(02 December 2020)
It has been 18 years to the day since my mother died. I will always remember her last words to me. She was in her bed in Spruce Lodge, a long term care home in Stratford. I was in a chair pulled up to her side. Her breathing was shallow. I spoke to her mostly to fill in the silence. I’m not much of a conversationalist at the best of times. I get even worse when the person I’m talking to doesn’t respond.
After a while, I leaned in close and asked, Are you there, mum? She opened her eyes briefly and said her final two words: not yet.
In her last years, months, weeks, and days, Marjorie sank deeper into the dark shadows of dementia. She couldn’t remember how to boil an egg or vacuum a carpet, but she could remember every grievance she ever suffered as a child. The closer she came to her end, the more vividly she remembered her mother and her sister. She desperately wanted to see them again. She believed it would happen. I would never argue with her about it, but I’m certain it didn’t.
My mother was deeply religious. By that, I mean deeply loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Growing up in Glasgow in the first half of the 20th Century put you in the heart of religious intolerance. You were either for Celtic or Rangers or you held your tongue. There wasn’t much middle ground. At least, none you could comfortably stand on.
I would never argue the fine points of Catholic doctrine with my mum, and she never said which version of her mother and sister she hoped to see in her afterlife. I expect she would expect to see them at their best. It’s tough to say which Kodachrome moment that would be. She wasn’t often alone in a room for very long with either of them without an argument breaking out.
I never gave more than a passing thought to the idea of an afterlife. Until one day I did. It’s something that gets pushed forward when you sit in your doctor’s office and she utters the second most dreaded word ever: cancer. The one you will come to fear even more is metastasized. I haven’t heard it yet, and I hope I never do. Still, it got me thinking.
If the afterlife begins when a person dies, when does it end? It can’t go on forever because everything that has a beginning must also have an end. It seems to me that a life ends when there’s no one left with a memory of it. Your afterlife shuts down when theirs starts up.
That sounds simple enough. It makes more sense than constructing a different plane of existence where all of us can live together in peaceful harmony. It was helping me bring this episode of my blog to a conclusion. I was going to focus on the differing views of the afterlife in Catholicism and Buddhism. I was leaning towards the Buddhist team, even though I don’t play for them. They at least use my vision of an afterlife of very finite duration. You can tell from her last words that Marjorie wasn’t giving up on Team Catholic.
I recently finished binge watching The Good Place. It’s on Netflix, but began its life on NBC, one of the old school American television networks where it lived for four seasons. It dealt entirely with the afterlife. Not only that, but it gave a shout out to what I’m told is a Buddhist conception of the afterlife.
In the final episodes of the show, all the people – and I mean everyone – who had ever been denied entry to heaven are suddenly let in. Now they can all live forever while being given everything they’ve ever desired. What they found was that an unlimited supply of pleasantness eventually becomes very unpleasant. They learn they can get away from it by exiting through a portal that brings their existence to an end.
The final episode of the show tells us human life is like a wave that crashes onto a beach somewhere. The water in the wave seeps through the sand and returns to the ocean. The energy that had been you joins the larger energy force that is all of us.
That’s it, I rejoiced. Essay over. The Buddhists and the Catholics walk off the field with a tie. Then, just when I least expected it, I got an email from the Library. A book I had on hold was available for pickup.
The Bright Hour: a memoir of living and dying is an exceptional book by Nina Riggs. You should read it when you get a chance. Have a fresh box of Kleenex close at hand when you get near the end.
Nina Riggs, you see, is a great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The 19th Century American essayist is still very much alive in her heart and her home. The rest of her extended family, and the community of Concord MA, also does it’s bit to help bring his afterlife to record-breaking lengths.
Riggs’ book is about a lot more than this. I’ve read a few books by now about cancer. Living with it. Dying from it. This is one of the better ones. It is full of rabbit holes and they are easy to fall into. As an example, words evolve and move from one language to another. A Latin word, hospes, travelled through French into English where it gave birth to four words: hospital. hospice, hotel, and hostel. A hospice, we now know, is a place where care is provided to terminally ill patients. Back in the day, Riggs tells us, “it meant a rest house for travelers – for pilgrims. And is there anything more welcome to a weary pilgrim than rest?”
As she lay in her bed 18 years ago, my mother wanted nothing more than a resting place as she got ready to meet her own mother.