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This Fight Will Be the Death of Me
I’m staring at my grandmother in her coffin. I’ve never seen a dead body before.
My grandmother was 85 years old when she died. I was 25 at the time. I had been to many funerals in my life. I had a lot of old relatives when I was a child, and it seemed like I attended a couple of funerals every year until I was 14. The services were always held in an Upper West Side funeral home, the burials in an expansive, green Flushing, Queens cemetery. My relatives were Jewish and open coffins were not the norm. But my mother wanted her mother’s coffin open before the ceremony, for us to say our last good-byes.
It’s quiet in the funeral home, before everyone is set to arrive. My stomach seizes as I stand frozen before her body. My grandmother was a tiny woman in life; not even 5 feet tall. But as the saying goes, she was always larger than life. Loud, angry, smart, a survivor. She used all of these things to her advantage. Now, waxy and mute, I couldn’t say the body wasn’t her exactly but I couldn’t say it was.
I think a lot about my grandmother’s death these days, over twenty years later, an old video that plays in my brain. I’m obsessed with death, lately. It’s not a stylized obsession: I may wonder whether there is an after-life, secretly wishing Jews believed in heaven, or if reincarnation is real. But those thoughts aren’t why I find myself daydreaming about death these days, either. It’s the finality of death, the idea that there is an ending in sight for me. A done moment that lasts for eternity. I imagine the end and I feel like a child ripped from her mother — confused and terrified and angry. I want to shred time into ever smaller units to keep it from disappearing, endlessly separating the particles from each other to make all of the infinitesimal pieces last and then last longer and endlessly rip no matter how tiny each gets. I want never to let go of time. My time.
Maybe it’s growing older that’s exacerbated my fear of death. I’m 48 years old. As my 73-year-old father is fond of cracking: “I’d rather grow old than the alternative, amIright?” Sure, of course. I’d rather grow older than die, yes. But honestly, I’d rather just not die. I mean I always knew death was a fact of life, intellectually. And as someone who suffers from (and survives) depression and anxiety, there have been times in my life where suicide has felt like a welcome option. Still, I never wanted to end my life. I wanted to end my pain and suffering. Now that I’ve grown older and am lucky enough to have the tools to manage my mental health and have possibly gained a better understanding of life as a continuous struggle in some manner or another (or not), I’m pretty clear that I don’t want to leave this place.
Bare and frazzled, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach one day and gasped for air every day since. Yet, somehow, I kept going.
Maybe it’s the trauma my family endured over the last few years that allowed the reality of death to hover like a thick fog in my brain and settle into my bones. We are coasting, after an exhausting white-knuckle ride that left us all drained. It’s the kind of unexpected life crisis that crushes your gut, sucks the air out of your lungs, and forces you to look harshly at yourself, your choices, and how you want to live out the rest of your days.
Every morning for years as we struggled through the drama, I’d wake up and shuffle to the bathroom where I’d gaze into the mirror and numbly stare at my reflection. Bare and frazzled, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach one day and gasped for air every day since. Yet, somehow, I kept going. All I wanted was to push on and make things right again. I felt sheer terror in the prospect that it could all end, this mess of a life, on a horrible note, that I became terrified. In that terror, however, I committed myself to nothing but clearing the way for the sun to rise tomorrow.
So, here I am now. I’m not terrified of the actual moment of death. I do feel a dull worry about a long string of moments leading up to my death that might be messy and putrid and painful. I am a worrier. But more than that, I’m terrified of my time here ending. I don’t know how much time I have left of course. It could be five minutes or it could be 50 years. And I feel appropriately ridiculous whining about this when people are actually dying. After all, those are the ones who really deserve to claim the obsession with death, the terror or fear, or just sadness that they don’t have much time left. Why am I so obsessed, then?
Death nags at me these days — always around like a lingering headache I can’t shake. In the mornings when I wake up, as I drift from that cloudy brain state and I’m not quite of the world yet, I consider that I need to take advantage of the day. I tell myself I need today to be the day when I release from my insecurities and the niggling thoughts that poke and prod: I’m not good enough, my writing is of no use, I should be a better mother or wife or friend or daughter or sister or activist.
I speak to myself with a sort of urgent compassion because I want to be kind and loving to myself but when the hell am I going to learn these things, if not now? It’s a tough love approach that may or may not be working. But it’s time to learn these big life lessons. I need to toss that shit because I don’t have all the time in the world anymore.
