Burning my tongue and hand on a mug of hot cider, I notice the child-size skeleton perched on the butcher’s block grinning at me with the secret of death. Witch’s wind gusting from the west shakes the house; my core is chilled and has been all day. A candle, shaped like a pumpkin and smelling of pie, slowly drinks the wax from its wick. Mummies stand sentry and mute with watchful eyes. I’ve exhausted most of the mysterious and haunting television programs on offer this time of year…and I’m left wanting more. I want to explore, to embrace the mystery of it all. The mystery of life and what lies just on the other side of the thinnest membrane, the most fragile breath: death.
I’ve always been this way. Weekly visits to the public library in my small town usually found me sitting on the floor, knees tucked under my dress, searching out my favorites. Stories about little girls—Amish girls, Jewish girls, Laura Ingalls and her sisters—were my staple. I stepped into those stories of little girls, underdogs in a way, and jumped out of them powerful. Powerful enough to tackle my second love: ghost stories. Good old psychological ghost stories from Victorian times to the present. Ghost stories probably a bit too sophisticated for my age. They scared the hell out of me; I loved it. I literally sweated through every one of them and slept with a light on…just in case.
I’m not sure from where this fascination with death and what lies beyond came. Perhaps because I was often sick. Or because I was raised Catholic which shrouded and revealed mystery and darkness and the light with every feather kiss of warm incense. Maybe because when I was still wearing diapers, my parents introduced me to the importance of Halloween. Or maybe because I was still so young, I remembered the other side. Whatever the reason, the allure has never left me. My beliefs have changed. With new knowledge—of science, quantum physics, Judaism, Islam and Wicca, just to name a few—my beliefs have even expanded. But the allure has always remained the same.
Yet, I am afraid to die. Terrified at times: what will the last breath be like? Will I willingly give up control or will I float, confused and covetous of a body I no longer possess? Will I become a ghost in my own story?
This fear is really foolish. Especially for me. Twice in my adult life, I have tasted death.
The last time was a decade ago when my husband and I were stationed in Italy. Two clots in my left leg, one behind the knee and the other in the femoral vein, held the blood in my body hostage. As two different military doctors and a military nurse misdiagnosed me three times in as many days, the blood in my left thigh, with nowhere to go, inflated like an overfed mosquito. Every step ended in a scream. My husband carried me up and down the staircase or into the bathroom. I wished I could have passed out; the leg was hot to the touch, my groin was bruised and the pain was a cold steel rod shoved in and out like a rape.
When a third military doctor finally listened and discovered the clots, I was taken by ambulance to an Italian hospital. A CT Scan cleared my heart, lungs and brain: the clots had not moved. One more day, I was told, by both the military doctor and the Italian ones, they would have. One more day, I would be dead.
Hooked to a heparin IV, I was left alone in a darkened room. Tears, more from relief than physical pain, bellowed out their own death rattle. Then, they simply stopped. I cannot find the words to describe how beautiful I felt. I did not hear the booming voice of God. No angel appeared. In that moment, my soul just somehow knew: I was going to live. And live better than I ever had before. In that moment, I was reborn into Grace. That moment began opening me to Truth. Death, hovering so near, gave me another chance. Death seemed less like a skeletal reaper dressed in black and more like an old friend who had seen me at my worse and loved me even more.
That moment I have spent a decade trying to regain. No, I am not morbid. And I certainly do not want to ever be that sick or in that much pain again. I just miss that intimate connection to the Divine. I miss living in Grace. When I write or dance or play, I come close. When I dream in vivid colors of lives not this one, I come even closer. Closer still when I make love with my husband.
Yet, I still feel wistful. I miss that moment with my entire being. Because the other side of Grace, the other side of kissing death, is that soul-deep knowledge of the finite. For ten years, I have been aware that my time is running out. When I am busy or creative or even when life offers a challenge and an opportunity to change, I am great. I can easily go with the flow.
What I have a hell of a time doing is going with the ebb.
Yes, I can relax. I can watch crappy TV for hours. I can nap or even sleep the entire night through. But I can only do any of this for so long before my inner clock starts itching around my brain and down my chest into my heart. In these moments, Grace is kicked to the curb. I begin to berate myself with words like unproductive and failure. In these moments which are necessary but feel static and punishing, I fear death once again. In these moments, Death is horrific and smells of decay. Death haunts just as Life, when it is too silent, haunts. Perhaps this is what Hell actually is: allowing that intimate connection to the Divine slip away with every moment of self-doubt, every moment of fear.
In these moments, the witch’s wind chills my core even as I lie awake sweating.
I leave the light on…just in case.