Dad was no sissy. He was fostered out at 9 years old, when he lost his mother, to a succession of strangers as a farm hand. Some of them were good people he kept in touch with his whole life. Some were abusive. He signed up for Civilian Conservation Corps at 15 (illegally using his brothers SS number, which caused a lifetime of problems for his brother) and again lived far from home, working in the outdoors. He was a Marine in the Central Pacific during WW2. He learned early and often that life is not for the faint-hearted.
He knew how to stick. But brave or not, watching his body betray him understandably got him down. Going away from the world might be sudden; his was a slow, getting-to-know-you kind of going.
So we, his family, got to know the going of him slowly, also. I began to face his mortality, and my own, one day when he was 78 or so (he lived to be 89). Dad was sitting in His Chair in the living room. I walked by. He was looking out the window towards the yard and the trees and the road. I said how you doing Dad, and headed out the door without expecting an answer. But he surprised me with an answer. And not with a cheerful "Oh, you know, just thinking of a good story," or a teflon "Just fine, PatsyAnna." Nope, he threw me a Philosophical Curve. He gave me An Answer.
"Well, you know, I was just thinking."
I waited. He was still looking out the window.
He said,"Sometimes I get tired of all this stuff, all this sickness. Sometimes I'd like to get up out of this chair and go out in the woods, and just never come back. Get away from all this." And then he looked me in the eye, as though daring me to understand what he was saying. Or maybe daring, for a moment, to feel a little self-pity. Being an orphan and a Marine, he was never a complainer.
I was surprised by the words. More than that, I was afraid that he was human, and not a Marine/ God, and that I was going to have to deal with that revelation, right then. I was suddenly afraid he would talk about dying. I was suddenly afraid he would one day die. While I was stumbling over these undeciphered thoughts, he answered himself.
"But I don't," he said. "I stay right here." And looked back out the window. Towards the trees.
I am woefully inadequate at understanding many things. But even then, I understood a little. All of his life he was a farmer, a construction worker, a soldier, a hunter. In the woods, in his head, he still had weapons. He could fight back at Something, or go down trying. As it was, in his chair, he was going down in pieces, without any ammo except his own endurance. And the redoubtable ammo of Mom--the main reason he hadn't gotten up and run off into the woods years ago.
Looking back, looking for my own understanding, I have an idea what he was saying, and why that small conversation hasn't left me.
Not to be gruesome, but: I have always wanted to die under a tree, alone, and decompose into the ground and tree roots. Thinking of this gives me great comfort. I do not want to be shot full of chemicals and confined to a slowly decomposing boxed-in area. Since I live in the 'burbs, and currently there are no suitable candidate trees within my grasp, with requisite isolation, I shall settle for cremation. We all have our druthers.
One of my friends recently mentioned going off in the woods to hunt when he was ready to die (we have wide reaching conversations, sure). Whoah, I thought. Is this a trend? I counted: Dad, me, Indians in old movies, all of the dogs I've ever loved, the friend who wanted to go to Alaska and die on a glacier (although people have offered him their freezer for free); all want/ ed to die alone and en terre. This death-wish pattern of "hunting" and "facing nature" led my facile and morbid line of thought to "predator and prey." And therein lies the thought/ philosophy/ spiritual truth which I'm slowly getting to: death is the ultimate predator. As long as we live, we are debiting the food bank. We aren't being prey. However, millennia of DNA has stamped us with instinct to give back to the (ok, the Lion King said it with music) Circle of Life. When we die, primal instinct is to pay up. If we, or our ancestors, survived all the other predators that wanted to debit us, the only predator left is: dirt.
I like this picture, because I understand it. I realize my brilliant thought is not new. I just never thought of it before. Some part of us, depending on how close we feel to dirt to begin with, seeks the deeply spiritual return to dust, so some other life--any life--can debit us. "I decompose, therefore I regenerate," to badly paraphrase DesCartes, and the Resurrection Myths of several religions.. Or as My Hero Carl Sagan posited convincingly in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, all life on Earth began with the dust of distant stars, drifting down with the necessary ingredients for complex protein development--"dust to dust" as our own Blows in the Wind back into the atmosphere, maybe to become the twinkle in some future little star's eye.
We generally kill our food at Kroger's or MacDonald's or the like, and deny the Kill or Be Killed part as much as possible. Yet the memory remains. All the pounds of hamburger, or lettuce, remain within us, wanting back their pound of flesh, literally. We therefore (she reasons) want to go into the woods and do our instinctive part in the cosmic plan. Become compost.
If you've read this far, maybe you are wondering if I'm weird. Or maybe you are as old as me, or (like me) prepping for a graceful exit somewhere down the road. I feel far more comforted by the thought of dancing with the earthworms--as a beautiful song whose name I cannot remember goes, but I heard it sung by Claudia Schmidt and its on one of her CDs--than by eternally existing in a place with wings and light and pure thoughts. I only think this way sometimes; a lot of the time I'm thinking about other stuff, really.
But I'm always trying to understand how to face my own mortality with courage and peace. Buddha and I have this in common, I think, if nothing else. In the context of my experience, Dirt as Payback works for me. I trust I have some time to consider it further.
And Dad, I'm glad you didn't run off. You have taught me to Stay. Thanks.