly follow similar patterns. It’s this way from the beginning. Birth has its own logic, and its own unique script: there are stages of labor, all designed to gradually open the cervix. Pain escalates with each stage. The baby is out, then the placenta. We meet our mothers for the first time.
From there, we grow. Childhood development follows its own rhythm, and after that, adolescence marches along. Everything is a process: digestion, respiration, immune response, love, grief, menopause, aging, and then death. There is something reliable and therefore deeply comforting about this.
These processes exist throughout nature, both on an individual and systemic basis. When I was last hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I took particular notice of a phenomenon that had always interested me: nurse logs. When an evergreen tree dies and falls – or falls and dies, as the case may be – in the rain forest, a process begins. Bacteria and fungi begin to break down the dead tree’s lignin – the biopolymer that gives wood its structure and strength – making the formerly hard bark spongy and soft, and creating holes and niches in which small things begin to grow. Mosses and tiny mushrooms appear on the tree. Chipmunks and squirrels perch on it, dropping food and poo. A layer of soil begins to take shape, and eventually, seedlings sprout there, aided by the sliver of light created when the tree fell in an otherwise dense and dark forest. Some of those sprouts succeed and become full-fledged trees, rooted in the body of their forebear.
This entire process contains within it a kind of magical irony: A dead, fallen tree contains about five times more living matter than it did when it was alive. Death is painful and cataclysmic –like a massive tree crashing into a forest – and then, slowly, it becomes part of the material we use to grow our lives, whether we like it or not. When a giant in your world comes crashing down, there is pain, but after awhile, there are other things, like questions, epiphanies, understandings, growth, and realizations of our own strength. It doesn’t make it somehow “worth it;” it’s just how it is.
I don’t really understand why these processes happen, or where they come from, but they give me comfort all the same. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote of a letter she received from her friend, Martha Beck, who officiated Gilbert’s commitment ceremony with her partner, Rayya, who died half a year later. In that letter, Beck wrote, in part: “Death is every bit as common as life, and both utterly baffle me.”
I nearly cheered as I read that. Finally, someone else has thrown up their hands and admitted they have no idea what is going on here. I was delighted – thrilled, even. Because I, too, have no idea what’s going on here. I do not have the certainty others do; I would feel deeply uncomfortable with it. The stubborn ambiguity of why, which is often so hard to swallow, doesn’t sting as much when I think of the reliable, inevitable, inexorable processes that appear in every corner of life and death.
Who fucking knows? Not me. So while I’m here, I’ll do my best to live well, take growth from pain and loss, and try to do some good. That’s all I understand.
The rest is a mystery and therefore the source of all wonder. And I like wonder.