Shortly after I came home from the hospital, I stood outside next to a tree. I leaned on the tree because the short walk had wiped me out.
I felt my entire body at once. I was shaking. I felt like the thinnest and most fragile leaf, with holes in it. I started to feel transparent.
Light shone through the transparency that affected everything. With it, love, connection, change, truth, things that can never be named or described. Still aware of my entire body at once, the immense struggle it took to physically continue on any level. How close I was to death. Light through the leaves on the tree above me. Light through me invisibly, through everything.
I understand important things through the workings of the redwoods. Things without names, things without words. Redwood Terrace is holy ground embedded in my soul. Under my feet is earth, and roots, and many things unseen. And a connection to Redwood Terrace, outside time. And I am there, as well.
The fungal mycelium people never think about, under their feet all the time. Life, and death, and life, connected, changing, moving, things becoming parts of one another. An old, familiar, comforting promise: If you die this time, if you must step over that edge, we promise, we promise this is in store for you on every level, and if you want, we will eat you, we will change you, you will become life for so many, and on it goes, and this is love, this is our offering to the world.
If I knew I was dying and there were no consequences to these acts, I would put my last ounces of energy and effort into going to Redwood Terrace. I would find a hollow tree or the closest thing, curl up, and wait. The end might be painful, terrible, messy, but nothing is tidy about dying and none of us is guaranteed it will be easy. I would die in the place I have the most connection to. My last act to offer myself over to that place, body and soul. Everything from microbes to plants to animals to fungi would have a feast and I would turn into life, and things would be happening on levels that have no words and can’t be spoken of.
I will never do this. The person who found me. The pointless waste of resources looking for a crime that never happened. These are enough reasons, and there are more. But it’s what I’d want. I’ll settle for being composted and the results returned to the ground as close to the Mother Tree as possible. Nobody is guaranteed the life we want or the death we want. But that is the death I want.
But as I stand there I am aware of that promise, aware of the ancient threads under my feet tying death and life as essential parts of each other. Aware that should death happen there is beauty and love, not fear. How everything left of me can be absorbed into new life and timeless love. Aware how close I stand to the line, aware of the silent, patient presence of Death.
Death by now is an old friend. I’ve had too many close calls not to become acquainted. I once spent five weeks pretty much abandoned to live or die in a series of hospital rooms where for the most part I was unwanted. Doctors have said they’re surprised I pulled through without the ICU that time. I was alone for vast stretches of time, I was delirious and terrified. Death was there, though.
And I came to know Her as kind, caring, a friend. She was in no hurry. She can wait forever, She’ll find all of us one day. But when you sit close to her, sometimes you have choices nobody talks about. Where you could go with Her right away, or try and stay. And nobody would know. Trying to stay alive doesn’t guarantee life of course. I chose Death’s companionship, which doesn’t mean choosing to die. But every time, I chose to stay alive.
It’s odd that a vivid picture has formed in my mind of what Death would look like to me if she were human. She looks very much related to me, like an ancestor I’ve never met who strongly resembles many people on my father’s side of the family. Very old with long white hair. I guess she has some qualities in common with George McDonald’s multiple-greats-grandmother character in The Princess and the Goblin series. She’s very powerful, has the potential to be very kind and loving, and does not actually bear any ill will towards the living.
But She isn’t human and I imagine She looks different to everyone. I’ve never seen Her with my eyes, only had this vivid image of how She would look if human. But really my encounters with Death are more wordless and imageless and impossible to put down in writing, including that endless five weeks of Her. But I can feel when She’s hanging around me, and so can some of my friends. It always means something has slipped too close to completely guarantee survival.
Most people think of the survival instinct as something rooted somewhere in the brain. And there certainly is one there. But it goes deeper than that. All life from the first single-celled organism tries hard to live. Being alive is extremely difficult and takes work and energy. Without some drive for survival, nothing would bother. Every living thing has some version of this drive for survival.
And I am not just a brain, and my brain is not separate from my body, and my body is not just a carrying case for a brain. I’m made of all these cells, some working together, and all kinds of things. Each wanting individually and collectively to live. When I say I chose life, I don’t just mean my thoughts chose life. I didn’t always have enough thoughts to string that kind of choice together. My whole body chose life and fought hard for it and that’s why I’m still here. It seems arrogant to reduce myself to the little part of me that sits and reflects on things, then claim full credit. There’s nothing like delirium to show you the brain is just another body part. And when my mind wasn’t functioning right the rest of me still fought like hell to be here.
I’m well aware the things I’m saying could terrify people. But they are real for me. Death is welcome in my life. This is easily misunderstood, though. I don’t have a death wish. I used to. A grinding, unrelenting one that tormented me every second of the day and caused a big conflict with my survival drive, which I alternately thanked and cursed. That was a long time ago. Certainly long before I befriended Death.
Coming to know Death intimately has been one of the most life-affirming things I’ve ever experienced.