My cousin posted this extraordinary poem by Kay Ryan on his blog, Nigeness, last week.
As some people age
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.
I love this poem and felt such elation reading it. She expresses with such clarity something I’ve observed in older people over the years – how age brings the opportunity to strengthen, to grow into our true nature.
A long time ago I was talking about aging and what we would do with those years with a very close friend – a Buddhist. She talked of how she would spend the later part of her life seeking teachings about death and dying in preparation for death. I remember feeling perturbed by this – it seemed to me vital to live life to the full, not to spend years in the contemplation of death. I was afraid to challenge her. I reasoned that not being a Buddhist in any shape or form, I wouldn’t understand these things.
My mother-in-law, Elizabeth, lived with a zest and exuberance that was unmatchable. She loved people, new places, red wine, cooking, and a good story – everything that was physical, of the world. She would not have time for such spiritual attendances. In the 50s and 60s she worked in Children’s Television, pulling the strings on Andy Pandy, Muffin the Mule, and many other characters. I can still see her standing in the middle of her kitchen in Co Durham, legs planted firmly on the floor, one hand on her hip, the other
flourishing a large glass of red wine. Cheers darlings. She had such vitality – four boys – twins born in front of a delegation of student medics, two husbands, numerous large dogs – and an art degree awarded in her late seventies.
Hers was the most beautiful death I’ve witnessed. She had throat cancer, did her best to find treatment, but when she knew it was untreatable and time was short, she continued to live to the full. She’d always loved food and could no longer eat anything, but she still made sure that everyone sat down to a hearty meal with much drink. She became bone thin – the last time I saw her a week before she died she’d been to see Noises Off at Birmingham Rep, and had then gone shopping for a new bra. The only ones that fitted her diminished frame were for young girls. She was beautiful in her white trousers and shirt embroidered with delicate colours – a fragility I’d never seen in her before - sitting out in the June sunshine,
sucking on an Ice Pop regaling old tales, still the Queen of the family. Three days before her death, when she could no longer even take water except for a fine spray on her lips, she begged the medics to allow her to have morphine. She fought and won.
On her death bed, between the hours of unconsciousness, she sang along to her new Shirley Bassey CD, wept a little that she was leaving us all, and radiated love that filled the house with quietness and light.
It was an extraordinary gift she gave, especially to her children – my husband and three brothers in law – and to us, the extended family. She showed by example how to live and how to die - at the moment of her death the ‘apertures of our eyes’ and our hearts opened. I was away in London dancing at the time. I felt it. Grief came but was not harsh or unbearable. We were filled with elation that carried us through the year.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.