A Place to Stay, Untouched by Death
After my mom's death, I considered the role everyday objects play in a good death.
My auntie’s recent death went deep. Amongst other things, it’s stirred up memories of my mom’s death—and the death of other beloveds. In honor of them all, and your beloveds too, if that feels right, I’m sharing this piece I wrote for Longreads about how objects can go on a journey with us through the death process.
A Place to Stay, Untouched by Death
A place to stay untouched by death
Does not exist.
It does not exist in space, it does not exist in the ocean,
Nor if you stay in the middle of a mountain.
When my mother grew quite ill and it became clear she would soon die, we brought her from the hospital to my parents’ house where they’d lived for nearly 50 years. My father, brother, niece, and I moved the dining-room table and chairs into the living room and hospice came in and set up one of those heavy, mechanical beds with cold metal side rails and a device that moved the head and feet up and down. It was an ugly bed. How many people before my mom had died in it, I wondered. It came with a sparse, lumpy mattress. My mom was skinny as a blade of grass by then and needed padding for her jutting bones. So we purchased an additional mattress to rest on top of her existing one; a mattress that would be hers alone, upon which no one, besides her, would die.
My parents grew up working class in London during World War II where they acquired a lifelong frugality. Inspire by one of the more popular war slogans, “Make Do and Mend,” they reused cooking oil, saved aluminum foil, and sewed up holes in our socks. So, it wasn’t a surprise to discover the Marimekko sheets of my late teen years in my parents’ linen closet. I was 54 then, but the background white on those sheets was still crisp and bright; the pinks and oranges and yellows of the flowers still exuberant. There were no other twin sheets in the house, so as my mom rested in her favorite velvet chair in the family room, my dad and I made up the bed with them. It was February, so we placed one blanket on top and folded another near where her feet, now tender in their slouchy socks, would rest.
And there it was: My mother’s death bed. All done up in my college dorm sheets.
My mind raced through the things that had happened on those sheets. Things that didn’t belong to this moment. I remembered my parents moving me into my college dorm in 1980. My mom always said that the moment all my belongings were in my room, I shushed them away. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I remember unpacking my brand-new sheets, freshly laundered by my mom, and together, the three of us, making my bed. I remember them being so proud of me: There I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. My mom’s education had ended at age 12 when her school was bombed and my dad’s at 14 when he began his apprenticeship in the tool and dye trade. Such was England in those days.
I was struck by this repurposing of an object for a completely unexpected use. Back when I was 18, screwing my boyfriend on those sheets, slipping between them after a late night at the clubs, over-sleeping for classes sandwiched in them, eating junk food and studying for exams, books sprawled on top of them, sharing secrets with best friends with the sheets tucked around our knees, I could never have imagined my mom would die nestled between them.
This wasn’t the only object to find another purpose as my mother embarked upon her final journey.
Many years earlier, we’d travelled to England to visit relatives. The garage attendant where we parked our car in Marylebone became attached to my parents, in particular my mom. This wasn’t unusual; my parents are kind and generous, and my mom had a knack for adopting people everywhere she went. When it was time to leave, the young man, far from his home in Ethiopia, gave her a pewter bell with the Union Jack on it. It sat up on their mantel for a decade, as a remembrance of a young bloke in London who’d been touched by my mom’s life. Now, with the bed snugly made, down came the bell. It was placed on the glass table next my mom’s cushy velvet chair to which my dad escorted her every morning and from which he retrieved her every night — lovingly, determinedly. On the off chance one of us wasn’t nearby when she was in her chair and she needed something, she was to ring the bell from her adopted son and we would appear.
Then there was The World of Pooh, a book I’d given to my brother when we were kids. My tiny hand had scrawled “To Blake Love Jane” on a blank page. Back then, there was nothing I loved more than Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and Tigger. Every night my parents read to us about the 100 Acre Wood and Christopher Robin tugging a stuck Pooh out of the hole to Rabbit’s home or Owl tsk’ing the wayward earnestness of his friends. Now my niece Alex, just finished with college, sat beside the ugly mechanical bed resplendent in my dorm-room sheets and read these same words to her slowly fading grandmother.
