There are worse things than death. But still we fight it tooth and coffin nail, no matter how much pain or sickness has eaten away at our very bones. We fight that inevitable sleep, like new babies not wanting to miss the next taste of sweet milk or bright flicker of light. We fight to keep our eyes open. We run mad into the night. We medicate and pray and curse until that old sleep finally wins.
And it always wins.
It was not always so desperately fought, that long sleep. Death was the bastard cousin nobody liked but welcomed anyway, for its visit was as natural as the sunset. It was as common as birthdays and Christmas and Winter. Less than a century ago, many a house here in the mountains had two front doors. One for good days, and the other that opened into a parlor for sittin’ up with the dead and the company that would surely come. Funeral doors, they were called, and they opened into a quaint room where folks could come and go as they pleased and look upon the dearly departed without having to set foot into the rest of the house and spoil their welcome.
In those somber old days, death visited so frequently that it had its own room.
And folks would sit up all night with the deceased and dance the flatfoot and sing hymns and drink ‘shine and wail and pray for good measure. They sat up all night to keep the cats and rats and vermin from creeping into the coffin. And sometimes they’d pay good money to get their pictures made with the deceased, for remembrance of good times and history, for both were fleeting in those days. It wasn’t unheard of for folks to take the dead and prop them up on the couch or the porch or wherever they were most comfortable and had their immortal pictures taken. And there are more than a few photos of regular caskets in regular living rooms in family albums and on mantles throughout these hills, even nowadays.
But in the olden times, they’d sometimes have to wait for days on end for family to receive word of the recently dead, and they were left to do their best to preserve the remains for viewing. They’d place cloths soaked in camphor and alcohol and even salt water upon the faces of the dead, to preserve a more natural color and assure a decent enough body for viewing.
Death is not beautiful to look at. But that’s only the physical side of that bastard cousin. We are more than these shells we walk around in, I promise you.
I have personally been privy to the witnessing of death itself, many times, both by circumstance and destiny. Death is not beautiful, as I said, despite those romantic scenes in black and white movies and the tragic parts of lovelorn novels. Death is dressed in plain clothes and agape mouths and the most astounding silence you can fancy. Death comes one of two ways: it either comes peaceful and serene, or it comes kicking and screaming. Most times, it is the former, thank our loving God and nature. But regardless of the final way, it is like that proverbial train wreck; we cannot help but look upon it despite its accursed plainness.
And you and I both know why.
Death is our most solemn and looming adversary, and yet our most sought after mystery. We hope beyond our grief to gain some knowledge from it, to see or hear or know something that Life has never told or shown us. That place beyond death is the only nirvana we have not yet been or have even seen pictures of, and yet it is the final place we will call home.
But I can tell you a few of death’s secrets, ones that I have witnessed with my own mortal eyes. And these are the truth.
Many folks on the verge of departing from this world see and even speak to those who have gone before them. I’ve seen them reach out with confident hands and happy smiles and let their fears dissipate into old remembrances and nuances of whispers from their Mama or Daddy or their dear ol’ Granny. I have seen the lights flicker—actually flicker and tremble with an electric energy I cannot see—at the very moment when a body lets go of its crowning breath.
I have felt the room grow crowded with nobody I could see and felt the brush of shoulders against mine when I was the only living soul with the departing. I have witnessed other flashes of light, whirls of flyspeck orbs of white in a spinning spiral, fleeting and sure, above the heads of the nearly gone.
But no, death is not beautiful. It robs the body of its rosy lips and bright eyes. It stiffens the jaw and stills the chest. It erases the lines of worry from the face and removes the person you knew from that still figure and sends them into that spiral of light. And you cannot go with them. Not today.
But I have been privy to witness many a dying, as I said. And each time it has been an odd sort of blessing, and while I don’t long to meet ol’ death, I know for certain that one day we shall meet in some trench that I was unable to escape. And I know beyond knowing that those lights will flicker and Granny and Daddy and the others will show up, and I’ll be happy to see them again, and they will pull me into that spiral of a white whirlwind and I’ll be away with them.
To where, I really can’t say for sure. I haven’t seen that place yet. But wherever that nirvana is, they are, and I will be also. But no, not today. I still have things to do. And so do you.
And I can’t say that I’ll go willingly when the time creeps upon me. After all, things are pretty good the way they are. I like it here. And yes, sometimes even pain becomes comfortable, especially when compared to the otherwhere. But I figure I was content, wherever I was, before I was born. And it’ll be the same when the long sleep comes.
Still, I don’t imagine I’ll just greet that cousin with open arms.
There are worse things than death. But I will likely still run mad into the night, even though I know for certain that in the waiting end, we are not alone. I’ll still fight that sleep, waiting for that sweet milk. And beyond my heavy eyes, I will remember the flickering lights and the rooms crowded with nobody I could see. And Granny will tell me that supper is waiting, and to hurry up and get on home. And I’ll be glad to go.
And I will not fear death. I will run free. I will find ol’ Death before he finds me!