It might be strange to say out loud, but I’ve never been without a thought of death.
My first memories of death were when I was a child. My sister contracted encephalitis. I was 7 or 8, she was 5. She was in a coma for two weeks. The doctors thought she was going to die, and so they brought my soldier-father home to Arkansas from Korea, where he had been deployed.
I remember sitting beneath an open window with my 3 year old sister, digging in the dirt. My mother was inside the kitchen, on the other side of the screen, talking to a neighbor about how ill the middle sister was. “She might not make it,” I overheard her say.
Instead of being sad, my childish selfishness flared up. I laid claim to my dying sister’s dolls, while my younger sister wanted to score her underwear.
(Our plans were for naught. My sister recovered, was showered with more dolls and toys, and is still alive – many decades later – today.)
In high school, I suffered from teen angst. My mother was nuts, and I wasn’t popular. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, but I often imagined myself “gone” – in another world, a hopefully better one than this one. I walked in the middle of the highway, daring cars to hit me. (Okay, so maybe I had a death wish.) Once I got my drivers license, I visualized violent crashes if I just veered off the road, just a little bit. It could happen. I could be a statistic. This wasn’t a once in a year thought; I thought about it every time I got behind the wheel.
What would my parents do? My siblings? Would the hole at the kitchen table leave a hole in their hearts? Would I be here today, gone tomorrow, a wisp of a thought no one gives a damn about?
I still wonder about cars. After all, three thousand pounds of careening metal is a deadly weapon. Most people are stupid drivers. La-dee-daaahhhh…. On the other hand, I’m a diligent driver, probably because of my Real Life business nagging me on my shoulder. I scan ahead, behind, to the side. I watch for overpasses, on the hunt for kids who think that hefting a large rock onto freeway traffic might be a fun diversion. My “cushion of air” is big enough to fit three cars around me, and I drive like a granny.
But I still think about dying.
Death is a good topic to address in any writing. We are drawn to reading and writing about it. Why? It’s easy to read and write about, because then we aren’t talking about it. Dying is the Big Unknown. No one wants to discuss it, not out loud anyway. I had to drag my husband kicking and screaming into the conversation just to get him to face facts that our will was dangerously overdue for revision, and that only took ten years.
And then there are thoughts deeper than which kid will get what: Is there heaven on the other side? Hell? God forbid, NOTHING? I personally believe in reincarnation AND ghosts. I’ve had visions of me being in other places, in other times, and this was when I was quite young and had minimal access to media. After my mom died (unexpectedly), I believe she spent a year floating from one child’s house to another. It was as if she wasn’t quite finished with us yet, like she was checking on us. So yes, when I go, I’ll be back.
After you’ve considered your own after-death fate, you wonder about the survivors. Will the husband remarry? Will the kids forget about you? Will there be knock-down, drag-out fights over what remains? (Death has a way of making people go crazy, remember?) Will anyone visit your grave? (That’s not so far fetched.) Will they know how to make your world-famous chicken soup, or will they ruefully wish they’d paid more attention?
I’ve noticed that in my writing, either someone has died or is dying. My first stories revolved around the survivors and how they reacted. I’m old enough where I’ve seen lots of death. Grief reactions are so varied, you really have to scratch past the surface and investigate why the person has reacted that way. There’s always a reason. Sometimes it’s a good reason, sometimes it appears crazy, but later, it makes sense.
Now I tend to write about people who are dying or are considering suicide. Being sick with a terminal disease sucks; so is being hopelessly depressed. I am neither, so it’s difficult for me to imagine confronting Death knowing your days are numbered and your seconds are ticking by faster and faster. Still, I’m getting to the age where I have to think about it.
All of this translates into good material.
Every night I go to sleep and the words of the nighttime prayer come to mind:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I am amazed and happy every day I wake up.
Another day gives me another chance to write.