I never thought about my own death when I was young, which is sort of weird given the roll call of older relatives called by death over and over.
The dead bodies lay in closed caskets and I recall a recurrent fear that the person inside may still be alive. I remember worrying, What if they weren’t ready and this was some big mistake?! So real was my fear and so confused was my understanding of death and burial at my first funeral, I asked my mother whether my great uncle would have a television in the coffin so “he didn’t get bored.”
There is a silliness and strangeness to death, too. Your dead body a container of a memory of yourself.
After the ceremonies, our small family would ride to the cemetery in a long, black limousine. My brother and I quietly amazed at the spacious elegance, sniffing at the leather. I wondered what we were supposed to feel. I don’t remember feeling sad for the passing of these ancient great aunts and uncles, or the grandfather we saw once a year, whose appearances in our lives mostly consisted of annual attendance at my grandmother’s Washington Heights apartment for endless Passover dinners, while my brother and I kicked each other under the folding table.
We (my brother and I) were expected to be quiet and respectful at the funerals, of course. It was far from too much to ask. But as it turned out, our emotions overflowed often during the services — not from grief. We barely knew them, really. Our emotions erupted, looking back, because we didn’t know how to process — or what to think about — the end of a life.
So, we laughed. We’d look at each other and tears would pool; silent laughter shook our chests. There were times when we removed ourselves from the service, to walk in circles around the funeral home, sucking in air, just to calm down. But if I glanced at my brother as we slowly paced, I’d likely lose it again.
When I first sat down to write about death, and realized how anxious the end of my life makes me as an older adult, I thought about those times. That maybe there is something we did know about death, as children. It could be that laughter was appropriate. There is a silliness and strangeness to death, too. Your dead body a container of a memory of yourself. You may as well be a life-sized doll modeled after the person you once were.
I think my fear of death is about a loss of control. Most of us want desperately to believe that we have control over our lives; and this idea is reinforced throughout our lives in our highly self-centered, driven culture. I want so much to believe that I have control over it all: who I am, who I’ve become, who I choose to love and where I choose to live. When we experience that first loss of control, whether at a young age or older, it’s a terrifying shot to the core. Life isn’t always, is rarely, neat and tidy. Death seems even less so.
Most of us also have very little control over our own deaths. Over whether we live or die. Death approaches or more it feels like you’re approaching death. The end. All done. And you can’t control that. You breathe each breath and each second, minute, day, year, and generation keeps moving, passing, dying. I can’t control that. I must breathe and live as I shake in my skin. A vibration that buzzes just under the skin and yet also a growl deep inside.
There is desire. It’s an amazingly self-centered idea. There will be hope and desire and change and love, long after I’m gone.
I stare for a few moments at the body of my grandmother, immovable in her coffin. A distinct smell hovers. Should I tell you it didn’t feel like her? That it didn’t look like her any longer? That her essence was gone? All of that is true. But still I cry. None of that stems the flow. I stand over her strange shell of a body, awash in a chemical odor and sob. I sob until my eyes feel like they’re drowning and I can barely see her face through the blur. I sob because there is no hope.
The finality of death makes me woozy. Yet it is strangely motivating as well. “I want to be around a really long time. I want to be a thorn in the side of everything as long as possible,“ writes Patti Smith in her second memoir “M Train.”
I want to be a thorn, a flower, a tree. I want to be. Life exhausts me much of the time. Yet there is so much to do to change this world that seems in desperate need of an overhaul. I’m electrified by how much a part of this world I am and how much I owe the world and everyone and thing I share it with my energy and attention, until I am no longer able. The terror of never becoming the person I want to be is what fuels my fear of death.
I want to matter. I realize it’s what we all want. And it’s not that I want to matter after I’m gone (although, I won’t lie, I’d love to leave some kind of fantastic legacy). I want to matter now. The only way I can matter now, today, in this moment is by living as honestly as I can. I want to live in my own skin, with my own truth, in this moment and the next and for all the moments I have. I want to reveal the real of me and my life and body. And maybe that’s what I am truly after: not an understanding of death but a love affair with life, in all of its dirty piles of yet-to-be-done and fireworks-yet-to-be-lit. The depth of grief crying to be felt and the heavy lifting looking for a lifter are my responsibility as much as they are anyone’s. The only way I can matter now, is by believing that I do. With that belief, I allow myself to release from this pointless argument with death that clearly I’ll never win and exist here and now with the energy to live like the end may come at anytime.
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