Death Don’t Have No Mercy

My mind lingers on death more often these days. I tell Alan that if I become too demented and disabled he should smother me with a pillow, but he hasn’t agreed. We both know I’m joking. Sort of. It’s not like death is breathing down my neck, but my creaky joints and slowing energy feel like I have to treat my body with the respect you’d give to an elderly aunt.

The end of life thoughts have something to do with turning 64 this year, and that more people near my age are falling ill or dying. Also, my mother died just before her 70th birthday, young and still healthy – until she wasn’t.

So as an amusing pastime, I’ve been collecting ideas as I hike and travel for a commemorative plaque with wise words to affix to a bench along some path. I enjoy them when I come across them, and I don’t have a cemetery plot like my parents and in-laws. Nor do I want one. 

Elk Rock Garden bench

A bench under a tree in a niche in a corner near a fountain by a park. That would be good. Elk Rock Garden, Portland

I have fond memories of the Alta Mesa Cemetery near our house in Palo Alto. We could walk up the nearby dirt road, around the back of the apricot orchard, and into a back service entrance by the crematorium. It was a shortcut to get to elementary school and junior high, and a place to walk the dog. It was where I went with Daryl, my 5th grade boyfriend, riding on his stingray handlebars as he peddled, and where we walked holding hands, sweating in our nervousness, wiping them off on our clothes and then reclasping. It was where I went in 7th grade, to learn to smoke and act cool with my neighbor Lynne and her friend Maura, both a year older than I and more worldly. It was green and quiet, where I walked to think and be alone.

Dearest, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Simple and to the point. Dearest, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Our house backed up to Adobe Creek, its running water the soundtrack to my youth, a little wildness amid suburbia. It flowed in winter and spring and if the water wasn’t too high, we played in it, floating a tennis shoe on a string, or wading through the mucky, cold, thigh deep current. In the dry season it filled with poison oak which invariably infected one of us. I once had a case of full body itching, oozing welts that sent me to bed with wet sheets wrapping my limbs, alternating with oatmeal baths and a dose of steroids that sent me into rages.

The creek wound its way through brush and neighborhoods around the back of the cemetery (and eventually out to the San Francisco Bay). We buried mom on the edge of the creek there, along the vein connecting her to her beloved home. We four kids had to choose it for her, since she never had time to prepare for her own death, although the book we found on the living room end table, that she was reading when she died, was titled “How We Die,” so popular in 1995. Did she guess? I’m afraid to read it myself.

Wildwood Trail, Hoyt Arboreteum

Did she think of herself as more? Something to be proud of, but a little old school. Wildwood Trail, Hoyt Arboreteum

Dad knew he wanted to be cremated, and long before his own death at 94, he and his wife Barb picked out a niche in an outside wall, also at Alta Mesa, where their ashes could one day be interred. They visited their niche occasionally, and it seemed to give him comfort to know he had a final resting place.

Cooper Mountain Nature Park

Survivors wishing he could be there with them? Cooper Mountain Nature Park

My father-in-law is buried in the old Jewish section of Ivy Lawn in Ventura. Ralph lies among the several generations of his relations there, including those who sponsored his family so they could escape Germany in 1939. He and Marilyn had previously purchased a plot in Ivy Lawn’s “new” Jewish section when it opened up, along with her sister, but then my mother-in-law didn’t want to spend eternity next to Uncle Carl, so they bought a double plot in the old family section when a space became available. Or so the story goes. That spot, where her parents are buried also, waits for her some day, hopefully far in the future.

Cabourg, Normandy, France looking out at the English Channel

United by love and the love of cinema. Maybe Alan would want to share a bench with me? Cabourg, Normandy, France, on the English Channel

But me, I’m more modern I suppose. Scattered ashes in my beloved Pacific ocean would be fine, or a mason jar in my children’s closet; they can do what they want. But a bench – that makes me happy. I like the idea of creating a place for the living to sit along a wayside where I too enjoyed walking amidst nature. It’s a connection to joy in my life, a place to visit for those who might remember me, or just a spot for passersby to sink down, resting weary legs, wondering about the stranger whose name is engraved there.

But what to inscribe there, how to cap my 70 or 80 or 90 years in a sentence or two? What line from a poem or what pithy literary blurb? Perhaps this too will be up to my children, or maybe, like my friend Beth, I’ll commission the bench and plaque while I’m alive to enjoy resting there myself, before that final rest.

Deception Pass Bridge between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands

This is favorite. A young fisherman was swept to sea while risking his life to put food on our table. Deception Pass Bridge between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands

Wild Cherry Trail, Forest Park

A popular public defender and a river paddler. Murdered 10 years ago and an arrest just recently made. Wild Cherry Trail, Forest Park.

