How do you steward someone into death? (Warning: rambling, maudlin navel gazing ahead.)
I’ve always been attracted to psychopomps, whether we are talking about deities or the mythic symbolism attached to animals. I don’t know when that started. When I was a little kid, I saw ghosts and could communicate with them. Then at some point, I became terrified of them. I stopped seeing them, though I could still sense their presence sometimes. I was also terrified of mummies and skeletons. I had repeating nightmares where I was being hunted by revenant mummies and skeletons. Even when I was a teenager, I couldn’t go into the Egyptian wing of the British Museum for fear of seeing mummies. (Talk about a wasted opportunity!)
It was weird because I wasn’t bothered at all by the idea of death, maybe because I was still young enough to believe myself immortal. I remember when I first found out about death. My dad and I were talking a walk down a country lane near our house. My parents were still together, so I was younger than 4. We found a dead black cat on the road; I asked my dad what had happened to it, and he explained how it had probably been hit by a car and killed. When I was around 8 or 9, some kids found another dead cat in the street. A grey tabby kitten. I don’t know how it was possible, anatomically speaking, but the entire skull, eyeballs still in situ, had come out of the skin through the mouth. We poked it with sticks. I wasn’t a baby sociopath. I was sad when pets died. I empathized with grieving survivors. I was just matter-of-fact in the way little kids are when they haven’t been traumatized yet.
From a pretty early age my mom took me walking in graveyards, a hobby of hers since her own childhood. Years later my grandmother shyly confessed that walking in cemeteries had been a hobby of hers since she was a girl. She had never told my mother that. Sharing stories of our ancestors has always been very important in my maternal family and many an entertaining evening of my childhood was passed in fond reminiscences of our Beloved Dead. I still love visiting graveyards, feeling the unique vibes that each one has. (The photos here are from some of my favorite cemeteries. All photos are by me unless otherwise indicated.)
Yet at the same time I had these insane nightmares. After my parents divorced, my dad got remarried and I had to spend weekends at my stepmonster’s house. I would lie awake in the dark listening to the hall clock ticking outside my room, paralyzed with terror that a skeleton would come out of the closet and turn me into a skeleton too. I’m quite comfortable around skeletons now, but to this day I cannot be in a room with a ticking clock.
I am completely baffled as to what might have happened to stop me seeing ghosts and start me being terrified of reanimated corpses (and note this was way before zombies got popular). If I had the money I think I might go get hypnotically regressed to see what might turn up. I have always just assumed I absorbed the death-phobic messages of our culture, and maybe that’s all it was.
When I went to college, I was considering majoring in archaeology. I decided to take a course in human osteology (the analysis of skeletal materials) because (1) I thought it might desensitize me to my fear of skeletons, and whether or not this experiment worked would determine whether archaeology was a viable career path; and (2) it counted toward the math and science distribution requirements, sparing me from having to take something even more frightening. To my surprise, I wasn’t the least bothered by the bones and in fact I loved working with them. I ended up taking all the human skeletal-themed classes offered, as well as gross anatomy. In my time as an archaeologist I excavated various burials, analyzed many bones in the lab, even butchered (predeceased) animals with stone tools. Sometime during my 15 or so years of working with bits of dead persons, it occurred to me that I Worked With the Dead, and that this was a Very Serious and Important Thing.
(Please don’t judge my youthful naïveté too harshly. We were all dumb in our 20s.)
Only later did I realize that in these early forays, the dead were made to serve my ends, and not the other way around. Oh, I was always respectful, humble, and completely honored to be there “analyzing” these Dead Ones, but it did not occur to me that my ends might not be their ends.
Sometimes when Native American/First Nations people want to bring home to whites how it feels to have their ancestors’ burials excavated and analyzed, they say some version of, “How would you feel if someone came and dug up your grandmother’s bones?” I’ve always thought this question perfectly encapsulated the difference in worldview between Natives and modern Western white people–because I would be truly surprised if your average modern Western white person gave one damn about whether their grandmother’s bones were dug up (as long as they personally don’t have to see them, because ew). I know I didn’t. First, I grew up in a New Age-Christian milieu that said that once you are dead, you shuffle off your mortal coil and have no further need of it. (I realize this has not always been the prevailing attitude among Christians, but it’s pretty de rigeur for all the 20th-century American Christians that I ever encountered.) Certainly that’s what my grandma believed. Second, it was all for the good of Science and Knowledge. Surely no one would mind donating their physical remains to that cause? I mean, since they weren’t using them and all? And third, not to put too fine a point on it, who cares about old people or even worse, old dead people? (I didn’t share that last opinion, at least, but I do think it’s pretty common.)
(I’m so embarrassed.)
