The Thing About Dying… (a/k/a Why I Write)

The thing about almost dying is that it makes you very, very aware of living. Not necessarily the Big Things, like how will your family fare in your absence or the state of your soul, although those thoughts are likely present as well, but the little thing…things that are often of no consequence to anyone but yourself, perhaps something that never seemed particularly noteworthy before.  The little things are the things that haunt.

My husband told me that he realized just how serious things were when the emergency personnel started cutting off his clothing. His first flash of thought…before the fear of life and death and pain and That Which Comes Afterwards…was just this: What if I never get to smell her hair again?  Weeks later, when finally he shared this, my own raw emotions broke free (although I admit that I did ask him what my hair smells like…apparently it is smells like sunshine and rosemary and “kind of perfumey”).  Other fears came later: job and bills and money and The Future. But for a moment, all that mattered was the familiar warmth of comfort of a beloved.

photo 2In the weeks after That Day, spring awakened and the view of the ridge behind our house took on new life. Something seemed to stir in my husband, too. He watched the bulbs I had planted break through the earth, and he asked eagerly when we could plant our garden.  Per doctors’ orders, the digging and planting would have to fall to me this year. Despite my exhaustion, each day ended with a few more seeds tucked into the earth like an offering.

The daffodils and hyacinth bloomed and faded. The grape vines leafed out. The lavender seemed to resurrect itself from the gray dormancy of winter.  The tomatoes and peppers sought the warmth of sun, as did the peas and black bean bush.   The berry bushes flowered and the herbs trailed and twined and stretched skyward. My spirits also grew as my husband walked the gardens each night to point out the minute changes that had never before caught his notice.

He became engrossed with living and what comes from a life well-lived. These things we grew, photo 1they had purpose, they offered something back…he worried that his life did no such thing. This man, long since sworn to protect and serve, worried that his life was not Enough. My heart broke.  When I tried to console him, he told me that I couldn’t understand, that I already knew that I was leaving something behind, that my words were my legacy.  But, even as he said it, these words that he spoke of, these words that I love, that I try to shape and craft–they seemed so inadequate. How could I not find the words to give him to ease his mind and settle his soul?  What kind of writer was I?  What kind of wife was I?

photo6Our walks around the garden have been hampered by the seemingly unceasing rain.  The pattering of rain from the gutters and the sloshing of passing cars has replaced the low drone of tree frogs.  The rain crows mock us in the still between the storms.  The fog’s embrace soon becomes stifling as our growing restlessness cuts short our goodwill.

This morning, desperate, I took to the garden in the early morning hours and rain be damned.  Breathing came easier in the rain cooled air, but the words did not.  I sat on the damp rocking chair and lulled myself into thoughtlessness.  Closing my eyes, the baptism of rain continued.  The rain has a purpose, I reminded myself before I finally rose to start the day.

Then the words finally came.  They are not my own, but I am unspeakably grateful for them:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

–Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)

Tonight, I will take him to the garden—rain or shine—and I will remind him of this truth too often forgotten.  It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.  And I write it here, in case you need a reminder.

photo 3

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19 thoughts on “The Thing About Dying… (a/k/a Why I Write)

  1. OMG Terri – I so get this! It wasn’t death exactly that brought it to me, but …………….. yeah. I struggle every day wondering what have I done to leave behind. Especially as a woman that never gave birth (my 3 were lost in utero). I’m a writer – I feel lost days I can’t get words out of my head – but do they matter or make a difference? That – I just don’t know. Thanks for expressing this so well.

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    • Yes, children are a legacy of sorts, but after a while (and far too soon) they stand on their own two feet, are marked by their own accomplishments, so that whatever start we give them is overshadowed by their own interests, talents, and lives…just as a garden admirer passing by notices only the thriving flowers but never the soil.

      I am so sorry for your loss. The lives you carry mark you, whether they ever come to fruition or not. My first pregnancy resulted in an early miscarriage, but I still think of it and mourn what never was.

      You will have a legacy, though. Don’t doubt that. Strange, the pieces of the past that we carry forward with us: ancestors, lost for generations, only to be rediscovered by a budding family historian; recipes made and remade anew with each passing holiday; faded photos found and hazy faces recalled. Yes, you will have a legacy….

