When my mother died in April of 2006, I had already discovered tapping. In fact, it was because I knew she was dying that I sought out EFT Master Betty Moore-Hafter. Although everything was right about my mother’s death, I felt I needed support to allow my mother to die without my needs interfering with her process. I chose Betty, not because of EFT which I hadn’t yet heard of, but because she was both a hypnosis and age regression therapist. I was curious to see if her approach would help me to resolve the last few energetic ties to a medical trauma my mother and I shared when she was thirty and I was two. This surprise EFT session was magical – gentle and loving – and I left Betty’s office feeling this challenging early event had been transformed. I have tapped ever since. One of the earliest consequences of that session was an ability to be fully present to what my mother needed. On my own, I could tune into my own need to celebrate her life in my own unique way. Somehow, without writing about it directly, I wanted to express the essence of my mother’s approach to living in and leaving the world. Awash in Love is that essence.
Awash in Love, a short story by Jane Buchan/Copyright: Jane Buchan
The last winter I could still see, determined red squirrels developed high wire acts to get at the sunflower seeds I put out for chickadees, nuthatches, and jays. I know most folks hate squirrels, but I’m always grateful to them for reminding me of essentials. So much goes on beyond our intentions, perhaps in spite of them. My small offerings to bird life called, besides that acrobatic squirrel family, a pair of downy woodpeckers, a straggle-tailed murder of crows, a gang of fat wild turkey hens, and on rare freezing days, a few yearling deer. On a viciously bright day in early January, I noticed the squirrels gone to ground and the area around the feeder uncharacteristically still. Scanning the closest trees, I discovered a barred owl had taken up residence in the oldest birch around, apparently dozing until it pounced with god-like precision on something beneath the snow near the feeder. The something turned out to be a small black vole. I saw his prize after the owl fidgeted, doubled over, and then straightened to reveal the wriggling creature. As if to offer me the parlor trick of the season, it took the thing whole into its gullet in four precise, elegant gulps. One less rodent to share my living space prompted me to send a prayer of gratitude into the birch’s lofty branches where the owl sat digesting dinner and coughing up pellets of bone and fur. One less rodent means a lot to someone who lives in the woods. I offered my thanks and returned to work, an hour later discovering the squirrels back up on the high wire defying gravity and human ingenuity. I looked up into the old birch, and, sure enough, the owl was gone.
It was on that owl’s perch that I built my death platform out of scavenged boards I picked up on walks along Stannard Mountain’s looping tangle of dirt roads. Before settling on the highest fork of that old yellow birch where the owl had practiced its craft, I climbed up to this pinnacle everyday for a week, just to see what I could. I started taking a board up with me now and again, strictly on the QT, later in the spring. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but the notion of falling some thirty, forty feet, while holding an old board just waiting to splinter, and then lying there in whatever configuration of bone and wood you might be in, that alarms a lot of people, especially relatives.
My daughter was looking in on me every Friday, so I could plan it all out. I figured I only needed five of the six days separating her visits to get the job done. Despite my eyes, I managed to get the platform laid with a couple of days to spare.
I always was a good builder, working on crews with lots of different folks, some of them painstaking, some of them dangerously casual or just plain stupid. Over the years I introduced myself to cob, straw bale, post and beam, cord wood, timber frame, field stone, and even a couple of rubber tire houses with pop can supports, all earth-packed. My own place was a combination of cob and cord wood it took me ten years to finish. I dug it well below the frost line and curved it into a hill that understood how to cozy up during long winter nights. My daughter said it reminded her of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel and my son thought hobbits should be answering the door. I only saw the errors, the mistakes in judgment and the corners cut, but I treasured it as I’ve treasured little else. It’s like that with something you make with your own two hands and your will and your spirit. No matter how it turns out, your heart opens to the wretched, imperfect thing and you feel borne on some invisible current to the throne of the miraculous every time you behold your small bit of creation.
After I screwed every board of that platform down tight, I took up a little water and started making friends with how I wanted things to be for me at the end. While I was busy making these plans for ending my life, my younger brother and sister were flourishing in Our Lady of Mercy, one of the many nursing homes where good Catholics can go to die. They wanted me to join them, play Scrabble while we could still make out the shapes of the letters. My brother’s always built models. He had big plans for us to use the touch and feel method of construction in the OT room. My sister, with a notion to rekindle our dancing passion, reminded me of how, in our salad days, we were known as those dancing Woodall girls. I taught her to dance in the farmhouse kitchen when she was just eleven. I would have taught our brother, too, but he decided to put off that intimate contact sport for a few years longer when he might be taught by a real girl and not his older sister.
