A week ago, I started awake in the early hours with fear flooding my body. The realisation was that, when my mother was my age now, she was probably already in the first stage of the dementia that claimed her life 10 years later. As her sister also fell victim to dementia, there were some greater than average odds that I might too. I don’t have much time! The fear has stayed with me in smaller and larger waves – and fear, as I well know, can be paralysing. But I keep moving and watching the fear moving in my body and mind. I spoke about the fear to a few trusted others. Naming it out loud helped, but it felt very vulnerable.
I was due to give a poetry reading a few days later, and had decided to read Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” as my closing offering – a tribute to her. She has had no small effect on me over the years – all positive – and she met her own death very recently. Mary Oliver’s poems seem always to speak to my own deep desire to connect with life – to be fully awake and attentive to the ordinary joys endlessly available in this unfathomable world I find myself in. It’s the simple and invaluable gift her poems give to anyone willing to receive – and in this poem she reminds us, Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Andreas Weber, in his book, Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology, devotes a whole chapter to Death. He claims that Aliveness must be able to fail if it is to be truly alive. Only because of death does life become creative.1 And then, Stubbornly insisting on life can result in the opposite. The frantic desire to ward off death can actually invite it. Conversely, if you wish for life you must be prepared to welcome death…Perhaps we can speak of a biocentric tragedy, of a rift that cleaves the living heart and makes it bleed. But this division alone is what makes space for desire, it frees this desire, this longing to reveal itself in snowstorms of hawthorn blossoms, in the swifts’ joyous arcs through the evening air…2
Of course – the beauty, poignancy and aliveness of impermanence – cherry blossoms. Why else write poems?
But I have desires about how I want to die, too – as did Mary Oliver. In her poem “When Death Comes” , she says she wants to be able to step through the door full of curiosity. Ah! I desire to do same! To die the death of the fully alive. To open to death as I would to a lover, not a thief. Fat chance if I succumb to Alzheimer’s! Death is not a thief, but dementia is – slowing taking every meaning from you, crumb by crumb, connection by connection, brain cell by brain cell. It angers and frightens me.
I wrote about my mother in Nothing Special: “My Mother’s Kitchen”
My mother’s kitchen was her kingdom.
She ruled there as despot and sage –
copper bottomed saucepans rubbed to a shine
with vinegar and salt –
cupboards with Lazy Susan circular trays
that turned around bringing
spices from China and India,
condiments from Italy and Japan,
spinning around into her easy reach.
Dishes were rinsed from right to left
and into the dishwasher –
but not the lead crystal
or the bone-handled knives.
She cooked with concentration,
subtlety and sincerity.
It was her poetry
and her pride.
But she was left walking through it
one heavy autumn day
with a spoon in her hand.
Looking at it, she turned to me and asked,
“What is this for?”
I can, and will, keep exploring and opening to my deep desires for as long as possible. And I can also feel that death, itself, makes this space for desiring. But how will my fear of dementia impact this? What is this for?
1 Weber, Andreas (2014) Matter & Desire, An Erotic Ecology; White River Junction, Vermont; Chelsea Green Publishing; p 50.
2Ibid; p 60.