There is a place where the weight of a boulder presses heavily into the earth, and where surrounding trees listen carefully for the faintest of stirrings beneath it. The crows pass by, occasionally alighting in the overhanging branches, and when they stop to release their coarse cry, I feel my breath slow with attentiveness. I do not know what lives beneath the boulder’s weight. I see the open throat of earth at its descending base and count the scattered footprints surrounding it. I listen carefully, but hear nothing. I sit in wait, quieting my breath and straining for stillness, but I see nothing. The snow is melting and the place is rife with remnants of decay still concealing the promise of new growth. I wait, knowing only, with keen curiosity, an imagined place I will never see.
I learned of my Grandfather’s passing while in transit; I knew he was dying when I left Malawi, it happened while I was in the airport in Nairobi, and I received news of it in Paris. By the time I reached Winnipeg, the funeral was already mostly arranged. I sat down for dinner with my family, having slept little more than an hour in the previous two days, and answered questions foggily, preoccupied and glancing furtively across the table at my Grandmother. She was still, and quiet, and only partly there. We moved around her stillness, and our voices moved around her silence, and I wondered what moved through her mind. I spoke reticently of tragedy in a far away place, and she, seeming farther away than even the Malawians I spoke of, remained quiet.
In Malawi, two weeks earlier, I waded cautiously along a flooded path to a small village called Naliwomba. Mud slid intrusively between my toes and I moved with unknowing steps through the dark water. It pooled warmly around my knees and relieved my skin of the sun’s harshness. Along with my friends, Samuel and Immanuel, I made my way through the flooded fields toward the village where we met a woman walking through the knee-deep water, her one hand gathering her skirt at her knees, and her other holding a bundle on her head. “No one has come,” she told us. Much of the village had been washed away, the school had been completely flooded, crops had been devastated, food stores destroyed, and possessions lost. People had died. Still, there had been no response from the government, no aid from any organizations, and no attention from the media. Even the chief had been killed when floodwaters suddenly rose against the door of his hut, pressing in from all sides until the walls caved in and overwhelmed him. His body was found several meters away.
There were many bodies lost to the floods in Malawi this year. In the coming months, many more will die as a result of malnutrition and disease. Some will be old. Some will be young men and women. Many will be children and infants. They will be regarded, in many cases, as tragic deaths, and to those who are left to mourn in sorrow and disbelief, these deaths will be tragic. But to the ones whose bodies die, the idea of tragedy will become meaningless, as will all their thoughts of sadness, suffering, and attachment. Their bodies will die, and their minds as well, and all that will be left will be the mystery.
My Grandfather was ninety-three when he died. He remained relatively healthy until the Monday before his death, when he went to bed mentioning a tickle in his throat. By the morning, he lacked the strength to stand. Two days later, he died. For a while now, I would ask my Grandparents how they were doing. Their response, curt, and delivered with a calm, tired smile was often, “we are ready for heaven.” Something had gone out of them in the previous years and as they watched many of their friends pass away, their attachment to this world seemed to diminish. Still, as my Grandfather lay dying, I imagine he experienced some fear.
Our bodies die. We know this. Our minds, at play within our brains, must also die. In the moment this happens, I imagine the circumstances surrounding our death will become irrelevant to whatever it is of us that remains. But before that moment, we too easily busy our minds with the myriad possible circumstances that could surround our deaths. We strive to avoid or prevent these circumstances, losing ourselves in the details, while avoiding death’s inevitability. The Chief drowns in a distant Malawian village and we assess his death as tragic due to the circumstances surrounding it. We occupy our thoughts of this man’s death with the events that precipitated it. My Grandfather dies in a hospital in Winnipeg, and we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, in a way, he had been waiting to die. We consider his health, but know that he was old, and, for an old man, the inevitability of death seems far easier to accept. We lose ourselves in the circumstances surrounding death, judging one as a tragedy, another as a relief. Some seem insignificant, and still others can seem cause for celebration. We lose ourselves in all the circumstances surrounding death while adamantly avoiding the reality of death itself, because at the heart of death we find a deep, resounding mystery that none of us can answer, and it is waiting for us. Our bodies die. But we are not our bodies. And nor are we are our minds. In death, our mystery is born.
I entered the room where my Grandmother stood dutifully by the body of her husband. I approached the lifeless face of a man I knew for his quiet distance, and, in later years, his subtle kindness, which, although readily available, was easy to miss. I wanted a simple moment with him as he had been, to tinker again with a leaky faucet, to throw a horseshoe, or to tell a joke worthy of one of his brief, soft chuckles. Only the body dies. I stood before this body, which had held my Grandfather for nearly a century, and I imagined my Grandfather’s gratitude for it, and the relief of his departure from it. His face, once alive with short sniffles, weepy, twinkling eyes, and soft smiles, was now static. And my eyes, unwilling to accept this stillness, played small tricks on me as I watched.
My Grandmother now waits to join him in Heaven. I do not know where that is. Meister Eckhart, when asked where we go when we die, replied, “nowhere.” Meaning, the dead are all around us. Free of their bodies, their thoughts, their emotions, and their futile ambitions, all that remains is the mystery to which we all belong. Our freedom in death is to simply be, not as our egos, composed carefully in our minds; not as our bodies, carefully regarded with criticism and vanity; but as our true, eternal selves, so easily forgotten amidst our temporal madness.
Having already carried the body of my Father’s Father to his grave earlier this year, I attended a second Grandfather to his final resting place. With quiet reverence, my siblings and I, along with my cousins, lowered the casket to the open hollow of the grave. We stood back and shook against the wind. Words were spoken, the observers slowly dispersed, and behind me, a man dressed as my grandfather would dress, standing as he would stand, leaned against the hearse and stated with frank assurance to the man standing next to him, “we all go the same way.”
The circumstances surrounding death are infinitely varied, but the rite of death itself is mandatory and inevitable. We all go the same way, but no one knows what happens next. No one knows where we go to, or what we go there as. And this is the mystery that informs us all, whether by our avoidance of it, or our deep contemplation of it. If death walks beside us, from the moment we are born, if death cannot be avoided or evaded, might we not be better off making friends with it?
The observers dispersed. The shiny metal frame of the hoist was collapsed and removed; the green, synthetic turf was rolled away; the plywood was lifted from the mud; the hearse drove off. What was left was a rectangular hollow, and at its bottom was the body of my grandfather, in a simple, wooden box. I waited, standing at the edge of it, regarding what I rarely have the opportunity to see, until, from behind a children’s playground, beyond a small hill, a tractor emerged from its place of hiding and made its indecorous entrance. I left the grave, and the cold pile of mud beside it, half-wishing for a shovel, and watched from a distance as my Grandfather’s body was buried.