When I was in college I had an amazing don whom I met with once a week in his office, which was kept in a trailer on the outer rim of campus. I was 18 and he was a famous poet and we had only our mentorship in common. Eventually we started having kind of wild and revealing conversations that had less to do with the mechanics of poetry and more to do with the mechanics of life. The kind of inevitable conversations that would come from required hour meetings once a week. He would put his hands behind his head and say things like “I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.”
I endearingly made fun of him with my friends. I thought it suggested his age, but mostly his melodrama and his poetness. But now I’m only twelve years older than I was then, already nearing my don’s level of melodrama, and I have the urge to start this post in his manner:
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. And with that, gardening.
In February my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is someone who is exceptionally healthy so the diagnosis shocked and terrified me and my siblings. He’s also the parent we all rely on the most, who despite everything else, has always given us the sense of stability and love.
Then, a few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to take a year long shamanaic herbalism course out on Whidbey Island, which also came with a work study component: I would go out to Whidbey Island once a week to take care of my teacher’s garden.
It’s a 40 minute drive to the ferry at Mulkiteo and then a ten minute ferry ride through the sound to Whidbey. It’s a good amount of time to mull over things, and on my second drive out there I spent time replaying a conversation I’d had with my father. The night before he told me that he has made the decision to receive chemo. Even though I don’t think I would have been comforted by any decision (because the fact of the cancer still shakes, suddenly, just as it did in the beginning), hearing the news set me into a kind of grief again. There were plenty of unknowns before, but now there are these new unknowns: will he survive chemo? will he get to travel again? And the reality of chemo is stepping into sickness, a voluntary sickness for a 30% chance of being cancer free for five years. But I can’t say for sure I’d do anything differently. When facing one’s mortality, 30% is a significant difference.
My don would be so proud because as I drove to Whidbey I thought about death—and I don’t say this in a “Goths in hot weather” kind of way but in the stunning realization that it is real– and how death is like this shoe we’ve always been wearing but didn’t ever expect to have to tie. Not for anyone else, and especially not for ourselves.
It was hard work in the garden–six hours of intense specific weeding “Leave the motherwort, but take the buttercup.” My teacher’s relationship with the earth is in the local shamanaic tradition, mixed with wise woman folk medicine. When I first signed up to work with her we discussed weeding and she said that weeding is a very serious business. “You have to remember that when you weed you are giving death. This is a woman’s role. We give life but we also give death. This is the wise woman way”
So because I was on her land, as I weeded I tried to think consciously in that way– I’m giving death. And some plants came out easily but others required the use of my entire body to get them out. And of course, it made me think in this metaphor: Don’t people transition out of life in the same way? Some gripping, or with violence and others suddenly, like grass pulling up?
Alice Walker has this to say: “Kneeling on the earth as I planted each small seed or set out each tiny plant, I was shocked to realize how many years had passed since I had done this. ‘This’ being the prayer involved in planting that, I am convinced, was one of the first acts of supplication, of worship, in the world.”
Where is the comfort in all of this? I’m not sure. But I do know that it’s true that death is for the living, for the ones who haven’t died. And it makes sense– how can one go back to teaching and to the normal way of things when the portal to everything is open like that? But we do. When someone dies, or when we feel the certainty of someone’s or our own death we see how life and death have always been there, waiting on the same line. Everything about grief is normal– the wanting to talk about it, the not, the impossibility that anything can go on and then the certainty that it must. We are so beautifully alive, and I feel it now like the dirt on my hands or the bee buzzing too close to my ear. Yes we can grieve but we are alive right now. Today. And what am I going to do with that?
When I first heard the diagnosis I spoke to a naturopath about my dad hoping that she would have some sort of medical suggestions like herbs he could take or alternative treatments. She looked at me and everything about her was soft, her breathing her hair, her hands that rested in her lap, and she said “What we need to talk about is changing your relationship with death.”
She eventually said this:
“Every day we wake up and we have life on one shoulder and death on the other shoulder. Life asks us ‘What will you do with your day’ and death asks us ‘Are you doing what you came here to do’?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, which really means (and what my don meant years ago, I realize now) that I’ve been thinking a lot about being alive: the trembling, the difficulty, and the ease.
Working in the garden just supports this—and to a literal effect too. I was so sore after my first day out there that I had to lie on my back, limbs splayed like a rag doll and no one, not even the cat could touch me because I was too sore. But like Levin as he harvested the wheat in Anna Karenina I felt startlingly, breathlessly present.
“In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigour and dogged energy to his labour; and more and more often now came those moments of oblivion, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. Those were happy moments.”