Tags: death


My mom died in May 2011. She came home to die, and all my brothers and sisters stayed with her those final weeks.

The thing I did that seemed to give her the most comfort, when she was already past talking, but we talked through our eyes, was reading her Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go…” She used to read Dr. Seuss to me as a little kid. I bought her a hardback collection of Dr. Seuss to read to her grandkids. I don’t know if she ever did, and I hadn’t ever read “Oh the Places You’ll Go” until that moment by her bedside. That story helped her on her journey, she smiled and I read it to her again: http://homepages.ius.edu/harrisla/places.htm

Fast forward to this year, about July 7. I was very sick, in pain, couldn’t keep anything down, in and out of the bathtub/shower. I began to smell a funny smell in the bathroom. Hospital-smell. No reason for it. About 2 days of this smell and getting no better. I am utterly broke and have no health insurance. That smell. I realized it was Mom telling me to go to the hospital instead of my usually stubborn self-care. So I went. Luckily the ER has to admit even us “losers.” They did an MRI. Both kidneys were obstructed with big kidney stones, and I was getting initial kidney damage. I was treated in emergency care that day. I know it was Mom watching out for me.

We Are as Grass

Psalm 90:5 (Translation by Charles Spurgeon)

Thou carriest them away as with a flood. As when a torrent rushes down the river bed and bears all before it, so does the Lord bear away by death the succeeding generations of men. As the hurricane sweeps the clouds from the sky, so time removes the children of men.
They are as a sleep. Before God men must appear as unreal as the dreams of the night, the phantoms of sleep. Not only are our plans and devices like a sleep, but we ourselves are such. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of."

In the morning they are like grass which groweth up. As grass is green in the morning and hay at night, so men are changed from health to corruption in a few hours. We are not cedars, or oaks, but only poor grass, which is vigorous in the spring, but lasts not a summer through. What is there upon earth more frail than we!

The Dead and the Land

Chief Seattle: " To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors -- the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.

Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.

...I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits.

And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds."

Thinking about Health and Decline

There was a computer game called "SimEarth" I had back in the 90s. You could play different variants, including evolution-tinkering. One of the variants focused on human civilization. You had a limited amount of "energy" that you could allocate to different areas, such as health technology, energy (conventional, nuclear, etc.), manufacturing, technology, war, communication, environment, philosophy, agriculture/food, etc. The goal was continually balancing and allocating resources to see how long you could get civilization to survive.

The thing was, no matter what you did, or how careful you were, almost any route you went eventually led either to nuclear war, or overpopulation which led to starvation and disease (and sometimes war). Whether it took decades or a couple of hundred years, the result was a devastated planet and crumbled civilization.

Then one day, I did a radical rethinking and allocated most of the energy to "philosophy" (which in this game represented acceptance of death, enjoyment of life, ethical behavior), and very little or nothing to any of the others, including health technology. After all, improvements in health tech meant more people survived, so more food was needed, which eventually meant more energy was taken from other areas, which resulted in environmental destruction and war over remnant resources.

Low health tech meant a natural balance of steady depopulation to a sustainable level of low population. That meant less competition over limited resources. High "philosophy" meant people accepted life for what it was and treated each other ethically, both within a civilization as well as neighboring states. The result? Civilization, such that it was, lasted tens of thousands of years. The game said I had won.

I used to have a good fulltime job with health insurance 5 years ago. But it was a high stress job. Three trips to the hospital with heart issues, high blood pressure, anxiety, etc. The doctor said I was killing myself and pumped me full of psychodrugs for anxiety as well as betablockers for blood pressure. I was in my late 40s and the spiral had begun.

But I jumped ship. For those health reasons and other personal reasons, I resigned. My income dropped to zero. I moved and for the first couple of years on my savings I was able to afford to go to a public clinic doctor for bronchitis, pneumonia, get my blood pressure meds etc. I applied for jobs, but either I was "overqualified"/overeducated or didn't have the connections ...or, I suspect, too old to compete for the few jobs available.

