Day 30 of life in lockdown and I’m looking out on a dreamy autumnal landscape. The colours in the trees are turning tawny orange and gold. Through the wedge in the tree canopy, the sea beyond is soft gray with a hint of purple. Out on the horizon there is a smoky haze shrouding the two islands making them the softest shade of mauve and pale blue. I’ve noticed how the indistinct island, hugs the one in front, like a piece in a jigsaw. It struck me today how colours change in the landscape depending on the direction you face into and the position of the sun’s rays. As I walked away from the sun, up the right-of-way, I was surprised by the striking colour palette. The sky on this side was a bright azure and the roofline and chimney juxtaposed against the blue dazzled white and seemed more Greek island than Devonport.
I’m aware these ramblings of mine have at times the quality of a dream — illogical, random, disconnected — the product of a brain scanning through the days experiences and fixing on odd events, snapshots, none of them necessarily consequential in themselves just the flotsam and jetsam of the mind’s wanderings. Yesterday’s entry felt like that —cooking on an induction hot plate, the jazz in a loop playing in the car, love songs on a speaker system, a woman shopping for one, her walk in the park, teenagers, volcanic cone, woman gathering mushrooms, her red coat, my mother, her lipstick. The only link through all of this was me, the I, the narrator of the journal.
I have thought from time to time that I need to sharpen up, establish my themes and stick to Covid-19. And then I give in to the stream of consciousness continuous flow. For the journal to be a faithful rendering of a day in the life, followed by another day and then another it needs to reflect the jumble, the untidiness, the dullness of daily existence along with high points. That said I think the following account is relevant to a journal written in the time of Covid-19 for it links with the mainstream media’s never-ending lust for a sensational story, in this instance the pandemic and death. It has no interest in examining the matter of death in any depth and bringing something useful to the discussion.
Contemplation of death. That was the focus of last night’s meditation meeting. A meditation on an awareness of death (maranasati). This an old and deeply enshrined core tenet that sits at the heart of Buddhist practice helping individuals adjust to the inevitable. Most of us would prefer not to dwell on our own mortality. It makes us uncomfortable. We’d rather not confront the scary spectre of our own death. Buddhist teaching prioritises the contemplation of death as a way of assisting us to address the fear that lurks within and help us adjust to the inevitable and to live more fully in the moment.
The meditation task went like this. ’Imagine that tonight during your sleep you are going to die,’ said our teacher from her white room in Birmingham where she is currently stranded. ‘What are your thoughts? How comfortable would you be with this happening right now at this point in your life, coming out of the blue with no warning? You go to bed this evening and tomorrow you do not wake up.’
Wow. Confronting. Yet what I love about this community is how nobody blanched or ran from the zoom. Quietly, and even steadily the meditation began.
My first thought was ‘my will!’ I have revised it recently during the time of Covid-19 but it hasn’t yet been signed or witnessed. ‘I need to tell my children the name of the new lawyer, the executors and those with power of attorney.’ I felt a real sense of urgency in that moment. My next thought was how my children would cope should I go suddenly. Perhaps we need a discussion around resilience and carrying on after. My grandson and the new baby on the way swam into the field of my awareness. I would hate to miss out on their growing years. My writing. There are projects simmering and it would be disappointing not to realise them but… But I am satisfied with the place I have reached. I can leave now if I have to.
I thought of my mother then, her death and her burial in the family plot in the Ellesmere cemetery, alongside my grandparents and my aunt. I’m going in with her. I decided that as we shovelled the earth into her grave on a crisp, clear afternoon in mid-May 2017. In my meditation I visualized the tall trees that encircle the graveyard, the surrounding pastures and out in the west, Tiritiri-o-te-moana, the Southern Alps pale blue on the horizon. I saw the reassuring folds of Te Pãtaka o Rãkaihautû Banks Peninsula in the east and felt a quiet sense of peace knowing I will eventually rest in that beautiful place.
Until my mother’s death I was afraid of dying. Losing my father and baby brother as a young child I grew up with a confusing and muddled notion of death. When I asked my mother, the morning after my father’s death, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ We were lying in bed together at the home of our friends. She said, ‘He’s died and gone to heaven.’ But what was heaven? ‘It’s a world beyond this one,’ said my mother. Still not satisfied, I asked again ‘Where’s that?’ My mother, grief stricken, she’d lost the love of her life, said, ‘It’s beyond the high hills.’ We lived on the Canterbury Plains! There were hills and mountains on two horizons. In my confusion I imagined my father and my brother in angel robes floating in the folds of the Southern Alps. I carried that magical thinking in my head for years. Maybe even now some small child part of me believes they’re there still.
I was lucky. My mother did not die suddenly in the night. It was two and a half days and they were amongst the most precious of my life. Together with my siblings we sat at her side in Christchurch Hospital helping ease her out of this world. For much of that time her eyes were open, checking always that the three of us were in the room. When she died, we were there, sitting in a row alongside the bed in the field of her vision. She died with grace and courage. She showed us the way to die with dignity. I no longer fear death.