Every blade in the field
Every leaf in the forestLays down its life in its season
As beautifully as it was taken up.
- Henry David Thoreau
When I fully appreciated Thoreau's insight, I was driving to work in early July. I was a willing captive of a Gulf Coast morning, the radiant sunlight, the gentle breeze from Tampa Bay, the lone gull marking time on the horizon.
Luxuriating in my good fortune, I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the spectacle to follow: The death of an old person. Why wasn't I prepared for this collision with my future? After all, the death of the old is a fact of life, especially here in St. Petersburg - where old people come to die, it is said.
Death will take all of us, I said to myself. It will take me, when I'm old. I'd told myself this fact before. But, at the end of that day, I believed in my mortality in a new way.
As traffic moved around me, an unfamiliar force pulled my eyes to the right. There, in the curved driveway of a nursing home, an emergency vehicle waited, its lights flashing. A nurse, paramedics and a man wearing a suit and tie huddled near the entrance of the building. There was no sense of hurry as a tiny, sheet-covered bundle was hoisted into the vehicle.
As the doors shut, I glimpsed a small, pallid foot poking from one side of the immaculate cover. No one else seemed to have noticed. The foot was so fragile-looking, even transparent. I didn't know if it belonged to a male or a female. Why did such a detail occur to me?
I was suddenly afraid. But I felt no panic, just a quiet dread. Slowly, I apprehended at least one source of my fear. I had imagined myself - old and skinny - on that stretcher. I was now trying to affirm my own existence, to make myself distinct from the vehicle's lifeless cargo.
But, still, why the dread? An answer, the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, came to me: "Death is never possible in regard to ourselves. It is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on Earth, and if this life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age."
Yes, I was disturbed by the quietude of the scene, its tidiness, its logic, its purposefulness, its finality.
A horn blew. Several horns blew. I had sat through a green light, holding up a line of drivers. The light was now red.
I wondered if the dead person was one of the old people I see at the grocery store where I shop; or one of the unsmiling, frail people downtown clutching a walker; or one of those slow-moving drivers oblivious to the hurtling metal and fiberglass a few feet away. Had this person been someone's wonderful mother? Father? Sister? Brother? Lover? Someone's caring boss? Brilliant professor? Had this person been happy? Unique in his or her own way? What about a sense of humor? Could this person tell a bawdy joke? Sing?
Why the life of a dead stranger interested me, I didn't fully understand. But I felt an affection - no, a kinship - for a fellow human. I was sorry that I hadn't met him or her. I suddenly felt responsible for something I couldn't put my hands on, felt sad that the person could no longer dream of making the impossible possible.
Another horn blew, breaking my reverie. The emergency vehicle was cruising through the intersection, a few yards from me. The paramedics were talking and laughing. How could they? I thought, foolishly. They had a job to do; I knew that. Still, an old person had just died in a nursing home - alone. Old people always die alone in nursing homes because they've been cut off from the real places that had shaped their lives.
As the vehicle disappeared, I thought of writer May Sarton, now in her 80s, and her anguish after a longtime friend had died in an ambulance en route to the hospital: "How is one to accept such a death? What have we come to when people are shoveled away, as if that whole life of hard work, dignity, self-respect, could be discarded at the end like an old beer can?"
That evening after work, I went to the nursing home with the idea of writing an editorial about the old people in such facilities. I learned that the dead person that morning was an 87-year-old retired music teacher from Vermont. His wife had died 11 years earlier. His ashes would be flown home to his sister, herself old and nearly blind.
After being told that the gentleman still played the piano at the time of his death, I was thrilled. Some beauty had remained in his life to the very end. I was also happy that he had died peacefully in his sleep.
Perhaps Thoreau is right: Natural death, like birth, is a thing of inherent beauty.