When It’s My Turn to Die

To every thing, turn, turn, turn,

There is a season, turn, turn, turn,

And a time for every purpose under heaven.          The Byrds

When it’s my turn to die, come see me.

For you see, there was a good friend of mine, a teacher, a mentor, who taught me much about people and mental health. He was a hearty type, a man who walked up and down the hill to work for years. He walked and worked and worked and walked and did this summer and winter and year in and year out. He diagnosed and read and learned and treated and taught and did this for many years. We laughed and waxed poetic and drank beer and discussed the meaning of life, as young people are want to do with their mentors, and I learned much at his feet, that man. He was around. I was around. We aged. I became a teacher and healer and mentor in my own right, and he still walked the hill up and down and up and down, until the time he didn’t. He became a case study himself, one with an illness, a terrible, awful, progressive debilitating illness that took away his walking and his standing and sitting and leaning and finally his talking too. Stripped it all away. I heard about him, though he was but a few miles away from me. I wanted to go see him, I really did. Those times that we talked about theory and motivation and symptomatology and drank beer and cracked jokes and laughed came to the surface of my brain like a great whale coming up for a glorious gulp of briny air, way out to sea. I did not go see him. I could not. I was afraid. Of what? His mortality. My mortality. Death in its second most personal form, when it takes someone you know or love. Knowing that when they go and you stay, you become them. You move up the ladder toward your own demise, closer to death than birth, rolling the dice every day. No excuses. There are none that hold water. I am ashamed. But, truth. I was afraid. I will feel guilty for letting my mentor down for the rest of my life.

So, when it’s my turn to die, come see me.

 

When it’s my turn to die, tell stories.

I love stories. You know that if you know me at all. I love to read them, I love to hear them, I love to write them and I love to tell them. Stories are life. If anything is worth anything, there is a story about it that deserves to be heard. Come into the room where I am, even if it is hard for you, come into the room on Sandburg’s little cat feet if you must, find a chair, sit knee to knee with the person there with you and tell stories. I will hear you, and I will be happier as I face death. You may not know that I hear you, I may not be able to physically show you that I hear you, but trust me, I will hear you. Tell stories of naughty things done, things left undone (yes, I am likely to still be an Episcopalian at the time of my demise) triumphs, tragedies, conquests and even failures that taught you a lesson (see paragraph one, above). Let my home-going be the homecoming for your focused thoughts about your own life and times, the things that make your story yours. It would make me so happy to know that the last things I heard, even if I was too far away from this physical world that I was not entirely aware of it, were the stories that were told by my friends and family in the room where they came to see me at the last.

When it’s my turn to die, tell stories.

 

When it’s my turn to die, be pragmatic.

Look, this is it, okay? This is what’s going to take me out of this world and allow me to discover the next. I may have seen it coming, I may not have. Either way, it’s time. I’m good with that and you should be too! I have had a fabulous life. I have had wonderful relationships, I have great children and grandchildren to leave in charge of things here, I have worked at jobs and vocations that I loved, I have traveled the world, I have climbed mountains and I have cheated death. (Just not this time.) Look at me over there, across the room. I am breathing hard, but after all, if I have been lucky, I  have taken more than seven hundred million breaths in my lifetime. What are sixteen more, a hundred more, five hundred more? My poor tired heart has beaten almost three billion times. It has loved fiercely, but it is ready to rest. Mourn for me, yes, please. Shed a few tears. Tell those stories. Reminisce. Celebrate my life and how it intersected with yours. But then, please, please be kind, and let me go. It’s time.

When it’s my turn to die, be pragmatic.

 

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Takes Five Senses to Say Goodbye

The first things I think about, and remember so viscerally and physically, are the smells. Somehow, smells always seem to be directly connected to memories, don’t they?