It was the remembered smell of Our Lady of Mercy and the thought of one more elder’s dying gobbling up the world’s dwindling resources as well as the idea of giving away my end as I hadn’t given away the rest of my life that made me heartsick and stubborn. I told them I was fine. That I still could see well enough to pass my driver’s test, chop my wood, plant and harvest my garden. Early on, they’d married twins and the four of them had moved to Florida to spin out lives in perpetual sunshine. I stayed in Vermont. I guess it was a combination of my few years’ seniority and my ability to thrive in all four seasons that made them respect my decision to live on my own past all reason.
It’s macular degeneration that happens in our tribe. I sometimes wonder if maybe my kids knew about this possible future when my daughter came out screaming and my son came out holding his breath. Twins are remarkably intuitive. Our family has lots of them. And all of us, down to the very last one, at least so far as I know, go blind.
I grieved my own onset the winter that owl showed me how to enjoy a meal. It was like someone began to take little nibbles out of whatever I was looking at, just at the centre of my field of vision. As soon as I realized what was happening, I sat down to think things through. I was almost seventy and figured I had maybe five passable years of seeing left. Seventy’s a great time to be hit with this. Seventy is almost beating the odds.
My sister and brother were hit with the first nibbles when they were in their late fifties. By the time they were sixty-five, neither of them could drive and both of them looked forward to moving up from Florida into our old parish and Our Lady of Mercy, the same nursing home where our mother died decades before. It still seems against the natural order of things to have your younger brother and sister fall apart before you do. With my own onset so late, I hoped I might be able to charm the damn disease right out of the family.
So, as the dark approached, I built my platform and hoisted up my water and sat in that yellow birch to watch at all hours the world disappear in slow motion. As the colours of my herbs bleached out and the sunflowers and calendula alone were visible in my untidy garden, as the shapes of corn and burdock lost their distinctness and the wide panorama of meadow and wood and mountain lost its depth, I took to smelling things on purpose – the cedars after a rain, the rotting leaves of previous years, the acrid smell of a dying-down fire in my wood stove. I got so I could ferret out the diesel musk of the snow plow that cleared our road during early spring and the ammonia trails left by the wild creatures who came to feed in late winter but who by then were blurry streaks of darkness unless I turned my head and let my peripheral vision catch what it could against the dazzling snow.
This past spring, I fell when I was climbing down from the platform. Stupidly, I climbed when it was still wet and the small steps I’d screwed into the old birch were slippery with the edgy temperature. My daughter found me broken hearted and numb in the violets and lilies of the valley, almost gone because of cold and dehydration. I’d been praying for a snow so it would seem I’d just wandered off. I’ve always had the good sense to call myself eccentric, hoping this label would explain to my devout family my multitude of sins.
When I told her I didn’t want to be hooked up to anything, she laughed. “You’re always hooked up, Ma. You just can’t help it. It’s how you are.” It turns out she didn’t mean machinery. She and my granddaughter, Ginna, built a lean-to by their back pond, even rigged up a shower for my baths and dug a fire pit where I could cook my meals. My hands can still find whatever I need in the way of herbs. Before my blindness, I thought my eyes were the guides that led me to things, some homing device in my irises alighting on the spot where things grow. That’s how it felt before the nibbles consuming my sight began. Now I let my hands go out roving until they hover and stop and my nose takes over. Maybe my eyes only thought they were in charge of these excursions in the past, because of the pleasures they drank in, the greens and purples and soft greys, the tweedy earth tones, the startling light reflected by pond and puddle after rain.
I told Ginna about the platform and what I was planning because I’ve always known she can keep a secret. It turns out she didn’t have to. She told me her mother knew from the start what I’d had in mind. Ginna’s brother, her twin, died just ten days after they were born. She says she sees with his eyes as well as her own and so when it happens to her, it will happen double. No questions there. She drinks in everything with the family’s pale blue eyes and then let’s her hands make a story out of what she’s seen. She tells a different story from most of the rest of the world. “Ending’s are supposed to happen, Gram,” she says. “Endings are why beginnings and middles are so good.”
I think it was Tolstoy who told the story of the horse whose stride was so long and even it could be used to measure cloth. As I remember, it’s a meandering tale of endurance and patience, pride and loss, and it ends with this horse’s throat being cut and his consciousness ebbing away as he falls to the ground. My mother read the story to me and the twins when we were confined to the house with measles. The younger ones slept through most of it, feverish and resentful, because they hadn’t had a bellyful of school yet, of being in harness, of having to leave off dreaming. I found their resistance to time at home utterly foolish as I sucked on ice and watched my mother, her eyes already going, her hands touching the page to help with the process of deciphering, her head turned to one side. I watched her but saw Tolstoy’s skewbald gelding, heard his fine galloping life run up and down my spine, knew that the story of his death was about how things should be, one thing feeding another, one creature offering itself up to the hungers of the world. I knew too, the story of the gelding’s life, one of rejection because of how he looked, was how it shouldn’t be but was.