I weaned myself slowly off the betablockers I could no longer afford ($50 a month), used natural stress relief and walking to drop some pounds, and got more into Marcus Aurelius, tribal religion, art and nature to deal, as well as part time teaching to pay rent and food (which is pretty much all I could afford, and even that was hard).

Since then I have survived several bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, the shingles, liver problems, fevers, kidney stone passage, etc. entirely through self-care (hot baths, herbs, sleep, avoiding or eating certain foods, etc.). Eventually I will fail and I will die. On a long enough time scale, everyone fails and dies.

I lost my mother to bowel and liver cancer this year in May. I watched her dying for two months, first in the hospital and then at the end at home. They didn't know what was going on at first. She had been in the hospital a year ago with meningitis. Then they saw she had a bowel cancer that metathesized into liver cancer that riddled her liver. They figured she had had the bowel cancer for at least ten years. So why didn't they see anything wrong when she was in the hospital a year ago?

Biomedicine has overspecialized from what I see, everyone a specialist who only knows how to look for, and ONLY looks for, their own specialty. The focus is on billing for various procedures. My brother is a pharmacist and he took time to be my mom's primary advocate while she was dying, and he stopped them several times for improper drug interactions, etc.

She had a good job with insurance. She had gone regularly to the doctor. No one caught her bowel cancer for a decade. It cost her tens of thousands of dollars, and in the end everything ended up the same anyways.

There aren't many general practitioners who seem to have the patient's big picture anymore, not in this town anyways. And like many folks, I don't have the money to see them if there were. If I get a broken bone or end up in some kind of accident I can't treat myself, I will have to be on the mercy of the county or the kindness of strangers at that point. If that doesn't work out, well...I guess that's life. We aren't exempt. We WILL ALL die. So live while you can and enjoy the life you DO have :-)

The Grimms had a story to remind us about all this, which you may remember I told earlier in this blog.

Death's Messengers, by the Brothers Grimm

Death's Messengers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

In ancient times a giant was wandering along the highway when suddenly a stranger jumped toward him and shouted, "Stop! Not one step further!"

"What?" said the giant. "You, a creature that I could crush between my fingers, you want to block my way? Who are you that you dare to speak so boldly?"

"I am Death," answered the other one. "No one resists me, and you too must obey my orders."

But the giant refused, and began to wrestle with Death. It was a long, violent battle, and finally the giant got the upper hand, and knocked Death down with his fist, causing him to collapse by a stone. The giant went on his way, and Death lay there conquered, so weak that he could not get up again.

"What is to come of this?" he said. "If I stay lying here in a corner, no one will die in the world, and it will become so filled with people that they won't have room to stand beside one another."

Meanwhile a young man came down the road. Vigorous and healthy, he was singing a song and looking this way and that. Seeing the half-conscious individual, he approached him with compassion, raised him up, gave him a refreshing drink from his flask, and waited until he regained his strength.

"Do you know," asked the stranger, as he stood up, "who I am, and whom you have helped onto his legs again?"

"No," answered the youth, "I do not know you."

"I am Death," he said. "I spare no one, nor can make an exception with you. However, so you may see that I am grateful, I promise you that I will not attack you without warning, but instead will send my messengers to you before I come and take you away."

"Good," said the youth. "It is to my benefit that I shall know when you are coming, and that I will be safe from you until then."

Then he went on his way, and was cheerful and carefree, and lived one day at a time. However, youth and good health did not last long. Soon came sickness and pain, which tormented him by day and deprived him of his rest by night.

"I shall not die," he said to himself, "for Death will first send his messengers, but I do wish that these wicked days of sickness were over."

Regaining his health, he began once more to live cheerfully. Then one day someone tapped on his shoulder.

He looked around, and death was standing behind him, who said, "Follow me. The hour of your departure from this world has come."

"What?" replied the man. "Are you breaking your word? Did you not promise me that you would send your messengers to me before you yourself would come? I have not seen a one of them."

