Ashes, Stars, and other Fires

There is no shortage of argument or discussion concerning the nature of life and death. Earliest records of philosophy consider the golden questions of humanity: what is the meaning of life and what is death. Religions, a moral code and guide for society, each opinionated and corrupted by institutionalization make many claims and assertions to the meaning of life and death.

Here is one very simple, undeniable thought, all agree on: life, in all its forms, is a fragile thing.

The Japanese consider the fragility and beauty of life to be best described in the metaphor of the Cherry Blossom trees; life is both overwhelmingly beautiful – made so by all the different connections and experiences we derive from it – and tragically short. Blooming season of the Cherry Blossom is powerful, glorious and immersively captivating. Unfortunately, it is also devastatingly and tragically short; like life, a fleeting thing of immense beauty.

Just as in life, some blossom petals fall before the season ends; a fallen blossom or petal like the end of short lives.

Death is nothing short of devastating; there are no words to justifiably encompass the loss we feel when so violently confronted by death.

My aunt died young; my cousins, only just at the crossroads of youth and adulthood have experienced one of the greatest losses life is.

Life is, as the Buddhists claim, suffering. In all its forms. Buddhists however, understand suffering – and consequently life – differently to the majority of social conventions; suffering refers to the unsatisfactorily and painfulness of mundane life. Suffering, really, is the process of spiritual liberation and enlightenment. Life is embodied in the sufferings of the mental, physical and emotional of birth, aging, illness, and dying.

Birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, association with unloved objects is painful, separation from loved objects is painful, the desire which one does not obtain, is painful too – Buddha

To truly understand Buddhist concept of suffering, you need to consider its doctrines; suffering is a mark of existence, in that it is result of attachment to elements of the temporary and the fragile of life.

It is in these attachments, I find we have purpose in life; transferring life from mundane to fantastical. It nevertheless, leads to intense suffering in the unfortunate reality of mortality and death. Impermanence is after all another characteristic of existence. Death isn’t suffering for the dead; it is a form of perfect freedom regardless of your beliefs. The dead are no longer attached to us, they do not mourn for us.

We mourn them.

Life is suffering. But it is, oddly, in that suffering we experience and witness true beauty and life.

I am an atheist; I reject the idea of deities, souls or heaven – I, specifically, am committed to the absence of believe in the existence of a God or the spiritual. I have no doubts. I wish I did; I wish I believed in something else but I find myself completely unable to.

I wish I had the comfort of belief; but in many ways I am also thankful I do not. I find small comfort in the knowledge my aunt is at rest; she suffers no more in any form.

Strangely, I have always found greatest comfort in the words of Vincent van Gogh regarding death:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot

As he famously said I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.

I have no belief, but I have memories and time. I have regrets, but I also am proud of many aspects of my relationship with my aunt. This is what gets me through the cavern left in her faded warmth.

I see my aunt everywhere; I see her in memories, I see her when I consider her thoughts on subjects, and I have her lectures. I have the attachment of her life still, despite her loss.

A billion stars shine in the night sky every night; whether or not I believe does not change that reality. My aunt died; but I remember her.

And just as stars that shine every night, that will have to be enough.

Grief

Grief is love with no place to go. 

Heavy in your throat and sinking deep into your gut, its all the love left behind by the departed. All the love you had for them left in their fast fading warmth. 

Grief unfortunately is also frank lessons and realisations. 

When grieving, you are faced with the regrets of the imperfect nature of man, of all failings in your life and relations. 

No lies or comforts can comfort the numbing destruction of grief where life collapses. 

The stepping stones of grief are crumbling as you stand; a precarious balance as you try to navigate through it and around the grief of others. 

Grieving reveals a different kind of loneliness; an isolation in a crowd different to depression or anxiety.

Grieving is for the living. Its the turmoil death in the absence of life, where death is the only escape. 

We lose, and they rest. 

All consuming, all I want is sleep. Because nothing else makes sense. 

 Requiescat in Pace

A few days ago, on my birthday, I woke up to the news my aunt was dying. I was on a plane, rushing to see her and hoping to get there in time.

She had stage four bowel cancer, but I still believed we had more time. The whole 14 hour flight I just kept thinking of everything I wanted to to tell her.

How much I love her.

How wonderful she is.

How much I need and rely on her.

I landed, rushed to the hospital, and found a small body in a big hospital bed that sounded like it was sleeping.

It looked like my aunt. It smelled like her, ever so faintly.

But the hand I held, thin and still – it was not her.

She was this amazing, brilliant and bright indominatable force that defied any expectation or rules. She lived how she wanted, and told cancer to get fucked every second she lived.

Every so often meet people in our lives that make us feel special. Make us feel unique and wonderful.

She made you believe it; held you to it. You were never allowed to just let life beat you up, because you had something amazing only you could offer.

So life just had to fuck off out of the way, and leave you to blaze your own trail.

That person wasn’t there. She was gone.

For the next week my family waited through the horrible and foreign process of watching someone dead go through the process of dying.

Its not an experience you ever imagine, not something you ever think you would have to witness or accept: that someone could be dead and dying at the same time.

My aunt was like a second mother; I feel utterly lost without her.

She made a special connection with every person in her life, touched and let herself be touched by everyone.

She had this beautiful energy, and stubborn nature; which she was never afraid or ashamed to share.

She used to tell me off for so many things. Lecture me for everything. I honestly never believed I could do anything she thought me capable of.

I would give anything for another second with her; to have the chance to feel her hold me tight when I hug her close.

Instead I stare at a photo alone.

Thinking of memories faded and warmth gone.

I feel her loss with every fibre of my being; living seems so foreign.

I have always hated seeing myself in photos. Hated having to look at my image and be forced to recognise myself in that body.

Now I only have a handful of photos with her; where she had to bully me to get close and smile for the camera with her.

I know, sometimes, it’s hard for people to see themselves in the mirror or photos; to open themselves up by talking or hugging other people.

But if I can give any advice from my list of regrets?

Talk to everyone you hold dear openly every second – be honest and forge that connection even if its hard and you fight sometimes.

Take those photos, and hug and kiss at any opportunity.

Because when the day that you experience the death of a loved one comes, and it always does, it will never be enough.

No amount will be enough, time will always be stolen and robbed.

So allow yourself the comfort that you always tried to make every second count.

Because she did. And I wish I listened to her more; because now I am left here to stare at lost time ticking by angry and sad at decisions I made.

Live your life with those that matter. Everything else goes on; but love is the only thing that will stick with you.