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Is There Any Way to Come Into Right Relationship with Death?

If this past weekend has taught me anything, it's that we're all hanging on by a thread.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discusses death
Still from my favorite movie of all time, The Seventh Seal. Here, Max von Sydow, a medieval knight named Antonius Block, plays chess with Death.

Americans have a peculiar aversion to death.

You see that aversion in the way we compulsively raze old buildings and build new ones. You see that in our abhorrence of things that age, particularly women. You see that in our celebrity-mad culture where once a actor reaches a certain age, we yank them off the public stage with a vaudeville hook—or ridicule them, if their attempts to stave off the lines and wrinkles with plastic surgery become too obvious.

Part of our revulsion stems from what we see every day: ads. Ads on Instagram, Facebook, television, magazines. Ads on billboards, busses, Jumbotrons. All the faces we see are young faces. We are bombarded by digitally enhanced images of what “normal” is supposed to look like, which is young. Also, smiling. Energetic. As far from death as a body possibly could be.

But Europe has a whole different mindset when it comes to ageing and death, Italy in particular. Here, the ruins themselves are a reminder that things endure, but people do not. I live in a five-hundred-year-old building. Its foundations are possibly a thousand years older than that. The priest of Christopher Columbus who made dozens of voyages with him, including his most significant one, was born and raised two buildings down from ours. Many houses here in Amelia have Roman mosaics in their basements. Everywhere you look, beautiful old buildings are a constant reminder that you are merely passing through. They will still be here when the daughter of your daughter’s daughter comes for a visit. But you won’t.

We live in a necessary amount of denial when it comes to death. We have to. Every day, death stares us in the face, threatening to devour us whole. Meanwhile, we’re whistling past our own graveyards, comforting ourselves with lies: I’m still young. The people in my family are long-lived. I take reasonably good care of myself. But all it takes is one wrong turn on the highway, and we’re on a coroner’s slab. If we didn’t turn a blind eye to our own impending doom, we’d never leave the house, walk down a flight of stairs, eat food, have children, breathe.

It was in that exact spirit of blithe denial that we descended on a trattoria in Terni, Umbria, last Friday to belatedly celebrate my birthday. John had been in communication with the owner all week, a lovely woman who exhibited all the sensitivity to my gluten issues you could want in a proprietress. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re coming on Friday instead of Thursday,” she’d told him. “I make gnocchi on Thursday, and my kitchen is a blizzard of flour. Better for your girlfriend if you come on Friday.”

Yet there we were, standing in front of a dark restaurant with a padlocked door. John was completely baffled. “I don’t understand,” he told everyone. “I spoke to her last night.” Then a guy driving by stuck his head out and said, “Forget it, they’re closed. The owner’s husband dropped dead of a heart attack a few hours ago.”

Say what?

We kept staring at each other as though we’d misheard. Death? Here? A river flowed serenely nearby, glinting silver in the moonlight. Spring wildflowers nodded on a gentle gust of wind. That sweet woman had been up to her elbows in pasta flour, having no idea that it was her husband’s last day on earth. How can somebody be there one minute and gone the next?

And why did everything look so normal?

We made reservations at another restaurant, feeling awful about celebrating anything after such news. Hunger is a strange reminder that yes, you are alive. Somewhere in Terni, a grief-stricken woman—probably more than one—sobbed her eyes out while we toasted each other at the table.

Life goes on, of course, as awful as that sounds. Until it doesn’t.

That was Friday.

Saturday, we made plans that fell through, and then we hung out at the house. Sometime after dark, we saw a blue light flashing outside. Amelia is a medieval town with narrow medieval streets. A flashing light is reflected in all windows.

“What’s that?” I asked John, who, man-like, is always the first to investigate such anomalies. He cranked open the window and listened. I could tell by the varying degrees of horror on his face that the news wasn’t good.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discussing death
Bengt Ekerot as Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

I refuse to mention any names, but our immediate neighbor committed suicide. Alone in his breathtakingly beautiful house with its lit niches full of classical marble statuary, his walk-in fireplaces, his great vaulting ceilings, he had hanged himself. Here we were in the building next door laughing, acting like a couple of fools, while this man wrote meticulous directions about how to dispose of his human remains. He’d already paid his bills and ordered service shut-offs. The only loose end he left was his beloved dog, who was trembling on the doorstep now, refusing to leave the only master she’d ever known.

Despite our neighbor’s full teaching schedule, his work at the local museum, the out-of-country projects he’d spearheaded, the love of his friends and family, he’d apparently battled significant depression. Some years ago, his partner had also ended his life.

Look, I get it. The Buddha was right: Life is suffering. Clinical depression is no joke, and when your synapses aren’t firing right, it’s impossible to consider the effect your death will have on those who love you, those who have to pick up the pieces. Those who are left holding the bag.

Which is why a few hours later, his housekeeper found him dangling from a rafter. You can’t un-see something like that, by the way. It will haunt you for the rest of your life. And no one can convince me that a dog isn’t sentient enough to understand what’s going on. Of course, his dog knew. She spent the rest of the night howling mournfully for her dead master. Listening to it brought a lump to my throat.

It’s shattering when someone kills himself. You can’t help but to question your role in it. Why hadn’t we gotten to know him better? Why hadn’t we paid closer attention? We are our brother’s keeper in the end. And when one human dies, on some profound and otherworldly level, we all die.

But I can’t and won’t lie about the less charitable feelings I’m having, too. Am I wrong to also be angry with him? Do our lives belong exclusively to ourselves? I struggle quite a bit with this question. I’m inclined to say when other people love us and care whether we live or die, then, no, our lives no longer belong to us. There’s a responsibility to others. By its very nature, clinical depression surely blinds us to that debt. But I find myself wondering if our neighbor would have killed himself if he’d known how sad and shaken he left an entire community.

And now, here we are. We’re down two more humans, in addition to the thousands that have been murdered by Putin’s army in Ukraine. The millions who have died during this pandemic.

Death isn’t just sitting on our collective shoulders.

It’s breathing down our necks.

I offer you my only solace, which is this magnificent poem from one of America’s greatest poets, the late Mary Oliver.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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