Death is the great mystery that has bedeviled us for as long as humans or their ancestors developed the first spark of self-consciousness. It appears in so many guises in our stories, from Shakespeare's "the undiscover'd country, from whose bourn no traveller returns" to Neil Gaiman's sweet, goth-like girl. To define death would be to define the whole range of human experiences, emotions, as well as our hopes, dreams, and fears.
Lately, death has been on my mind. Two days ago, on March 25, I learned that a high school classmate of mine had died after a years-long battle with leukemia. Although he and I were never close (he was two years older than me and had struggled to stay in school until 18, when he dropped out), he is the second person in my high school class (we had as many as 71, with 58 graduating in 1992) to die. It is a sobering realization, knowing that cancer can take the young as well as the old. That, more than gray hairs, middle-age spreads, or achy joints, serves to remind people of their mortality.
What is there about death that entices us, scares us, makes us do all sorts of things to embrace it or attempt (vainly) to flee from it? What power does it have that can drive a person away from the bedside of a loved one (I almost vomited seeing my maternal grandfather in the ICU as the doctors tried to resuscitate him a second time; I left the hospital two hours before he died, because I just couldn't bear the emotional atmosphere there any longer. Still haunted by those dreams), while another frantically rushes to be there for that one final, bittersweet moment?
In the Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Conjunctions, called The Death Issue: Meditations on the Inevitable, 42 authors weigh in with their poems and short stories on this most mysterious of human experiences. The result is a powerful, sometimes disturbing collection of stories that showcase all the myriad emotions that the living can feel when confronted with death and with the dying.
The collection opens with Sallie Tisdale's "The Sutra of Maggots and Blowfish." Tisdale combines scientific inquiry into the brief lives and deaths of ephemeral insects with Buddhist reflections on suffering and loss. Below are a couple of excerpts that cut to the heart of her story:
My study of living things, part inquiry and part the urge to possess, became inevitably a study of predation and decay. I had to feed my pets, and most preferred live food. The mantises always died, their seasons short. The chameleons died, too delicate for my care. The alligator died. I tried to embalm it, with limited success - just good enough for an excellent presentation at show-and-tell. When one of my turtles died, my brother and I buried it in my mother's rose bed to see if we could get an empty turtle shell, which would be quite a good thing to have. When we dug it up a few weeks later, there was almost nothing left - an outcome I had not anticipated, and one that left me with a strange, disturbed feeling. The earth was more fierce than I had guessed (p. 8)
Buddhism in its heart is an answer to our questions about suffering and loss, a response to the inexplicable; it is a way to live with life. Its explanations, its particular vocabulary and shorthand, its gentle pressures - they have been with me throughout my adult life; they are part of my language, my thought, my view. Buddhism saved my life and controlled it; it has been liberation and censure at once.
Buddhism is blunt about suffering, its causes and its cures. The Buddha taught that nothing is permanent. He taught this in a great many ways, but most of what he said came down to this: Things change. Change hurts; change cannot be avoided. "All compounded things are subject to dissolution" - this formula is basic Buddhist doctrine, it is pounded into us by the canon, by the masters, by our daily lives. It means all things are compounded and will dissolve, which means I am compounded and I will dissolve. This is not something I readily accept, and yet I am continually bombarded with the evidence. I longed to know this, this fact of life, this answer - that we are put together from other things and will be taken apart and build anew - that there is nothing known that escapes this fate. When one of his disciples struggled with lust or felt pride in his youth or strength, the Buddha recommended that the follower go to the charnel ground, and meditate on a corpse - on its blossoming into something new (pp. 13-14)
Tisdale's take on death serves as a near-perfect opener for this anthology issue, as the dualism of change/decay and of the first-person narrator's intense desire to explore/probe is balanced by the Buddhist beliefs the narrator attempts to practice. Many times in life, I have come into contact with people who seek detachment, but whose basic personalities are those of intense, driven, world-absorbed people. The inherent contradictions in this relate well with the seemingly paradoxical observation that death ceremonies serve the living and not the dead.
Another take on death that grabbed my attention was Michael Logan's "The Pressure Points." Told in a series of flashbacks involving the husband/narrator and his dying (then later dead) wife, who has breast cancer, Logan's tale reflects the anger, hatred, and irrational reactions that the spectre of Death can raise among the living and the dying.
Weeks not hungry punctuated by specific cravings for olives, chocolate, pistachio nuts, and pills - waiting for the death pregnancy test to register positive. Teen year erotic wet dreams discharged between clenched night teeth into amputation nightmares. Biology needed another host to continue. We had no children. The whole family should be dead. I am willing to go back several generations. I understand vampire stories now. (p. 351)Logan's short story, with its rapid-fire changes in perspective and point of view, captures much of the confusion and frustration that comes from watching a disease like cancer conducting its slow, inexorable fatal march across the features of a loved one. It reminded me of my reactions at the age of 14, watching (before I finally turned away, three months before her death) my paternal grandmother die of stomach, lung, and liver cancer.
These are but two stellar stories in a collection that contains more very good stories than poor or average tales. In reading this anthology this past weekend, I recalled so many of the emotions that I felt over the years when friends and family died, or when I learned that a then-current or former student of mine had died in an accident. Coming to grips with these sorts of situations supposedly is a sign of maturation, of "growing up," even if so often we fail to grow towards a greater understanding of what is transpiring when a living body ceases to be alive. However, the tales contained in Conjunctions 51: The Death Issue touch upon so many of our nerve points that for any wanting to read thoughtful, challenging, and sometimes provocative tales on death and how it affects both the living and the dying (a separate entity with its own rules, or just part and parcel of the former? Such a question is addressed in several ways in this anthology.), this might be the anthology for them. Highly recommended.