A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."A curious thing happens when Death approaches gradually, when there's some warning. If you have a life threatening chronic illness, and you live with the possibility of death every day, Death becomes an old, familiar friend. Indeed, it is this friend that will deliver you from the debilitating effects of disease.
In the movie Death Takes a Holiday, we see Death playacting as a mortal to see what life is like for those who meet him in the end. He falls in love and is tempted to stay in the mortal world. Meanwhile people are in great agony as they await death's release. The true value of death becomes apparent. Death is finally persuaded that he cannot shirk his duty any longer.
Throughout history there has been a fascination with and a chase for immortality. The popularity of vampire stories rests in part on this fascination. Currently there are a couple of characters in science fiction and fantasy TV who are immortal: John Amsterdam of the TV show Amsterdam, and Captain John Harkness of the BBC TV series Torchwood. Both, in their own way, find this inability to die a kind of curse. John Amsterdam is fated to live until he can find his soul mate and have a spiritual union with her. He has married many times pursuing this release from the long days of his life, and watched each beloved wife grow old an die--followed by his children and then his grandchildren. Perhaps immortality would be less burdensome if your loved ones shared it.
When I watch such shows I find myself wondering how they survive the boredom. Amsterdam has been an artist, a con man, a famous furniture maker (he is seen making new pieces and then aging them so his son can sell them as authentic pieces by his former persona), a cop, a doctor, and a groom in the stable of a wealthy man. He must reinvent himself periodically to hide what he is. Harkness has worked with the Time Agency and with Torchwood, trying to find meaning by helping to defend Earth from alien invasion. He is also a notorious flirt and equal opportunity seducer, described as pansexual, coming from a time (the 51st century) where sexual orientation identities are seen as quaint.
Nevertheless, when you live on and on and on and you've tried every profession and amusement known to humankind, what's left? Isn't it time to move on? And what do you do when you just can't? Though I also find myself wondering about things that logically would end anybody...fire, decapitation, explosions, and so on. (The series Angel turned this convention on its head when Angel does, in fact, decapitate a demon only to watch as the demon's head grows back from inside the stump. What do you do then?)
I've always been dubious about immortality, reading and watching many portrayals through the years. I've always been glad that I was a mortal and in due time I would be released from the burden of living on too long.
However, things look different when death becomes imminent and you feel like you're not ready. We would like to control the timing of our impending doom, after all, schedule it for some time in the reasonably far future, say a mid-morning after we've had our coffee or tea.
Death has his own timetable. Some say our time of death is pre-ordained, some say there is some wiggle room to account for changes in lifestyle and all the precautions we may take to avoid accident. Either way, we don't control the schedule. That becomes apparent as one reads about freak accidents, bizarre homicides, and sudden illnesses that sweep their victims away in a short time. The show Six Feet Under had a dead guy du jour. Each week we'd watch anxiously as the show opened with a death so that the funeral director characters would have someone to bury and a grieving family to cope with. Sometimes it would be obvious right away who was going to die, and other times the writers would fake you out--make you think it was one person and then suddenly death would change course and take out another. Watching these scenes I was always struck by the unexpectedness of death. It's not like you get a memo that day: tie up your affairs and wear your good underwear, because death is coming to call today!
No, death has a habit of showing up when you're in the middle of something, having a bath, sitting in a car, doing your job at work, playing golf, or getting breakfast for your husband. He's rude like that.
I think it's easier when you have some notice of his approach. Maybe you find a lump and get a grim diagnosis from the doctor. Maybe you notice that you're winded when you walk and you begin to experience chest pain now and then. There are lots of symptoms and illnesses that will give you advanced warning if you pay attention and seek your doctor's advice. Those who follow a spiritual path prefer to know so that they can increase their involvement in spiritual activities and prepare their minds and hearts for what is to come. Others prefer to bury their heads and not see the doctor until the lump or the chest pain have increased. This can be counterproductive since it will likely hasten their rendezvous with death.
When I was diagnosed in 2001 with heart disease and told I needed open heart surgery, I was initially shocked and resistant. My first grandson had been born only two months before. I wasn't expecting death to be lurking so near at the age of 42, even though both parents died in their early 50s. I was smug about being a vegetarian from the age of 15 and I thought that my own heart disease would be delayed until perhaps my 6th decade. Although I had spent the bulk of my life engaged in spiritual life, still I panicked at the thought of death and was very afraid as I went into surgery. Inwardly I was frustrated with my reaction because I expected to be able to greet death with greater poise after so much emphasis on spirituality and being ready for death at any time. It is one thing to say, quite another to do. My therapist said, "Don't you think you're being a little hard on yourself?" But of course, I have long since internalized the hyper-critical voices of my family. I had to beat myself up over that.
Lately I've been given some bad news about my heart health and it was emphasized to me how high risk I am for "another cardiac event." Such events can lead to death, of course.
For some reason I am feeling more peaceful about death. This body is increasingly difficult to live in. It's like having a house falling in around you. However much you dread moving, finally you must start packing.
These last few years I've engaged in a process of evaluating my life and changing anything that I felt I needed to. I've written a lot about the past to put it in greater perspective and to leave behind stories for my young grandsons. My hope is that as they get older, they will read these pages and understand me in a way they are too young to at the present time. I think about them often and though I wish I could see them grown, graduated from college, and married with children of their own--I know I won't live long enough for that.
As I think about timing, and death, and unfinished business, I realize that we will never think any point in our lives with our loved ones is a good quitting place. If my grandsons were grown I'd be frustrated that I couldn't watch the great-grand-kids grow up. We have to find a stopping place somewhere, or rather, it will find us. So I am at peace with my current stopping place and I not only have faith in my destination being positive, I have faith that my loved ones can take good care of themselves and know that they are loved, always.