I’ve been privileged enough to be in close contact with 5 people in the last decade as they approached death. For some it was rapid, for others not. For some it was peaceful, for others not. I’ve also had more than my fair share of “too close for comfort” moments for someone of my age. Each time I have been in the presence of death (imminent or threatened) I have been aware of the presence of something else – something wordless and silent. It is the great shock of death: that it is the place where words truly fail us. For a lover of words it is a shock, but still true. Words cannot touch us at that time, cannot reach us, they make no sense. Nor can they ease the shock and awe. For at that moment what comes sharply into focus is not the words “This is it. It’s over” even though they ring through our minds so loudly in the lead up to the final moments. But something else, some quietly insistent thing, pulls us towards the sensual, living being. Some deep awareness that what matters is that living, breathing, pulsing, body. This knowledge is not encoded in impulses in the brain but stored much deeper. It pulses through you, as you struggle to accept that flawed and failing body is all there is. As the body staggers and stumbles towards the end, the world of words seems nothing more than a mirage.
How could I ever have thought that words could save me? There are no words ever invented that could hold what these feelings circle endlessly, terrifyingly, joyously, around. They are loose, free, unconfined and unconstrained feelings. They dip in and out of the depths of despair, soar occasionally to the heights of ecstasy, but mostly bump along the muddy shore looking for a place to rest, a place to recuperate. How could we bear it, how could we bear it if words finally captured all that? We are blessed instead with a quietness that descends: the sound of breathing, of skin stroking skin, of lips as they touch the loved one for the last time, of the world outside carrying on oblivious to the enormity of what is happening. It feels so comfortable and comforting to be freed for that time from the curse of words. There is nothing left to say, all that is over. All that matters is that your body is there with theirs. Towards the very end even direct touch can become unnecessary, unwelcome. All that is left is presence; one body present with another at the end.
For those who walk back into the world, away from that shore, it’s hard to see everyday life as anything but a giant attempt to look away. We are so frightened, we poor little creatures. We dress life up in endless rules and structures and processes. We play out roles. We busy ourselves with all of this “production of self”. What else explains how ridiculous we poor creatures are? We are gifted with this amazing collection of atoms – the human body. And almost immediately we set about destroying its essence. We deny it free expression, we constrain it, we hide it behind job titles and uniforms, we build an imaginary world of abstract ideas in which the body does not matter, only one’s access to knowledge and ideas which then confer status and material wealth dictate one’s quality of life. From the beginning we force it to sit still and cram its head full of these of abstract ideas to prepare it for a life of yet more abstraction. We know its power – we punish it when the rules are broken: hurt it, lock it away, even kill it (and we do this to our own bodies as much as to others). We obsess endlessly on how it ought to look – one generation prizes one look, another something else. The denial of our sensual selves surely explains how we have managed to create such irrational, mad, cruel systems of living. Why we allow ourselves to be so damaged. Why we stand by as others are damaged. Why we damage.
But every now and again, alone in the night, or an opera house, or standing at night watching the sky, I feel it again. The sense that that this body, living here and now, is all that truly matters, and in that knowledge is freedom and the pathway to a less damaged and damaging life. Children know it, they submit to the sensual so much more freely than us. Artists know it, why else would art exist? Sex of course brings us very close to it, albeit briefly and usually mixed up with a whole heap of damaging mind-self nonsense. Music reminds us of it perhaps more immediately than anything else. Our sensual selves constantly circle our abstracted life of the mind looking to creep in and upset our carefully ordered “lives”. We hold them off with our words and ideas, but every visit to that shore is a reminder. In the sensuality of dying we are called to consider the simple sensuality of life. In the sensuality of dying is a reminder to attend to the sensual. Not in some “hedonistic pleasure seeker” way (we label the sensual like that to hide from its importance, its essential truth) but in the simple way we do at that moment. At that moment we are truly alive. Being in the presence of death urges us to be aware, present, open to the sensuality of life. As Walt Whitman reminds us in I Sing the Body Electric:
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.