      A writer’s legacy IS their words. It really can be hard when words and thoughts seem so intangible, but the turn of phrase, the scraps of conversation, the words of solace, or encouragement, or hope can last much longer than a mere life. Yes, you have a legacy.

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  2. I have so much to do today and I did not have time to stop and read this and then become choked with emotion by your words. Right now, I’m taking 15 minutes and spending time in my garden with my happy puppy by my side. We both have earned it. My prayers continue for you and your hubby and family.

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    • Definitely cuddle the puppy in the garden; everything else will bide. And thank you for your prayers. I think that perhaps prayers said while your soul is at one with nature make their way to heaven just a wee bit faster…let us hope.

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  3. Terri, I’ve just found your blog by way of rynawolfe. Your powerful words moved me. I’ve thought often lately as to my legacy; I’m not sure why really, other than it occurs to many of us past middle age that life is tenuous and is best not taken for granted. My best wishes to you and your husband.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you found me. I think you’re right, the older we get the more we start thinking of and planning for our mortality. It was a bit of a gut punch to remember that my husband isn’t a superhero. 💔. (But he is still my hero.)

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  4. Spent yesterday in the yard, and did some litter pick up as part of my Earth Day recognition with the 4 year old granddaughter. Mother Nature can certainly rejuvenate the soul, esp in spring. I have tears reading your post here today. My hubby is recuperating at home from knee replacement surgery, but was doing hospital runs for several ays. Things are good now. Keeping you and your husband in my thoughts. Thanks for sharing you words with us!!

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  5. Being a person who’s cheated Death a few times in my life, I know exactly where your husband is coming from. When I had a Melanoma on my leg, I was told I had 6 months to live if I didn’t get it surgically removed.

    Then, I had tests done to see if the doctors could do something about my Epilepsy – an operation being the very last resort when medication doesn’t work. I wasn’t a candidate and so was O.D’d by the doctors when they shoved me back onto my medications then gave me a Valium (which I’m not only allergic to but triples the dosage of my medications in my system). I lost 3 days and 2 dress sizes… my parents thought they were going to lose me in a Melbourne apartment because I was so sick. I don’t remember anything after throwing up 4 times.

    Being close to Death – that Horseman – can really affect somebody in such a way, no words can really cover what it feels like. I’ve tried describing it to my folks unsuccessfully.

    And then… my Mum went into hospital to get a Lung Cancer removed. She’d never been a smoker and she nearly died in ICU. She told me the other day that now she gets it… now she understands why I push myself so hard to get everything I want done in my life – all my books written, all my paintings painted, my garden exactly the way I want it, wanting to learn to cook just about anything, not wasting my time on crap television shows when there’s always better shows on another channel… I also love to drive my car everywhere! I don’t care if I get lost, so long I get where I want to get.

    Life is for living… and when Death gets so close you can see that Horseman in your dreams (as I have so often in the past years), you know you’ve pissed him off in the worse possible way…. like I did.

    I hope your husband is recovering well… and this Summer, when it does rain on a stinking hot day… go out there with him in the garden and let the rain fall on your faces. It’s a wonderful feeling.

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    • I’m glad you cheated Death. Sure, he’s pissed, but a Life Well Lived does tend to piss people off.

      I’ll wait for the rain and then I’ll take his hand and let the water wash away the doubt and fear of the past six months.

      Thank you. 💗

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  6. Thank you for sharing this. I’m now thinking on the reasons why I write myself. I’ll probably post it on my blog too, if I find the words for it.

    I believe that we are also affected by the people we love, and the people who love us. In a lot of ways, the things they do or say, or even just their presence changes us. Sometimes these are little changes, and sometimes they are big, profound even. They somehow live through us after they’re gone. In a way, loving others and being loved is the most personal mark that we might leave behind.

    (Same, yet different, with hatred and suffering we cause others, but that would twist not only the people we have hurt, but also ourselves.)

    I hope I made sense. It’s difficult for me to put my thoughts to words outside of writing stories!

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