Willamette River, George Rogers Park

This says it all, right? First Fig, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. By the Willamette River, George Rogers Park

Tryon Creek State Park

Work that lives beyond a death, more than just a bench. Tryon Creek State Park

Cooper Mountain Nature Park

She must have been a spitfire. Cooper Mountain Nature Park

Wildwood Trail, Hoyt Arboreteum

Oh James, why so young? A gorgeous poem though. Wildwood Trail, Hoyt Arboreteum

Hoyt Arboreteum

More than just a family man, whose words live on. Hoyt Arboreteum

Outside Shakespeare & Company, Paris

Perhaps this is all it comes down to. Outside Shakespeare & Company, Paris

10 thoughts on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy

  1. I’ve been having similar thoughts and conversations with Bruce, my husband. He listens and knows my wishes, but when it comes to his ideas about death and what he wants done with his body he just isn’t comfortable discussing this. Maybe because my mom died when I was 7 years old and my 2 step mothers before I was 50, as well as many members of my extended family, death and dying is a familiar experience.

    Alta Mesa has all of their ashes in outdoor niches, and I too have spent many hours strolling the grounds and watching how different families honor or celebrate their departed. My favorite was the family who spread out a blanket on the grave and brought out a picnic for the entire family, including little people. There was no tears only laughter and play – I loved that.

    Thanks for sharing and bringing back memories of our childhood stomping grounds You are a fabulous writer and I look forward to reading your observations and thoughts. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading Corinne. It is certainly an age-appropriate conversation!
      I loved our Dia de los Muertos trip to Oaxaca, when the cemeteries are full of mourners and celebrants, each decorating the graves with favorite things of the deceased like mezcal, cigarettes, potato chips, photos, and other memorabilia. They spend their day there, cleaning the gravesite, picnicking with friends and family, burning copal incense, shooting off fireworks, sometimes crying, and generally honoring and paying attention to the deceased and celebrating life. It’s quite something to see!

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  2. Oh Nancy,
    Your reflection stirs so many thoughts on this topic that we , in this country and culture, so often seem to avoid. Reading your missive makes me want to revisit my end of life wishes and revocable plans. Why is it so difficult to decide what to do and where? As a single person it ought to be easier but then as an orphan it’s not. All those documents that one will complete one of these days; health care representative, POLST , living will et trust and then of course those last day wishes and after last breath wishes…those directives to help and guide others ?

    I attended a couple of years ago , in Portland, a Death Cafe’. My curious nature was quite sparked by just the title which seemed like an oxymoron but the event was packed . In small table groups of 4 or 5 , mostly strangers , we shared with eager hesitation our fears and thoughts on what we all had in common; death. Some at the table were seemingly so young to even be pondering such far off realities while others were facing minimal runways . I, having just lost so many relatives, colleagues and friends (10 in 12 months )asked if this was to be the new “normal” . Was this the prize one receives as one reaches a sixth decade? Now after reading your page I have other questions; what would my tag line read below the dash of DOB et DOD? Where would I wish to be scattered; beneath the fir and fauna or atop the coastal waves? And, what in the meantime ought I be doing to live life to the fullest?! And with whom? And for what higher purpose?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts to which I can so relate.
    MJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading MaryJo. I figured this would be a relatable topic – we’re all going in the same direction. And hopefully we’ll all be orphans by the time our turn comes. I’m sorry you’ve had so much dying around you and yours – I’ve been strangely removed for the most part, but my time is coming I’m sure.
      I also was intrigued to hear about Death Cafes, such an intriguing topic. Do they lead to anything, or is it more about people releasing anxiety and fear?
      I’m more in the camp of living life fully now and the end will take care of itself. My bench and plaque is a little tongue in cheek – it won’t be up to me once I’m gone, and I’m not sure how much I care about being remembered once I’m not here to see it. My kids and grandkids will miss me I’m sure, and then everyone moves on. Such is life. What’s important is what happens now, of that I’m extra sure.
      Thanks for connecting.

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  3. The Death Cafe was fascinating (I don’t remember how I heard about it) and I’ve only been to one but may go again sometime. The facilitator was Holly ?, I’ve blanked on her last name at the moment …and then there were table facilitator as well. We had a good group at ours and all ages tho most were 50 or older it seemed . One fellow ended up in my narrative writing class and he passed away last December. He was not afraid of death and was so organized …we were all amazed. I think at some level he knew his end was near and was so open to his humanity..it showed in his weekly writings as well; authentic, transparent, vulnerable, forgiving and loving.
    As far as the Death Cafe’ “leading” to anything I would say perhaps it is different for each person who attends, their feelings about death and any prior direct experiences of loss. It certainly invites one to be more aware of truly living now since it is what we have for sure… Just now… Grab life with all our senses. I hope I do that everyday in some way…we are so surrounded by gifts if we just stay open. Sometimes my shy side appears and I have to remind myself not to hide feelings but take risks for we can survive rejection, loss, change… And Nature is such a faithful reminder.
    best,
    MaryJo

    Liked by 1 person

      • In Europe and other “coffee,tea” venues around the world the cafes are place that draw us to connection and conversation. However it is usually casual, One to one or three-some social gatherings. Death cafes are so intentional and focused on what historically in many cultures has been a taboo topic. One of the raison d’êtres of the Death Cafe, a global movement is to encourage open exchange on so e thing each and all must face… no escaping however many deny.

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      • P S. Your comment brings to mind the writings of Margaret Wheatley…Connections thru Conversations …she , a cultural anthropologist, asks in one if her books. …we speak from those deep values we carry but often can’t name…that about which we truly care. If you had a topic for a cafe’ what would it be?

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