In the springtime, the earth in the backyard garden plot, back behind the pool, had that fresh, fertile, loamy smell, especially after a spring rain that always made me itch to get out and plant something. My mother told me that I did, after all, have farming in my blood, as my grandfather tilled the earth and mom always liked her yard and flowers and vines. I suppose she was right, because the feel of the dirt running through my fingers and the smell of it just felt really good somehow.

Summer brought the fragrant white gardenia blooms on the shiny green plant right beside the back door, the old entrance to the back of the house before the wholesale renovation that moved it around to the back and added more glass and a big back porch that later expanded to an even bigger back deck, built to accommodate the big shade tree that dominated that part of the yard. That little plant put out more perfume per bloom than any other we ever had. One of the particularly bad winter storms did a number on it, and it never fully recovered, but it gave great olfactory joy for many summers.

Summer also brought lawn mowing, and with it the fragrant smell of fresh-cut grass, hearkening back all the way to my boyhood. The fragrant vines, the pungent chlorine of the backyard swimming pool, all smells that made the season what it was.

Fall and winter were no different. Outside, deadening trees and turning leaves had their own smells, and smoke from chimneys carried the acrid smells of families moving indoors to huddle against the cool and pretend that we all “needed” to be by the fire, though that was hardly ever imperative in the south. The best smells of the latter year, the absolutely best smells of all, were the ones around the holidays. The candles, the smell of roasting turkeys and puddings and rolls and cakes and spices and the smell of cold air rushing into a warm kitchen as family with gift-laden arms piled in from outside, ready for another feast day.

The sights of that time were nice as well. Twinkling lights on the Christmas tree were always my favorite. The absolute best time of day after the tree was decorated was late, late at night, when the house was still and most everyone was already abed, when I could sit by the fire, drink in hand, and just bathe in the glow of the season.

The sight of children, little at first, floatties on chubby arms, splashing about in the pool, later so much older, with friends and parties and groups of kids and teens and adults gathered in sweaty knots about the pool, toasting with bottles of beer and sodas, eating hamburgers and talking about the events of the day.

The sounds of the house were as varied as the smells and the sights. Piano playing, by memory or off sheet music or simply banged out under tiny fists that figured out that noise, wonderful noise, came from these black and white things that one could bang on without end. The music from upstairs, passing through phases from Disney musicals and soundtracks from every kids movie that we ever bought and wore out on VCR tape to contemporary pop to rock to rap. Funny how kids will find things you’ve never heard of to listen to, but then will sneak on one of your old favorites from time to time, never thinking that you’ll hear them playing it. The drone of the television, the whining of the mixer, the beeping of the microwave and the harsh buzz of the dryer. The symphonic soundtrack of the life of a family in the house that they called home for almost two decades.

Tastes, oh my, the tastes. Watermelon and ice cream and fresh-baked cookies and chocolate and coffee, lots and lots of coffee, strong and black for some and brown and sweet as molasses for others, but coffee nonetheless. Pumpkin bread and casseroles and hot chili on cold days and beer. Wine at dinner and champagne to bring in the New Year. Sparkling apple cider for the little ones. Tastes of days and tastes of nights and holidays and birthdays and comfort food after 9-11. Sweet and tart and salty as tears. Toxic as jimson weed and bitter as quinine, the tastes left in the mouth when all was said and done. But before that, it was all warm and pleasant and easy on the tongue.

To live in the house was to feel it, the warm earth in the spring, the grass clippings in the summer, the leaves in the fall, the fire wood in the winter. The smooth edges of the island countertop and the warm fluffiness of the blankets and throws around the house were reassuring, familiar. The feel of the worn knob on the back door. The click of the glass door on the shower as it closed. The heat from the oven and the blast of cold from the freezer. The solid, heavy smoothness of teak in the dining room. The nubbiness of raw silk in frames in the living room.

Yes, it took five senses to live in the house and love it for two decades.

It has taken five senses to say goodbye.

Photo by Tricia Ray Smith

Photo by Tricia Ray Smith