I’ve studied Tibetan Buddhism for a little over two decades, and the Buddha teaches us to meditate on death as a means to appreciate our precious human life. With my mother, the closer she came to death the more joyful she grew. In those final weeks, as her body shrank and her teeth loosened, her delight with the world magnified. “You know, Derrick,” she said to my father one morning as he helped raise her from her bed. “I’m finding more and more things to be excited about every day.” A couple of mornings she did a little stationary jig, one hand grasping my dad’s arm for support, the other whirling in the air. I don’t mean to imply that she was excited to die; quite the opposite. She said repeatedly that she didn’t want to leave us. But even through the side effects of the various medications she was on and her fatigue and undoubted fear, she understood this was it — a handful more sunrises awaited her — and she released all blockages to her love for us, all inhibitors, all insecurities, all filters. She became love.
One night she kept my dad and me awake for hours chatting away in the dim light of the dining room. “There is no reason not to love every person,” she said, her voice electric with wonder. “Every person must be loved.”
Another day, as I sat on the footstool beside her chair, massaging her feet, she informed me she was gathering up her memories to review them because soon she would have to leave them behind.
Later, as I walked away, my mom ran the bell to call me back. “I’m so happy you’re my daughter,” she said, the bell resting in the deep hollow of her lap. “I’m so happy I know you.”
It’s easy to imagine death happening in some faraway time in a faraway place with faraway objects that we haven’t yet encountered. But, of course, death is near. And these simple daily objects encouraged me to notice how close death always is. For if the objects were near me already, so too, then, was death.
Sixteen months later, when my cat Hank was diagnosed with cancer, I found myself repurposing again. Or freshly purposing as in the case of the tiny butter plates my friend had given me years ago because they matched my antique china. I love my china, but the plates had served no purpose, since I don’t have dinner parties and if I did I wouldn’t serve butter on tiny dishes. Yet these suddenly became the perfect plates to hold Hank’s diminishing meals. Moreover, they fit perfectly beside him in the wicker basket where he spent most of his final days.
And, yes, even the wicker basket was repurposed. As a teenage cat in Manhattan Hank had lolled happily in it in front of the radiator, chewing catnip toys or snoozing. Now, the beat-up basket became his palanquin allowing me to transport him upstairs, outside, to the couch, without having to put pressure on his stricken lungs and increasingly frail bones.
The beautiful pale green Italian linen that I had nicked during my brief shoplifting phase when I first moved to New York City in the early ’80s became Hank’s death shroud. How could I have known those 30something years ago, when I stashed the linen in my purse that it would one day hold the still, cold body of my beloved boy. My Russian Blue with a white patch over his heart where his love shone so brightly it had burned away the grey. How could I have known that after a series of short, tiny kitten-like meows, after three final slow breaths (each one feeling like the last), I would wrap him in this expensive stolen linen and place him in the grave I’d dug, then shovel dirt on top of him in the pouring rain? Back then, my mind was full of young love and Lower East Side clubs and travel. There was no expectation of Hank, much less his death.
There have been others: The soft organic washcloth with the cherry blossom branches that I treated myself to as a celebration of the improvements in my own health from a head and brain injury became the washcloth I used to bathe my dying friend as she became too weak to bathe herself.
Rimpoche’s mala, the string of prayer beads he’d taken with him when he fled Tibet for India, with the exquisitely battered beads and worn red thread, the one that had ended up in my care and that I used for my daily practice (and that Hank would later, with head high, drag around the apartment), became my sweet kitty Mathilda’s constant companion as she moved toward death cooling herself on our bathroom floor or the shallow of the bed. I draped it over her dwindling body, hoping it would bestow upon her blessings, having once rested in the praying hands of such a powerful lama. Her breathing seemed to deepen when it was near, and she’d purr. I almost had it cremated with her, but in the last moment pulled it back.
I don’t know what became of the washcloth.
I often consider this now when something new comes into my life; will it some day usher a loved one into death? Or will it perhaps usher me into mine? These are compelling thoughts in the abstract, but as the death toll of friends and family mounts (15 in the past two years, alone) it’s a painful exercise. For isn’t it safer, more comfortable, to assume death’s accouterments are not yet with us? That the blanket on your lap or the mug in your hand serves no purpose beyond its utilitarian blueprint? What would happen if these objects whispered to us what lies ahead? Would it make death easier? Had my sheets told me that my mother would die at 88 of thyroid cancer and that I would find her at three in the morning after jolting awake as her spirit moved through me — her mouth frozen in a perfect O, her glazey eyes open — what would I have done differently? Burned the sheets upon graduation to dodge her death? Would I have clandestinely returned the impeccable Italian linen to the store shelves where it belonged in an attempt to save my future boy’s life? I think not.
