…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
But I have someone else to do my taxes. Which leaves me with the one singular phenomenon that is death. Yet I seem totally unprepared for it. The people who planned my high school curriculum saw it fit that I should know how to do differential calculus and recite Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. But in my 25 years of formal education I didn’t have a single class on how to die or how to help someone die. So I am stumbling around, blindfolded by social stigma, trying to make my way through thickets of personal experience.
My first brush with death was when my dadoo, my grandfather, died. I was seven. My dad left for the funeral right away. Alu, my mother and I followed a couple of days later. When I saw my dad, his head was shaven. Otherwise he seemed to be himself. He wasn’t crying. He had perhaps finished that part of his grieving, or maybe he shielded me from it. A few years later, our Golden Cocker, Raja, died. That helped me understand death better. It wasn’t the pain of death or the fear of it, it was the finality of it – that I’d never see Raja ever again. Everything I had with Raja was in the past. The future only held memories. And regrets. By the time my mother died, I was an adult. She hadn’t been in great health and her death wasn’t unexpected. I thought that would soften the blow but it didn’t. Arjun’s death was just devastating – I think because of its unexpectedness and also because he left behind his little daughter who was the light of his life. My dad’s death was hard because we had grown very close at that point in our lives – we were spending hours together every day.
We don’t like to talk about death. When my dad was dying, I could not get answers to my questions from the doctors at the hospital. He had arrived at the hospital in a coma. Jo and I were bringing him back home to die. We needed to know what to expect once he was extubated. What to prepare Vivian and Evan for. When to ask Alu to come to Austin. It was finally the home hospice nurse who gave us straight answers.
People die everyday. In an average year the world sees about 60 million deaths. Most of these deaths matter to someone like my dad’s death mattered to me. During the last 12 months there were about two and a half million Covid deaths. Statistically, some of the people who died from Covid may have died due to other causes if they hadn’t got infected with Covid. But still a lot of additional people died and are dying. The US has been affected disproportionately. About 4% of the world’s population lives here. About 20% of the people who died worldwide from Covid lived here. Death is on our minds.
Vivian and I had a conversation about death, perhaps a bit prematurely, when she was three years old which then resulted in her telling the Shahs over dinner one night that I was going to die and that all the Shah’s were going to die. She had just learned that everyone dies. I blogged about it here.
A week ago, Manju Shah died. We all called her “Mummy”. Mummy’s death wasn’t unexpected, but as I found out in the case of my mother’s death, that does not make it easier.
Mummy lived an amazing life. And then died.
I attended a memorial for Mummy hosted by Rajeeta and Minal a couple of days later. It was on zoom, and it was for Mummy’s Osho community . People who were friends of Mummy had logged in from all over the world. Everyone was undoubtedly sad that she was gone. But as the zoom call went along, I had this overwhelming feeling that this was a bittersweet send-off for an old friend who is on her way to someplace better. Hindu philosophy treats the living body as just one temporary stop in the soul’s eternal journey. I am assuming that Osho taught something similar. In fact this memorial was called a “celebration” and it did not have the usual gloom and doom I associate with a memorial service.
Yesterday Jo and I attended Mummy’s funeral. Due to Covid it was small. But it was a beautiful and touching affair. Besides following Osho, Mummy was also Jain. During the funeral Jain and Hindu hymns and mantras were sung. They opened with the Gayatri Mantra, which I recognized and remembered from the ceremony where Alu and I were initiated into brahmin-hood back during our pre-teen years. At one point, akin to the tradition of paying your respect while filing past the casket in Christian funerals, each of us had the opportunity to place some grains of rice and sandalwood dust in Mummy’s casket and spend a moment with the body.
As we drove back home after the funeral, Jo said that the funeral didn’t feel solemn. She felt that the singing and saying Om had a calming effect. She wondered if this was how Mummy had wanted to go. And what we would want our funerals to look or feel like.
I did feel better after the funeral. The rituals and traditions of a funeral provide us with a sense of closure by giving us a time and place to put our feelings of loss into. And for those that believe, the ceremony helped Mummy’s soul onward on its journey.
I have a may-die-soon list in my head. Thankfully, often the list is empty. Lately it hasn’t been that way. When I get a phone call or a message from anyone close to someone on the list my heart skips a beat. Even though I know that life is uncertain and that I may die just as easily before anyone on the list.
Two days ago I got a message from a friend that her daughter has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease out of the fucking blue. A tornado of worry and despair roared through my head. Followed a million thoughts. How do you tell an exuberant and otherwise healthy child that she is very sick? Twenty four hours before that they were eating dinner and chatting away just like us.
Epicurus famously said that death …is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. Simple words. But, when we are not, others still are. Therein lies the rub.
About ten days ago I had a conversation with another dear friend who is firmly in the red zone. We laughed and joked and laughed some more and his voice was strong and his brain was as good as ever but his body is ready to give up and he has decided against further medical intervention. One of these calls will be his last. I feel I should say my goodbyes while I have time but I haven’t. If death is certain, life is hopeful.
It is hard to merge the cold reality of my empirical atheism with the spirituality of death. When you believe that your body is just a bag of unstable cytoplasm, amazing and miraculous as it is, the end is the end. There is no wiggle room for second acts, transmigrations, or quantum mechanical fudging. The curtain falls. You are done. The comfort lies only in recognizing what life has left behind – the friendships, the memories, and for some, the actual strands of DNA in future generations. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. And the cycle continues.
Hindus take off their shoes before entering temples. The individual soul is considered a part of the cosmic soul of the creator, and so there is a bit of god in every one of us. Perhaps it was a combination of these two reasons, but when we walked up to Mummy’s casket yesterday at the funeral, we took off our shoes first. I looked down at my socks in horror. There were golf ball sized lemon yellow skulls printed on the dark grey background of the socks. And some text: “I almost died but it was just a cold”. Jo had given me these socks for Christmas to make fun of my man colds. But they were so inappropriate for a funeral. I had to suppress a giggle. Others noticed my socks too. I was embarrassed. Then I remembered Mummy’s smile. It is the thing about her I will miss the most. If she saw me in these socks at her funeral, I bet she would smile.