"Be still!" answered Death. "Have I not sent you one messenger after another? Did not fever come and strike you, and shake you, and throw you down? Has not dizziness numbed your head? Has not gout pinched your limbs? Did your ears not buzz? Did toothache not bite into your cheeks? Did your eyes not darken? And furthermore, has not my own brother Sleep reminded you every night of me? During the night did you not lie there as if you were already dead?"

The man did not know how to answer, so he surrendered to his fate and went away with Death.

Born to Die

I know intellectually you can’t fear death. I am working on it. We are like mayflies, born to die. The oldest man here in Montana just said: We are born to die.

I believe all the gods/deities, when you trace them back to their roots, are either personified natural forces, or ancient ancestors of one group or another who became “god of smithing” or “god of war” etc. Or an ancestor who merged with the land or natural force.

I was recently reading about this, about places where the dead are merged with the land where they were buried and where they become guardians. This is very very old, and is a root of much of subsequent belief.


This is a still life of the type known as vanitas, about the vanity of existence. The flower represents life blooming ever so briefly, then cut off and wilting. The skull reminds us we all die, memento mori. And the hourglass like that old soap opera, "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives."

It's denial of reality that has got a lot of people into this never never land of immediate toddleresque self-gratification, and adolescent feeling of entitlement and denial of history. It is my goal to always remind myself I will die, so that I don't waste too much time in stuff that doesn't really matter anyways, and spend more time on things -and PEOPLE- that/who do

While Castaneda might have been a fraud on one level, he did write about some truths. One of those truths is that we all die, most of us not expecting it, and so I take Death as my advisor, as it is always at your left shoulder.

I am not being gloomy or morose or sad, just realistic. We do not live forever. In this way, I am reminded to be careful but also to live to the fullest. To live in each moment as if it were my last, in joy and not regret...because any breath could be my last.

I am 50, and I shall not reach 100, so more than half my life is over. I can clearly remember being 3 and 4, and life has gone more quickly than I thought possible, and time passes ever more swiftly. When I was 4 years old, one year was 1/4 of my life. 1/4 of my life now is a little over 12 years. Proportionately, 12 years today was like 1 year as a young child. No wonder time seems to speed up!

To squeeze each breath and each moment for its sweetest juice.

Herbert Anungazuk

When I worked in Anchorage for the National Parks Service, I worked with Herbert Anungazuk.
Herbert, a Inupiaq traditional whaling captain and Vietnam vet, was from the remote Alaskan village of Wales. He loved Wales very much and talked about it often in his job-related exile in Anchorage. His highest wish was to return there someday.

I remember when he told me how the oldtime shamans could travel from place to place through the curls in waves and hollow beach logs. We shared many stories of places we had gone and spirits we had encountered. He told the essentials of proper behavior in Alaska. He was my "sanity-maker" when I was in Anchorage, and the politics got some good wounds in me. When things got ugly there and I lost my job, blackballed from the NPS forevermore, Herbert was the only one there who remained constant, and my friend.

I got this notice this morning.

"It is with great sadness that I pass along news that our friend and colleague Herbert Anungazuk has passed away after lengthy treatment for cancer [8/25/2010]. Herbert died peacefully at about 11:30 this morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. Herbert was 65. He had worked for the National Park Service in many roles, most recently as a cultural anthropologist. Prior to his work with the Service, he had a distinguished military career and was a successful whaling captain. Herbert's career accomplishments only begin to tell of a life well lived, of the friendships he formed and of the insights into his Native culture that he shared with all of us. Our thoughts are with his family and friends in this sad time."

I loved my friend Herbert. The last time I saw him was in Washington DC at a NAGPRA meeting. We had some good talks, while he, my wife Lisa and I sat on the sun-streaked grass outside visiting. That was an afternoon I will always remember.

Well, hopefully he has found his way home to Wales, and is whaling joyfully in the Otherworld now. Now he is free to be in his home Wales, and on the Land and on the Sea.

"I think over again my small adventures, my fears,
These small ones that seemed so big.
For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing.
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world." (Inuit song)