The day my mother read that story to us was the day I first heard her say she believed we are all, in every moment, awash in love. As if to illustrate her belief, the twins, propped against my mother’s beautifully tatted ivory pillowcases glowed pink and cherubic in the flush of illness. I was curled in the big upholstered rocker, the one family lore had travel across the sea with my great, great grandmother, her fingers needle pointing the coverings that went down layer after layer to the webbing and iron springs that charmed us with many lullabies as we rocked. My mother sat on a straight backed chair she’d brought up from the kitchen, one of the dozen or so arrow backs my father had made when, with his older brother, Mac, he returned from the Great War with a puzzlement about life he was never to lose. When Dad and Mac drown attempting to rescue cows from a flood, my mother’s brothers, also twins, took over the farm, embellishing our orphaned lives with the drama of a tragedy we never felt as they courted and married and had children of their own.
Before she settled on Tolstoy as antidote to measles, my mother covered me with a quilt she’d made out of swatches from my father’s and uncle’s coats and jackets, the flannel backing soft against my prickling, inflamed skin. Every now and again the twins would wake and ask for water which Mother supplied via the glass elbow straw we all coveted and that Queenie broke on a mad dash through the house later that year when she was chasing one of her pups. I can still see myself listening to my mother’s low voice and dreaming myself in and out of the skewbald gelding’s story. Men had done cruel things to him but the old horse told his tale calmly, as if he bore no bitterness for anything that had occurred. And then, just before the story’s end, a man visited the farm where the horse lived, the very man that had owned this horse during his glory, yardstick-stride days. The gelding did his best to neigh a greeting but was ignored because he had become so old and feeble.
All too soon, the men of the farm thought it was time to kill this once magnificent, now unproductive, race horse. Soon after his throat was slit in the meadow beyond the paddock, a mother wolf found his body and took chunks of flesh back to her den to disgorge them for her pups, feeding them one at a time and starting, I remember clearly, with the smallest. I think there is mention too of this horse’s blood feeding the land, and of his bones offering back to the earth what he had taken over the course of his long life. This feeding of the earth seemed the horse’s final triumph. When the man who had owned the horse during their brilliant past died later, the pomp and glory of his funeral gave nothing back. He was entombed forever, putrefying in a miserly little space and feeding nothing.
I remember being startled by the tears on my mother’s cheeks when she finished the story. I asked her what had made her cry, I think because I was swallowing my own tears and wanted to name this grief for myself. She answered with a conviction strange because it was so unlike her usual placid response to things. “Because artists tell such truths, and this story tells the most important of them: we are all, if we will only open to it, in every moment awash in love.” I’m sure I looked from her wet, dimming eyes to the twins and their feverish brightness, and then to the pieces of old fabric that my mother’s genius hands had stitched together to make both memorial and coverlet. I felt in the old rocker, in every one of its hundred and some years, the rightness of my mother’s judgment. I decided that day that I would remember this story and the two very different ways of dying. And that I would die the way that old skewbald gelding died, usefully, and because of my mother, awash in love.
Many decades after hearing that story I built my platform and called in my death, thinking the crows would eat me and when they died, would feed whatever creatures might feed on them. That was the plan. Instead, I fell to the ground and was found by my daughter and set up to live a little longer in a lean-to by the big pond on the land she farms with others who, despite the evidence of stupidity and mayhem, also believe in a world harmonious, a world awash in love.
My son comes from the city from time to time, to take me to Our Lady of Mercy where I visit my younger brother and sister and we reminisce, as old ones do, about what mother said and father did and where we buried Queenie and the mystical qualities of the elbow straw that had been made of glass. I do dance with my younger sister. I still have a brisk little two-step in me and remember how to lead with confidence if the dance floor is not crowded. And my brother has learned to read Braille and is teaching me, this a prelude to developing plans and creating mansions, at least with Popsicle sticks.
My daughter and my son shine with the same pink radiance that I remember my younger brother and sister offering to the world from their sick bed, their permanent flush caused, not by measles, but by some luminous movement toward wholeness. We cannot have the simplicity we yearn for in this life, their lives proclaim, but we can remember it, we can wish for it, we can hope for its bright landing and dark folding wings. Tolstoy knew of the world’s terrible exactitude when he wrote of his noble horse. I know it when I think that if I wander into the woods to die, my daughter will be charged with negligence.
