Sunday, July 31, 2011

To die, to sleep

No. I don't want to talk about Shakespeare, and I don't want you to think that sweet Benji, shown slumbering above, has died. I want to talk about death – not his – and not that I know much about it. There were two deaths important to me during my girlhood. One was a schoolmate's dad who had a heart attack at a wrestling match. His face was black when they carried him out. I went to the funeral home to see the body so I wouldn't have to remember that unnatural black face all my life.

It didn't work.

A couple years earlier, my cousin Susan's baby sister died a crib death. My sister, who was fourteen if I was thirteen, said she didn't think it was such a big deal that a baby had died. It's not like we knew her, right? I thought that was cold, even as I agreed. Now that I've fallen in love with kittens at the speed of a super hero, I do believe that the death of a baby is a big deal (and I know my sister does, too). But I didn't really believe it then.

But I don't want to talk about death in general. I want to talk about a specific kind of death.

I was at a stop light next to my friend Liz and she called over, "Did you hear about Mary Smith? She died in her sleep last Saturday!"

Whoa – she died in her sleep? The conversation seems to have to stop right there. There's nothing more to say. If she had died of cancer, we could have murmured things like Oh! I hadn't known! or I thought she looked ... bald ... last time I saw her or Man, I'm glad I quit smoking when I did! If she had died of a heart attack, we might have said Wow. She was so young! or Huh. She always seemed so healthy.

But when you die in your sleep, it's like you died of ... nothing.

"She died in her sleep."

"Yeah? What'd she die of?"

"Uh ... sleep?"

It's just too weird. You can't even talk about it.

And wouldn't you think a body would wake up in order to die? When I meditate (Transcendental Meditation™), I sometimes nod off, but then my body wakes me with a jerk. (I've awakened with a jerk more than once, but that's off topic.) The TM™ people tell me my body's releasing stress, but I think my body is trying to wake me up so I don't fall over and clunk my head on the cave floor and die before I've gone forth and populated the earth. So wouldn't my body wake me up so I could die? Why would I be allowed to just slip away like Little Nell who, after all, is merely literary? I mean, that's a pretty serious transition, isn't it? Whether there's an afterlife or not, I just can't imagine snoozing through such an event.

Do you think anyone's ever been born asleep? Really now. You're floating around in those life juices, just relaxing and dreaming, maybe humming to yourself like a cat purrs, smiling a bit every time you hear your mom's voice. Then that warm liquid suddenly whooshes away, to be replaced with pressure and squeezing as you're forced out of the lovely existence you've so enjoyed for your whole life and you finally plop out into a cold, drafty, noisy, bright world – and you're still dozing? You're napping?


And so I think there should be no dying while asleep, either. It's just not fair. It's not balanced. If birth is so traumatic, death should be traumatic, too. Maybe when we cross into death, instead of getting smacked on the butt to start our breathing, someone Over There slaps us in the face to stop our breathing, and then we start adjusting to whatever's going on in that place.

Even if it's no place.