I’ve grown up — and old — with Death… and Death isn’t like they used to show in the cartoons when I was a kid: this tall, hooded, skeleton-like creature shrouded in a hooded, black robe.
Death is Light.
Death is the Sun coming up in the morning.
My relationship with Death began while I was still in utero; my parents were both pathologists. They met in medical school and bonded over an autopsy table. There were pictures. The two of them, side by side, clad in white lab coats, black rubber aprons, and gigantic black rubber gloves, wrist-deep in the flayed open chest of some unfortunate corpse, grinning like the fools in lust that they were.
No child forgets that picture. I’m not sure anyone would forget that picture.
I had my own very personal brush with death when I was six months old. My mother had gifted me with a little something from the autopsy room — tuberculosis — which she, herself had contracted as well. There was no remedy for TB back in 1947 except for “the rest cure.” She was packed off to Havana to lie in the sun for a few months and I was relegated to an incubator in Philadelphia General Hospital in a room filled with other similarly unfortunate infants, all of us unwilling and unwitting guinea pigs for whatever concoctions the pharmaceutical companies had thought up.
Why not? We were going to die anyway.
I, apparently, got the good drugs.
As a grade school kid I often found myself, on a Sunday afternoon, with a good book to read as well as my coloring book and crayons, in the church-like waiting room of the Philadelphia morgue, killing time — as they say — while mom was at work on some emergency autopsy. It was a very strange room, with long wooden pew-like benches and a very high ceiling. It was well lit but felt as if it were dark –it reminded me a little of church but even more of 30th Street Station where the trains came and went… there were similarities in that.
I never did get an answer to my question to my mother, though: “How can an autopsy be an emergency?” They’re dead. I didn’t know much then about police matters.
As I grew older, my mother introduced me to slides and specimens and ultimately to the autopsy room itself. She even let me “help” from time to time as a sort of go-fer. As I grew older, and it became obvious to her that my interests lay outside of her field, she encouraged me to bring in my sketchbook and pencils. Thus was my curiosity fed and my fascination with bodies — inside and out — encouraged. Most kids spent their childhoods sleeping with a teddy bear; I spent mine sleeping with The Visible Man, a clear plastic creature, all of whose internal organs were not just visible, but removeable. He was a veritable humanish jig-saw puzzle. I loved him. I named him Malfie; I don’t recall why.
Older still and I was drawing illustrations for some of my mother’s articles on pediatric pathology. I hung out in the autopsy room whenever I got the chance and, thanks to my father, was also allowed to observe operations as well.
I have, to the best of my ability, and on my parent’s advice, avoided both medical doctors and hospitals for most of my life. “We see more people because of “physician error,” they informed me one evening at the dinner table, “than anything else.”
Then I contracted yet another fatal illness.
But I’m a little ahead of myself… because something interesting happened just before that.
I had an odd-seeming little mole growing on my right temple. After a consultation with my mother we decided on a better-safe-than-sorry approach and she hooked my up with an old — and I do mean old — dermatologist friend of hers who maintained a small surgery in a home office.
I was surprised to find her, when she greeted me at the door, adorned in curious headgear and wheeling a small oxygen tank to which her headgear was attached by tubing. As she, I, and her metallic friend moved to her office, she explained to me that she had emphysema.
I was equally surprised, as I sat in her well-padded operating chair relaxing into whatever painkiller it was that she was injecting into me, to discover that I suddenly knew, as clear as day, that she was very unhappy and wished that death would come and take her. Needless to say, I said nothing. However, at the same level of consciousness that I had felt her wish, I let her know — in whatever way that happens — that she was allowed to go. That it was okay to go. I don’t know what moved me to do that; I just did.
The procedure I was there for was simple and was over quickly.
My mother called me the next day to tell me that her friend had died in the night.
I was a little startled but glad for her.
Within the course of the next year, because I was not the person then that I am now, I lost my children in an unfortunate divorce. Three very sad years later I acquired a very difficult to diagnose disease: rapidly advancing diffuse progressive systemic sclerosis. It had taken me almost a full year of doctor visits to people telling me that I was just “getting old” before one — ironically, a former student of my mother’s — hit the nail on the head and was able to tell me that I had six months to live.
I was in more pain than I knew it was possible to be in and my dreams were getting very interesting. One of the best had clearly been inspired by my decades of tarot reading. It was short and it was simple: It was an image of The Fool, seen from behind, looking back over his shoulder at me, with one of his arms draped casually around Death, skull-faced, black robe, scythe and all. They were walking away from me, towards a far horizon; Death looking towards the goal and The Fool giving me a nod, a wry smile, and a wink.
I knew. I just knew. I wasn’t going to die.
I had no idea, though, how much pain I was going to be in and for how long. No idea that every soft aspect of my being, from my internal organs to the musculature of my body, would turn into collagen, causing me to shrink and turn in on myself. And I had had no idea that I was going to be a guinea pig again and once again, cheat death. I spent the nights that pain kept me awake trying to figure out how I could effectively, efficiently kill myself and on the night I figured it out I had the best sleep I’d had since I’d acquired the condition but when I awoke, to my startled surprise, my body did something she hadn’t been able to do in well over a year: she jumped out of bed. Literally jumped, I was sleeping on a box-spring and mattress on the floor. She threw up her hands and shouted: “Make me an open channel,” at the top of her lungs. After which I fell to the bed, uttered “What the fuck?”, shut my eyes and saw a picture of seven scraggly bushes on a raggedy hillside with the words, “Seven Reasons to Live” below them.
I had no idea what had just happened but I was pretty sure that the plan I’d hatched the night before was a no-go. Apparently, my body — against “my” better judgment — was in it for the long haul. No death for her; not havin’ it. When things like that happen, you have to pay attention.
Long story, short, I ended up, about a year later, as a guinea pig again and, unlike all the others in the study, I got better, softened up, and lived with only crippled hands to prove anything had ever happened.
During those four years I met many wonderful alternative healers, many of whom told me that I, too, was a healer. I was not interested at the time, but as events unfolded, there was pretty much no avoiding it. It became clear that I “had a gift” — people would literally walk up to me and ask me to help them with a headache, or whatever. “You’ll know what to do,” the first of those people had said to me. Had she not been my boss I think I’d have told her to take a hike. As it was, she told me that she and her headache would be at my home at 5:30. And, while I’m still positive that I had no idea what to do, I sort of turned matters over to who or whatever is running this show I call my life, put my hands on her head and voila!
It became equally clear — and in almost the same way — that part of that gift was an ability to assist the dying to let go… something I hadn’t been able to do for myself! Go figure.
“My mom’s in the hospital. She’s dying but she just won’t give it up.” Etc. and so on.
Angel of Death at your service.
Only once did one of the folks I visited ‘see’ me or, perhaps more correctly, see what I brought with me: The Light. I’d been warned that this woman was relatively non-responsive, but, damn, she almost crawled up the wall when I entered the room. “The Light… the Light.”
I did what I always do and spoke to her with my mind… or something… honestly, I don’t know how it happens; it just does… and she calmed right down. We had a very brief conversation and I was told that she died within hours after I left. Her daughter asked me to speak at her funeral. Very odd all around.
I helped my father die. That was perhaps the sweetest experience I had doing The Work.
It’s been many years since I’ve done The Work.” I live “away from the things of man” at this point in my life, happily hermiting. But I wanted to take a minute to let people know… it’s not dark and scary, Death. It’s The Light. For everyone. Even for my father, whom some folks would have classified as outright devil material.
Death is a warm, brilliant, welcoming light. It embraces all life equally. (We really are all One, y’know.)