And yet . . . and yet . . . the whole of life, the whole of it demands, if not a quiet, unobserved simple end such as Tolstoy’s horse enjoyed, then a conscious one. Dying is about making room, surely. Dying is about relinquishing our hold so others may step up and plant and weave and dance. It’s only the fragmented thing we’ve settled for in our too bright world – flaring perhaps before we’re extinguished for good – that insists on the empty pomp of embalmers and before them, of the sterile environments filled with brisk and knowledgeable personnel and their tool kits of disposable tweezers and scissors, their ruthlessly able machines, their promises of eternal pharmaceutical life.
I don’t want to be wasteful. Regardless of my blindness, I want efficiency and that other thing I found when I first learned to build. As a project was coming to life I often felt a new rhythm set in, one that inspired in me a set of movements that became as subtle as my heart’s dance with my lungs. I could feel the residue of a similar rhythm when I touched the quilt made out of discarded coats, and when Mother sponged down my too-hot siblings with a rag that had once been the sleeve of the forget-me-not nightgown my sister had worn after I had outgrown it, and, when she was too big for it, had cut up as bonnet and shawl for Wailin, our most musical cat. I fear sometimes, especially when I am deep in the feeling of things and denied the look of them as the nibbles become bites and the bites a rapacious tearing that will eat everything but the glimmers of yellow the sun tosses here and there in my darkening world, that we have lost our rhythms. And in losing them have lost the ability to choose an end meaningful and gracious, the noble end that was given the horse with the yardstick stride.
My daughter has told me my home, the cob gingerbread with hobbit tendencies, has been sold to a forester who looks forward to living out her retirement there. Ginna, with long sweeps of love down my arms, tells me the woman admires every bit of it, especially the birch wood and the pond and the small pen I built for the goats I couldn’t keep because I wouldn’t have them locked up and knew they’d eat every last tree to death if I let them have the run of the place. I am not distressed by this stranger moving into the home I created. I am glad of it. So many homes are tied up in argument and suffer from vandalism because their owners cannot let go. My little place will be lived in, and if its new mistress changes things, so much the better. We must take what comes to us and knit it into the fabric of our lives as my great, great grandmother needlepointed fresh coverings for the family rocker’s an ancient seat. That’s the way of things in field and forest. That’s what my mother meant when she talked of things being awash in love. The old and the new, the sighted and the blind, the quick and the dead, these are a few of the names for that harmonious dance I feel in my chest now the outer world has all but vanished.
I have told my daughter that one day – the day I know my time has come to make room, a day of my choosing – I will no longer take any food. She cried a little when she heard the resolution in my voice, but after a time, she nodded. I’ve moved into her house for now, but asked if I might have the lean-to for my leave-taking, and offered the compromise of my favourite quilt shroud and burial on her land if I cannot have that other, lovely, crow feeding send off. Ginna tells her mother that bones have minerals, that to bury me in the back fields will be a blessing for this land. And so, while it is not what I planned and hoped for, it is enough. I will feel the sun play upon me and I will hear whatever songs are to be sung by the wild birds of this small territory. And I will remember that patient horse whose story is woven into the fabric of my soul. My younger siblings may not like my course of action, but I know they will respect it, even if they give the Pope a nod from time to time by saying a Rosary or two on my behalf. I don’t think of it as suicide so much as a long and considered farewell to the life I’ve loved. Whatever comfort they derive from the Church, I know they will extend to me and my wishes for a similar state of grace, however I might achieve it.
I suspect my mother would have liked to see us old and blind and contented with our lot. I believe she always felt the dimming was a gift, one we might not appreciate until we’d faced our challenges and shed our tears of grief and loss. And perhaps my father, struck down in his prime and spared my mother’s blindness, would have liked to see us at peace with our condition, too. Our tribe has faced the realities of life and death, of sightedness and blindness, with an uncommon acceptance. I value all my line for this, and feel my granddaughter carrying this spirit forward as she moves about the farm like the sun itself, rising and shining and setting each day, to honour an inevitable night. She’ll grieve for me. We have that bond that inspires tears. She’ll miss me and she’ll take the time to feel my absence. And when the darkness comes for her, whenever that might be, she’ll make her choices about how to end it all. And I, in my final days of dark solitude and meaning, have this wild beating in my heart and the wonder of what will come next and the joy that perhaps it will all come to nothing except . . . except . . . this feeding thing . . . this making room . . . this letting go so others might take hold.
I hope you have enjoyed my tribute to choosing a conscious death. Thanks for reading.
Until next week