Objects are largely inherently neutral, brought to power by the emotions with which we imbue them. A crystal vase holding flowers, no matter how pretty, is simply a vase. But the vase that my mom meticulously centered on her kitchen table brimming with tulips from her garden, well, that’s a keepsake. And if that vase now holds March crocuses, the last of the flowers she and my father so lovingly planted that my mom will ever see, and is situated now next to the pewter bell beside her cushy chair, well then it’s everything. A talisman.
In my mother’s final days, I discovered that music is also an object of sorts, at least within this context of repurposing for death. Before the Marimekko, before the pewter bell, my mom landed in the hospital for what would be her last time. It was clear almost immediately that she was dying. My father sat by her bed and told her stories, filled her water cup, read aloud crossword clues — and sang to her. I’d grown up listening to my father’s spontaneous and frequent song bursts, his voice a chocolatey, English baritone. “Danny Boy” had been a household standard. At first, during this hospital stay, my mom was still bright much of the time and when my dad broke into Danny Boy, she joined him. Her voice, like mine, was off-key, but her spirit was strong. She sang the words with gusto and waved her arms in time: But if ye come and all the flowers are dying, And I am dead as dead I well may be. The first time they sang it together in the stark, fluorescent hospital room, I turned to my brother and said, “Well, that song will never be the same again.”
It became the theme song of my mother’s dying. When she returned home, to her bed with my dorm sheets in the dining room, barely a day went by that my dad and she weren’t singing it. I filmed them together once toward the end; my mom so frail, skeletal, no longer pumping her hand in time but rather resting it on my dad’s arm, she lingered over the words I love you so, drawing them out and repeating them. We sang it at her funeral, as the priest waited to raise her arms for the final blessing. It’s no longer a childhood song for me, or even a rousing Irish classic. It belongs to my mother now. To her death.
With Hank, as it became clear he was dying — and due to the cancer in his lungs I didn’t anticipate a natural death — I surprised myself by landing on Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” This is one of my most treasured songs and not one that had any particular connection to Hank — it belonged to my troubled and passionate teenage years long before he was born. I would lie in my bedroom in those still morning hours, headphones snug on my head, and play that song over and over and over: Them boys in their high heels, ah, Sandy, their skins are so white. It has travelled with me, unwaveringly, through my 20s and 30s and 40, and now, in my 50s, still owns my heart. Yet: On a Saturday night, underneath a full moon and full-throttled thunderstorm, it became his as I played it for him on repeat while massaging his body. He’d eaten that day, a couple bites of egg, and drunk plenty of water so I wasn’t expecting that within several hours he would die peacefully without any musical accompaniment outside of his own tiny meows. I played it again from my iPhone jammed in my back pocket as I shoveled the dirt on top of him and the stolen Italian linen. I’ve played the song since and it’s still mine. We share it now. I’m grateful for this.
On my mom’s final night, my father, brother, sister-in-law, niece and I gathered round my mom’s bed. She was in that in-between space. We did our best to sing her favorite songs, most of which came from The Sound of Music. It was a movie I’d watched countless times while nestled on my dad’s lap or stretched out beside my mom on our ’70s nubby plaid couch. But now, there we were collectively repurposing my favorite childhood movie into my mother’s transitional soundtrack. It worked. Within hours she was gone. Those very songs had lifted from the turntable as my mom did her best to teach me how to bake cookies and knit. Songs we had sung together as a family as we drove Up North to go skiing or summer on the lake. Songs that made my mom’s face open and easy in a way that few things did. These were the songs that took her. But the sheets, and the pewter bell with the Union Jack, and The World of Pooh stayed behind with us.
The Dalai Lama encourages us to live well, to embrace happiness — and no one laughs more robustly and easily than he — within a deep acceptance of death. A false sense of permanence, he cautions, brings much harm. In keeping with this, I recently watched the Ram Dass documentary, Going Home, on Netflix in which he elegantly states: “Death doesn’t have to be treated as an enemy for you to delight in life.”
As I write this, Delilah, my Ralph-Lauren-ad hunting mutt, sighs beside me; Clementine, my strong-willed tabby, snoozes in the office; while tender-souled Rudy Lu, my orange kitty, is out on an adventure. My father is 91, his brother 93. My aunty on my mom’s side is 92 and suffering with much full-body pain. The list goes on. Unless something unexpected happens, all these beings will die before me. I scan my house: What part of their death is already here with me, with us? And how I can use it to bring more joy to this, our precious fleeting lives?
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What objects or songs have guided you through the death of a loved one?