The Fish Becomes the Bird

The sky began to clear last week as the fog and smoky haze lifted. I stepped out for an early morning walk at the refuge taking huge gulps of clean, spicy air as the birds were waking and announcing their joy at making it safely through another night. I watched two heron take off as I approached their boardwalk perch, their giant wings gliding both awkwardly and effortlessly across the murky pond.  These beautiful creatures are fascinating to watch.

I’m poised for whatever the day holds. There is a moment of rain and it sounds like a smoldering fire under the cover of so many trees. There is a black-tail deer grazing in the golden grass as the sky to the east takes on an almost neon glow. I see silhouettes of eagles through the mist, note the smell of saltwater and blackberries filling the air and I think: this is what I love and this is why I rise early. 

I watch the gulls and heron on the rails. I hear a kingfisher and watch her dive beak-first into the water, a plunge that nets her a fish she will happily devour on a branch just yards away. I watch. I stop, I listen. So this is what it is to bear witness to life … 

But this post isn’t really just about life. It’s more about the whole cycle; the inevitability that all of us will transition and transform.

All of us will eventually die.

I wrote about this recently after reading The Art of Dying Well, the book by Katy Butler. It serves as a guide for living our best lives now and offered help to navigate the tricky terrain ahead as we age and come face to face with our own mortality. There are some very practical things we can do now and Katy presents them in a clear and concise way.

I can’t recommend this book enough. 

After that last post, a friend suggested another book called Advice For Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale. ( Thank you, Connie 💜) It has been the perfect companion to Katy’s book and helped me more fully understand the culture and history of dying as well as both the depth and width of this complex and inevitable departure. The advice is not sentimental and it doesn’t force us to wade through religious explanations to grasp the more important truths. 

The topics are wide ranging and relevant. She explores, and then explains, what happens to the body in death. She writes about what to say (and not to say) to someone as they enter this transition. She writes about visitors and environment and touch. I know this is an uncomfortable topic for some to read but these bodies of ours are fascinating. At some point in my life I will reach a point of decision and I want to know what is possible, or even likely, to happen in each scenario. Even as she acknowledges she has never died and likens this book to fool’s advice, there is so much to love about this amazing thing she has endeavored to write about. . 

Her education is a tapestry of Buddhism, nursing and caregiving and she explores relationship to all of these singular things and more. That old adage comes into play here: when we know better, we do better. To sit with the dying teaches something that can be learned no other way. Every death is unique and I see little value in clinging to a vision of self we will never again know.

I’m a quote junkie and here are a couple that really struck me as important: 

What I don’t think (people) realize is that when they pray for a healing, death is a healing… It’s not the healing that you might want, but as sure as we’re born, we’re going to die. And we’re healed from the troubles of this world.”

Grief is the opportunity to cherish another without reservation.

And this:

We’ve been a most fortunate generation and also one of the most delusional. We are energetically trying not to be as old as we are; to not look old, feel old, and most of all, to not be perceived as old.”

It feels like there is an anti-death/anti-aging industry built around the notion of life and preservation at all costs. At some point in our history there was a shift away from the practical recognition of death, towards one that feared (rather than revered) the process. Why are people so afraid to talk about, and plan for, our one shared certainty? 

I hope you won’t find this topic worrisome or depressing or morose. Personally, I don’t define death in any religious context, and I found that once that consideration was removed, it becomes easier to talk about. Easier to plan for. Just as I want a good life, so do I want a good death. 

Tisdale’s book dives into the width. I learned so much about what happens before, during and after. There are so many decisions that come at the end of a life and there is great value in making those decisions for yourself so that those who love you are free to explore and find their own grief and joy in your memory. 

Did you know there is an alternative to cremation? Aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) is a process friendlier to the environment that leaves you as the dust of pulverized bone instead of ash. This is my choice. I am considering the creative possibilities. Should my dusty essence be formed into a piece of art? How about a tiny Zen garden with a tiny rake? Or maybe I ask for it to be transformed into a box of pencils or blown into a dozen pint glasses? 

Planning isn’t the same as hastening. I see it as a trade-off: uncertainty for peace of mind. We bought and paid for a final resting place years ago and now I am tackling some of the paperish things that are in front of me to do.

In Advice for Future Corpses there is a wonderful chapter on grieving. In the last few years I have come face to face with unexpected loss many times. I expect these occurences to grow and it feels important to have a deeper understanding of both the process of grieving and of how I personally navigate loss. The very nature of the unexpected makes it impossible to predict a response, but there is never a time when I don’t benefit from knowing my own heart.

In 2017 I was diagnosed with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. My initial panic sent me to the internet looking for answers or explanations or comfort. WebMD says people with RA have a life expectancy ten years less than those without the disease. After an initial tailspin, I came to a place of acceptance and also a greater understanding and respect for what it means to live in the width. I may not expect to live a long life, but I can surely live a good one.

I think of it sometimes when I wake in the night with pain. I’ll lie there in the glow of my salt lamp and try to stretch, make a fist, get comfortable. I wonder if the meds (and there have been many) have stopped working. I hear the beat of my own heart and it sounds like a ticking clock. Sometimes I worry.

The mornings that follow can be difficult. I move pretty slowly and it’s hard to shake the fatigue. But then I get my coffee and Yoda hops up on the couch for his morning loves, Kelly is always rested and happy and I get my mind back to the gratitude side of things. All that said, there may well be, too, unknown factors that push me well into my eighties or nineties. We can’t know … but we can prepare.

Every time I take a step toward planning for the inevitable, I relax more. As I mentioned before, planning is not hastening. Planning is a gift. I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m as good as I can be right now, but I really DO want to share these books and resources with you. I’ve listened to both, three times. They are tools of a greater joy and I hope you’ll check them out.

Autumn is coming and it’s my favorite time of year. Loss is evident in this season but something really beautiful is happening at the same time.

Art imitates life.

Or maybe it’s the other way around …

6 Comments on “The Fish Becomes the Bird

  1. Thanks so much for reading, Bailey. I feel much the same, that the last couple years have brought loss closer to me and I’m feeling like I am finally looking it in the eye (and the heart too). I just finished my third listen of this book and I’m pretty sure I’ll be buying this one too. I feel like “leaning in” to it takes some of the fear out of it. A small good thing.

  2. I missed this when you posted-glad I caught it! I just got Advice for Future Corpses from the libe-I may have to buy it! Sounds like one to reread. I will go to a memorial for a fon Monday-the losses are getting closer to my age and bring up new emotions. I find myself ruminating on my life more and wanting to share more with those dear to me…Thank you Bonnie for sharing with us.

  3. Beautiful. So much to love here in your words. “Planning isn’t the same as hastening.” “Loss is evident in this season but something really beautiful is happening at the same time.” This book is on my list.

    • Thanks, Gretchen. The Advice book is a must-read. Or rather, for me, it was a must-listen. Really helpful insights for so many different scenarios. Writing about death is a little like chasing butterflies without a net …

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