I spent the last few days of 2014 alone at home, sifting through closets, arranging rooms, and dusting the forgotten corners. I disposed of, or passed along, things I no longer needed, and cleared space – not for something new, but for simplicity. I treated these days like a meditation and remained as conscious of the present moment as I could. There were things everywhere and if taken in as a whole, our home appeared quite chaotic. Instead, I lifted a single book and chose to be aware of only that single book as I placed it on the shelf; or, I took a cloth and cleaned a mirror, choosing to be aware only of that mirror. By the last day, the climate of chaos had been transmuted into something far more akin to order, and I felt calm – even when taking it in as a whole. Compelled by the desire to mark this new climate in a clear and simple way, I decided to rearrange the couches in our living room.
Before touching any of them, I sat down at the kitchen table, drafted the room on a piece of paper, and cut out a set of scaled representations of each piece of furniture. This wasn’t necessary, but it tied the moment back to adolescent memories of rearranging my bedroom furniture in the days when my bedroom was still my soul territory. There was something nostalgic and pleasing about this process, and after I had decided on a configuration that made sense to me, I confidently began executing my plan.
The first couch moved easily. I put it out of the way to make room for the larger hide-a-bed. I moved the round coffee table as well, and then set about clearing the corner. I pulled the first side of the heavy couch away from the wall, and then suddenly stopped. At this time of day, and at this time of year, the living room is full of golden light. It spills across the carpet and fills corners that otherwise remain shadowed and unnoticed. There against the wall, as if resting peacefully, was the body of a small bird. I don’t know how long she had been there. Her eyes were closed and desiccated, but her feathers seemed perfect. Somehow, she looked comfortable, as if sleeping; but there was no movement. I felt immediately responsible, and at the same time, oddly privileged, as if this bird had come into our home with a lesson for me to learn, or a message that needed to be discerned. I had already been thinking of death during the days before and I recalled the Buddhist meditation that some novices undergo. For several weeks, perhaps longer, they sit before a decaying body until they reach a kind of consciousness that frees them from their attachment to their own body.
I thought of burying the bird, but then remembered a line of poetry I had once written: “We bury our dead that we might go on pretending/We avert our gaze knowing what mortal eyes will hold it.” And so I lifted her body with a thin piece of cardboard and carried it to the soil of a potted plant. I let them to lie together and continued my task, still thinking of the bird and wondering why she had come. Did her arrival mark the year’s end – a year rife with challenges and so many internal deaths and rebirths? Was it a portent of something else to come? Was it a universal response to my recent meditations on death and the questions I had been asking about the discrepancy between our awareness of death’s inevitability and our own feeble attempts at immortality? Or, was it nothing? At the risk of sounding ungrounded, I felt quite sure that the bird had chosen to die here in our home, and this made me immediately endeared to her.
Sometimes the confluence of rivers overwhelms us and what was once a steady stream of discouragement is compounded and reaches an edge that cannot endure it; what was once a river then cascades into a place of darkness. Discouragement becomes despair. We fall, like water over the edge of a cliff, and do not know what will happen next. Sometimes, something of our hope dies altogether and we must go on a long, deepening journey, through shadow and great sorrow, to find its resting place – if not to revive it, at least to be by its side and grieve for a while.
I have gone walking through the woods when discouragement has spilled over to become despair. I have gone to wilder places and I have felt a yearning for earth, felt the wanting of my body for burrowed alcoves, imagined the comfort of an earthen embrace. Desiring to lie down in a field, to allow the ground to slowly subsume me, I have ached, with homesickness, for the womb of clay from which my body was made and to which my body will eventually return.
The day after discovering the bird, my grandfather was taken to the hospital. When I went to see him, his face and his body were only vaguely recognizable. At the insistence of the nurses I put a gown over my body, a thick mask over my face, and a pair of gloves over my hands. I sat beside him and watched his breath, which was pushed into him, and then pulled back out of him by a hissing machine. I watched the wave of his pulse rise and fall on a small monitor. I followed the intricate lines of a web of tubes, which wove impersonally between his body and the stacks of machines that surrounded him. I sat beside him, and though I could not speak to him I prayed that he would not be afraid.
More than any analogous description of death, I appreciate most the understanding of death as being synonymous with birth. We live within the broad embrace of this temporal womb, where breath links us to life and where our fetal hearts beat only as our environment allows it. We are here, gestating, and though our bodies endure a slow decay, there is something else of us that is preparing for birth. Just as a fetus is suddenly compelled to what must seem like death, we too have a deep sense of timing that is not wielded by our conscious minds. We too will reach the day when this womb can no longer hold us, when something indescribable urges us towards the compulsory light that our conscious minds know nothing about. We too will reach a day when death and birth meet, like long lost friends, to share that single moment, to pass the torch of our existence from one to the other, that our existence might be carried on toward whatever happens next.
I wanted to stay for a long time. There was an expectation of movement that never came. His face and his hands looked like they belonged to a wax mannequin rather than a man. The coffin, though tasteful, seemed superfluous. A week had passed since I visited him in the hospital. A few days had passed since his death. This was not my grandfather. And for many, the comfort came from this, that although a body lay in front of them, my grandfather had already left it. I wanted to stay for a long time, because although I knew my grandfather was no longer there, I stood before the body that had been such a gift to him. I wanted to know what that meant. I wanted to know for myself as well, that although my body remains automated, and though it remains the womb that bears me, I will one day be born from it. It is a gift, but it is not I.
My cousins and I carried my grandfather’s body to the hearse. From the hearse we carried it to the grave where we laid it down above the raw cavity; so incongruous with the fine craftsmanship of the coffin. Words were spoken, flowers were passed around, and one by one the crowd dispersed until only a few of us were left; and then none. My one regret is that I walked away too soon, that I did not tarry awhile longer at this threshold of death, where the coarse earth lay naked before the sky, and where my grandfather’s body would once again become clay. I felt that old familiar longing for an earthen embrace. The sight of the soil compelled me. It comforted me. It whispered my name and I felt akin to it.
The bird came and what I first thought to learn from her arrival was the importance of making friends with death. I don’t know entirely what that means. We spend so much time denying the inevitability of death; we pretend we are immortal, or at least that immortality is possible. And maybe we are, but our bodies certainly are not. Making friends with death must at least begin by acknowledging his presence. Maybe then we could even one day say hello to him, or even smile. Maybe one day we could approach him, unafraid, and begin a dialogue with the one who will, one day, be responsible for carrying us forward into whatever happens next.