My philosophical and spiritual views on the dead have evolved over the years, as middle age inevitably brings infinite shades of grey. In fact by the time I finished my dissertation, I wanted to throw the whole thing away because of the unsophisticated views of death and the spirit world that I was forced to assume due to the nature of academia. But for the past four years I have been truly Working with Death, in ways silly self-important 20-year-old me could never have imagined. I have been working on my genealogy, a family tree that now contains several thousand
nuts people and stretches back beyond the end of the Roman Empire. I’ve always been ambivalent about having children, as if I could afford them, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of bringing new people into this world in this time; but now I feel equally uncomfortable with the idea that when I die, there may be no one to whom I can pass on the family lore or blood. (Also the genes for excellent teeth. I have my genetic shortcomings, but they are non-dental in nature. Never had a cavity, have all my wisdom teeth, and am blessed with a diastema at least as good as Lauren Hutton’s. And, pro tip: When civilization crashes and burns, your teeth may be all that stands between you and certain death.) I suffer from eschatological dissonance.
More immediately, I am trying to consciously steward my mother into death. (Unsurprisingly, Saturn–duty, responsibility–is currently transiting my 8th house and conjoining my progressed Moon–family, roots, one’s mother, emotional sensibility.) I debated about how detailed and how honest to be or whether I should write about this at all. I don’t want to seem self-pitying and I’m not looking for pity, sympathy, or anything else. But I feel like the topic is important; and I know there are others facing the same situation. And for those of us who aren’t members of the dominant religions and/or don’t hold with dominant worldviews, there is no community to provide the sort of naturalized, taken-for-granted rationales and explanations that can be so comforting.We have to work it out for ourselves, making it up as we go, and then fight hard to hold onto what we find in the face of overwhelming naysaying.
When I came here my mom was in an induced coma in intensive care and I thought her death was imminent. I managed to pack all my belongings in three days–a minor miracle–threw them into storage, and drove halfway across the US in four days (for those of you not from the US, that is fast), hoping she would hold out long enough for me to get there before she died.
Four years later, she is still alive. And my feelings about it are so mixed, I sometimes think they will tear me apart. Caregiving is physically and psycologically grueling work. Every day I walk a mile and a half to two miles, just crisscrossing this tiny apartment doing chores (or so says my pedometer). It is way too tiny an apartment for two adults, but my mom is too frail to move. That’s also why I had to move in with her instead of vice versa. There is no privacy, no alone time, no respite from the 24/7 hum and rumble of various machines keeping her tethered to the world. I can’t leave the house for more than a few hours at a time (and even that is a rare luxury), so there are no vacations either. I don’t know if she’s afraid to die–she’d never admit it if she were–but I know that the way she is dying is a painful and terrifying way, suffocating slowly. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I am thankful for these “extra” four years I have had with my mom. Dropping my barely-begun career to come here had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to see it wasn’t right for me and giving me a chance to explore things that may be. We have no extra money, but we get by, which is more than many Americans can say these days. I even have very (very) rudimentary health insurance.
But I won’t be free to have my own adult life again–you know, with friends, and socializing, and living in a part of the world that doesn’t make me miserable, and uninterrupted sleep at night, and sweet, sweet, precious alone time–until she dies. I had some chronic low-level health problems that have grown into scary health problems, most of which boil down to the stress of watching someone you love in agony and fear, yet not really wanting to die, yet always seeming as if they might die any moment, for years. And the rock-and-a-hard-place bind of knowing you can’t be free until your loved one dies, yet not wanting to be the kind of person who wishes a loved one dead, which you don’t, but you want to be free. I get irritable and bitchy and then feel ashamed of myself.
The most important thing to me now is to ensure my mom gets the best death possible, whenever it may come. Modern medicine saved her from a bad death in her youth, but has cheated her of a good death in her old age. Like many a caregiver before me I lament that our social and medical systems are all about increasing quantity of life at the expense of quality. I am grateful beyond what words can express to the hospice nurses who are (fingers crossed) making it possible for my mom to die at home, in relative comfort, but she will not go gently into that good night, oh no, she will fight tooth and nail to hold on because that’s her nature. She’s hell-bent on survival no matter how miserable it makes her.
I lack the magical chops to be an effective psychopomp myself. I can, and do, ask for help from the real deal and from my ancestors–some of whom are themselves psychopomps if legend is to be believed. Happily my aunts, my mom’s sisters who are already dead, have appeared in my dreams several times to assure me they are on it. It’s still important to me, ethically, personally, and spiritually, to step up and do my part as a steward while my mom is still alive–preferably without measurably shortening my own life or flying into a homicidal rage or indigo depression in the process. I am mostly making a mess of it. I am not a practical person and even if I weren’t always exhausted I would still be a terrible procrastinator.
I welcome any thoughts on this. Have you ever stewarded someone into a good death? How did you conceive your role and responsibilities?