At church this morning, our minister, Cynthia, led a Buddhist-inspired meditation on the end of life. Rather than imagine our own death in stark detail—as Buddhists are apparently supposed to do—we were asked to simply imagine ourselves at the end of our lives. Where were we? What did it look like? How did we feel? Were we at peace?
I was a little surprised to learn that my old, dying self was pretty chill. I liked Death’s Door Knickers. Ass planted in an Adirondack chair, she drank sweet tea and watched the butterflies in the garden. Everything was overgrown, of course, since old me still can’t garden, but she’d learned a while back how to plant things that could grow without her interference.
The house behind her was small and brown, like it had grown right up out of the earth with the black-eyed susans and honeysuckle, and beneath her bare feet were rocks hauled up from the nearby creek.
I’m not sure who’d done the hauling. The grandkids, maybe. Or perhaps just some neighborhood kids seeking to earn a few bucks and an afternoon snack from Granny Knickers. Either way, they’d dragged ‘em up from the creek and dropped them higgledy-piggledy behind the house. Knickers had filled in the gaps with sand and pea gravel and let it be. Every time she stubbed her toe or twisted an arthritic ankle on an ill-placed rock, she’d thought of the hands that put it there and didn’t mind too much.
Her ankles didn’t hurt on her dying day, though. She’d gotten up feeling sleepier than when she went to bed, and her hands throbbed like a sonofabitch, but she could walk just fine. She threw on the cashmere robe she got for Christmas back in ’12—wrinkled ass showing through the moth holes—tossed back her meds with last night’s sweet tea, and wandered out into the garden to watch the sun come up. Knickers saw the sunrise a lot now that her insomniac sleep patterns had evolved, or perhaps dissolved, into a series of frequent catnaps. She was still a night owl, but she’d grown to love mornings.
She was alone this morning. Not sure where everyone else was, but she was happy to die alone. Way less stressful that way. She didn’t have to reassure everyone that she’d be just fine dead and they didn’t have to worry about whether or not their demeanor was appropriate to the situation.
She’d never understood the common practice of gathering every twig of the family tree together for a death. The family members all had to hopscotch between socially-acceptable bereavement and loud, sugar-laden family reunion, while the poor sod who had the trouble of dying either got increasingly annoyed or, if they were lucky, increasingly insensible. There was real bereavement, too, of course, but those folks usually weren’t the ones sitting around your dining room table with forkfuls of casserole while you lay there dying.
She didn’t need a deathbed audience. She had said her goodbyes in her own way, little by little, over decades. She’d been sick and in pain enough in her life to know that you couldn’t leave shit undone or stuff unsaid. It was the unsaid stuff that festered, and Knickers never let anything fester.
As for leaving shit undone…well, Knickers, in her infinite wisdom, figured there were two categories of undone shit. Okay, fine, three. There were the things you’re actually going to do when you get the time. This includes paying bills and fixing the leaky pipe under the kitchen sink. Everyone does that stuff eventually (unless they die, of course, in which case, someone else does it; either way, it gets done). Then there’s the stuff you like to play at, for which “getting done” is rather beside the point. This includes redecorating the house, learning to garden, and pretty much every knitted project. Finally, there’s the stuff that you should’ve done, like, yesterday. These include telling your dad you love him one last time or making sure your long-suffering husband knows you don’t take him for granted. She had learned her lesson about this last category years ago, so she’d tried to make sure that shit never got left undone again.
She wondered as she sat there in the Adirondack, breaths getting softer and shallower, whether spending a summer in Scotland penning the next great novel belonged in the second category or the third. It was a dream she’d often pretended at, both the Scotland-browsing and the novel-writing, and in some ways it really didn’t seem to matter that she hadn’t actually made it across the pond (she had, at least written a novel, now bound with a metal clip and stuffed under her bed). She’d loved the pretending enough that it had a value all its own. On the other hand, she clearly should have done it, like, yesterday, since it wasn’t going to happen now.
She smiled, then, remembering the first real conversation she’d had with her son, Ephraim, about death. “Well, no one really knows, of course, but I think it’s probably kind of like that Doctor Who episode…” she’d said when Ephraim commented that death must just be like going to sleep forever.
Knickers couldn’t remember the specific episode now, or even the gist of it, but there’d been something about one’s energy going out among the stars after it left the body. The notion that we somehow just…were…out there, somewhere, always…had resonated with both of them at the time, and it had stuck through the years. She might not know where she’d go when she stopped breathing—any moment now, she thought—but she knew it’d be somewhere. And that was enough.
Get your ass to Scotland, Knickers whispered as she died.
Whether that was meant for me or for whatever was left of Granny Knickers remains to be seen.