Death and Desire

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.



Author: MaryAb

Born in upstate New York. Moved to the UK in 1971. At home in Devon.

Author: MaryAb

Born in upstate New York. Moved to the UK in 1971. At home in Devon.

4 thoughts on “Death and Desire”

  1. Yesterday evening I went, as usual, up to the meditation room at the top of the house and meditated in the semi-supine position. This is a position I learned from Alexander Technique that not only helps align the spine and improve posture, but releases and slowly stretches out the psoas muscle – the hip flexor muscle deep in the body that contracts as a result of fear and can remain contracted – for years or a life time in many cases! I do it every day if possible. As I lay there, using the time to meditate, I suddenly felt what I can only describe as pools of vulnerability in the hip sockets. The fear of the last week moved out and in poured the deep vulnerability it was hiding. It made me tremble a little and feel almost queasy, but it also felt so good – open and released again, at least for the moment.

  2. In the Death and Dying group that I am a part of, I find myself repeatedly coming back to the concern you have highlighted here. Some others do too.

    We can be talking in the group about dying well, leaning well into dying, preparing ourselves one way and another — and then dementia pulls the rug from under us. Suddenly all those good intentions fall away in the face of mindlessness. And there’s little to say or do. It’s pretty much too late to start spending a lifetime sleeping well and doing mental arithmetic and all that.

    There’s a residual, vain belief that, if I participate in creative projects and cultivate the garden and appreciate bird’s foot trefoil with attention, I might somehow evade a mindless old age. I know it’s not true. But perhaps I can harness the belief to my intermittent intention to live well now and somehow go out smiling not shouting — sparing my poor keepers my worst excesses.

  3. What a witness observing my process might consider” dying well” might not be my experience. I will not know until I take that last breath and step into the unknown.
    My wish is to be conscious at that point, to be conscious in my dying. At this point in time, that would be “dying well” in my book but if I am overcome with agony I might well clamour for morphine and los of it. But maybe this is just my ego talking and maybe the process of dying is one of letting go of the ego, over time or instantly? Maybe dimentia is the ego disappearing over time…..

    1. Yes, Joy. I have thought about the pain issue too, and also witnessed it more than once in friends who were dying from cancer. It’s just not possible to know until you are there. I am not good with pain, I’ll admit. But I think of the process of dying as also a process of living, not just being on one’s death bed – so I desire to live fully as long as I can. I have days, like today, when due to having a cold, I feel little desire at all! Is this a hint about how I might feel at the end?
      But dementia is more than the ego disappearing. The brain is atrophying – shrinking – so the gaps between the different parts of the brain get bigger and bigger until they cannot be crossed. It is the ultimate in disconnection – and horrifies me. Recently, my husband and I watched an amazing film called “Alive Inside” ( which looks at how music can help someone connect again inside. Worth watching if you can.

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