Rubbing shoulders with death? Why on earth am I writing about this? Do I hear you say “wacky”? Yup, maybe, but bear with me and maybe, just maybe, I can convince you that a quick shoulder rub occasionally will make you feel more alive than ever before. Please read on and decide for yourself…
I have a confession to make. I have been rubbing shoulders with death for some time now and it has changed my perspective on my life and how I live it.
Why and when did I start rubbing shoulders with death?
“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent”. – Steve Jobs*
When I was a little girl I noticed something about our family holidays. I noticed that we packed a lot more into those two weeks “seeing things” and “being there” because we only had two weeks’ at the holiday resort. I remember asking my mother why that was and why we didn’t enjoy ourselves every day of the year. It seemed crazy to me. My mother was a bit bemused by this debate. She said years’ afterwards that she always thought I was a changeling!
Some years ago I had very bad bout of food poisoning. I felt so ill I just didn’t care anymore. It stopped mattering to me whether I lived or died. Gradually, I got better. It took about 10 weeks of huge doses of antibiotics. I recovered although I felt like “death warmed up.” My skin went a strange shade of grey and had a sort of plastic feel to it. Actually I felt “dead” inside. I could not warm up. I wondered if I would ever function normally again.
How often we use these terms about death in life.
Sometime after this episode, my health took a turn for the worse and so began my downward spiral until finally I changed my diet and lifestyle.
Getting ill is another story but at the time of my recovery from food poisoning , I did something I had always wanted to do but had lacked the courage. I visited a tattoo parlour and had some “ink”. I had a small daisy tatted onto my right hip. I thought at the time that it was to remind me to live. I was so grateful to be alive. Then I forgot again. It’s funny how that happens. Life goes on and we forget.
Time passed and one day I was reading a Shakespeare play and these words jumped out at me:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”**
I remember wondering exactly why Shakespeare wrote this when he did and that I must start to reflect on this more… Then I forgot..
One day my husband had a massive stroke and I found him lying across his bed and resuscitated him. Hmmm! Life changed for him and for me in that instant!
Tme passed – Stuff happened.
My condition worsened and I started to choke at night and then during the day. I started to live in fear of dying on a daily basis. The doctors I consulted could not give me any answers. I kept falling asleep suddenly. (See my post about this here). I had sudden allergic reactions to other people’s perfumes. My skin reacted adversely to the touch of my clothes and my sheets. (See my post about skin writing here). My hair fell out and my scalp burned from hair dye and shampoo use. The list went on and on.
My husband had more strokes and I had been caring for him for a while and when it became clear that he also had continuing vascular dementia. My lovely mother, who had been helping me with my husband, suddenly (so it seemed) contracted front lobe dementia and quickly declined. I felt desperate and alone. What with my loved ones’ health issues and my own I could not work and I lost my way. My career just petered slowly out. Everything that I knew had gone. I vowed to myself that if I managed to find my way out of the “shit palace” I was living in, with my health and my life, then I would make it mean something and it wouldn’t just be another tattoo on my skin.
Lessons from others….
After his strokes, my, used to be clever civil servant, husband was severely brain damaged and with a severe cognitive impairment. It affected him on may levels. He wasn’t supposed to live long. Every day I went to the hospital and taught him things. For example, he had to learn what common items were called and their colours again. “This is the lawn. It is green. This is a twig. It is largely brown. Your shoes are black, your shirt is blue….” Over and over again. The hospital, where he spent his days, said it was probably pointless but we persevered. What I noticed was that he saw everything each day as if for the first time and he stared intently and in wonder at it all. Sunsets became magnificent for him and he would sit gazing intently watching the beautiful colours. Flavours also became wonderful for him and he enjoyed each meal was as though it was the first time he had eaten that dish. It was both magical and heart breaking to watch. He had become childlike in his wonder and enjoyment of life.
I started to try to see things the way he did. With fresh childlike eyes. When I remembered to do it, it had a profound effect on the way I saw things…..
What was I waiting for? Eureka!
One day, quite suddenly it became crystal clear to me that THIS WA IT! “Shit palace” or not this was my life! It had to mean something now! I had to make every day, in fact, every moment, mean something to me. No point in waiting as the train tracks could run out for me at any moment. My last breath out could be final especially when I was having a choking session. MY TIME WAS NOW!
I decided at that point to start to live as though each day was my last day. From that day on this is what I have tried to do. I am work in progress. It is a practice. I am not perfect! But it has produced some remarkable results for me. I feel that I live more! I notice things. I am mindful. I live in the present moment. I enjoy things. I enjoy people. Hey! This may be the last time I see them. The last conversation I have. This might be the last music I hear. This rose is so exquisite beautiful. Wow! Look at that bumblebee, Feel the softness of my cat’s fur. The gentle caress of this rain on my skin …..
Living this way is mind blowing!
The Untethered Soul ***
I read this wonderful book sometime later ( link below) and was struck by how well Michael A Sanger put over this concept. If you haven’t read his life changing book then I urge you to do so. At one point he imagines a scenario in which the Angel of Death comes and says it’s time to go and you argue and plead for one more week…
“….Do you know what Death will say to you? He’ll say, “My God! I gave you fifty-two weeks this past year alone. And look at all those other weeks I’ve given you. Why would you need one more? What did you do with all those? If asked that, what are you going to say? How will you answer? I wasn’t paying attention… I didn’t think it mattered?…”
Everything is a million times more meaningful in that final week. What if you were to live every week that way? ***
And ongoing …
I now try to enjoy every minute of my life. I am no longer wanting to marvellous experiences although I do find that I am doing them. Everything I do is an experience anyway. I really enjoy my everyday experiences. I savour them now. I am mindful of the little things.
I now see death as a great teacher. It has taught me to experience life fully. I do not regret rubbing shoulders with death and I am now far less worried about dying. As I said, I am work in progress. I will let you know!
The photo above shows what I understand to be sugar skull makeup typically worn for the Dia del Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrated particularly in Mexico. I enclose a link to some more information about this here. I was once privileged to be invited to a celebration of this day by some Mexican families living in London and I was particularly struck at how, in remembering and honouring the dead, life was celebrated. Wonderful!
I recently enjoyed the cartoon film The Book Of Life . I have attached a Utube link to the film trailer. I recommend it. I have no idea as to its authenticity (Mexicano friends may tell me) but it is an interesting little film and a story involving the Day of the Dead…..
*Co Founder of Apple Inc 1955 – 2011. His 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
** William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act 1 Scene 11.