A million and one ways to die

There are a million and one ways to die. Protests against a fanatical interpretation of a religion, suspension bridge collapses, stampedes, a virus. Those were just today’s headlines.

There are a million and one ways to die. To die even before you are born. Cells never coming into formation enough to become a being. Forcing the profound realization of the porous-ness of the living and the dead. Here we are looking through the screen door at one another, arms outstretched, in a hug, a holding, a releasing.

There are a million and one ways to die. Surrounded by your children, in your home of 40 years. One of them sleeping in the adjacent bend, one gripping your arm, the other holding your soft and still-strong hand, mindlessly rubbing the coarse hair on its top, thinking about all the times those hands tossed her in the air. Your partner of over 50 years stepping out, for one minute, one reprieve at the kitchen counter to eat because everyone wanted her to eat to keep her energy up, to keep her focused on the land of the living, to keep on living. The hospice nurse later remarking, “They are always waiting – waiting for someone to come or someone to leave.”

There are a million and one ways to die. To die like a star whose time has ended, a period or maybe even an exclamation point. Shooting through space into the atmosphere. Only it’s doesn’t shoot, it doesn’t have upward velocity or an arc of a trajectory. Instead, it drops, free falls, really. Gravity pulling it closer to where we stand overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a clear night, the milky way stretched like a thick ribbon above us. The star traveling until it’s no more, fading into another existence, skipping down the marine terraces into the deep ocean trenches, to be reunited with its relations of minerals, time and pressure. Transitioning from one state to another, the light it carried from light-years ago present and then disappearing from our eyes. Us, bearing witness to its time travel.

There are a million and one ways to die. Our ancestors know this truth. Only I cannot stare them in the face, the most of them. And I’ve only started to identify and understand their names, the bits and pieces of their lives – facts, really, no stories – captured in some public record, some baptism, some death, some tombstone in a distant plot in Kentucky, South Carolina, France, Italy, Germany. All dialects and languages that would now sound foreign to me. When someone asks, “what’s your mother tongue,” which mother do they mean? I write my stories for myself, for my daughter. Because one day, I, too, will die.

There are a million and one ways to die. My dead friends know this. We whisper their names, one by one, taking account. All the spots on their livers, resected here, radiated there. Metastatic breast cancer, shutting one critical organ down until the entire body and every fiber and every cell gets the message that now is the time. The effort valiant, the body weak, the mind angry. It is not always in peace and acceptance. It is not always full circle. It is not always in the natural order of things. They held life like a face, too. And this is where they are, scattered to the four corners, carried on the wind, inhaled by me, returned to the earth.

There are a million and one ways to die.

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