Death, the Disheveller

I don’t usually think about death -although as I get older, I realize I should probably be making some plans: packing a few bags, or using up a bit of the stuff in the freezer. But that’s about it –no firm contingency plans or anything.

In contrast, I have squirrelled away supplies for the earthquake we’re supposed to get –water, some canned beans, and a couple of dozen peanut granola bars for the occasion. I even keep a little overnight case packed with old socks I’m usually too embarrassed to wear, and the pair of pants with the wine stain I can’t get out of the crotch. I still can’t decide on what shirt to include, but I figure I’ll take whatever I can reach.

And, as for Death…? Well, I have no particular strategies in mind –I suppose it will just happen.

I mention these things because I have a friend who worries, not about me, I don’t think, but about her fate if she happened to die alone somewhere. What would people think? She lives by herself like I do, so I suppose it’s a legitimate concern. I often point out to her that she is in good health and has had no signals to suggest that she should move into a Home or anything, but she still worries.

“That’s when things happen, though –when you’re not looking,” she always replies –like there was an emergency neural circuit that the thought of Death triggers in her overwrought brain.

But my inevitable query as to what she might need to be on the lookout for, never seemed to quench her anxiety or produce an answer. She almost made it sound as if she needed to get ready for an event –make sure she had put on clean underclothing and combed her hair. That seems like a lot of work to me. I think she should just let things lie fallow, and I tell her that each time we meet.

The other day, we were walking along a section of the Stanley Park seawall that overlooks English Bay and the North shore mountains. The wind was fierce and waves were pounding around chaotically, like kids in a playground. I couldn’t hear a lot of what she was saying and it put her in a somber mood for some reason.

“You know, I was wondering about the arrival again last night…” she said in a louder voice, her words trailing off in the wind.

I could feel it coming: another death-wonder. I tried not to roll my eyes, but she saw them starting their upward spiral and poked me in the ribs.

“This is serious, Ga,” she said, deliberately using my childhood nickname to make sure I understood the consequences of inattention -I’d made the mistake of telling her about my childhood warning name of maternal disapproval. “Something woke me up in the middle of the night,” she continued, “but it was dark and I couldn’t see very much. I figured it must have been the wind, because I could hear a faint rattling at the window. There’s a tree just outside and one of its branches sometimes scrapes against the panes like fingers trying to get my attention.” I’d heard variations of this same event time and time again, but I always raised my eyebrows and tried to look concerned. She often dramatizes this part for just that effect.

“But then I remembered that the branch had broken off in the last windstorm…”

“Oh yes, I remember you telling me about it,” I said, with the expected worried look on my face.

She stared out to sea for a moment, the wind tearing at her woolen hat. She reminded me of Cassandra in that moment -doomed never to be believed. “I think it was a reminder –a warning- you know.”

I tilted my head, thinking maybe I had misheard her in the howling wind.

“A warning,” she repeated, in case I’d missed the word, then stared at the waves again.

“A warning about what, Janet?” She can be so theatrical when she describes these nocturnal adventures.

She turned her head suddenly and pinned me with her eyes. Her face looked calm, but not those eyes. “It was rather non-specific,” she answered with a little shrug.

I merely nodded my head –I’ve found that’s the best response when I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“I mean, I did my usual clean before I got into bed…”

I nodded again. “So you wouldn’t be embarrassed or anything when they found you.” It was a statement, not a question. We’d been through this before, but she seemed to like it when I remembered.

She nodded too, but absently –as if she was thinking something through. “I even vacuumed,” she added to let me know she’d been thorough.

“You can’t be too careful,” I responded, trying to give her some support.

Her eyes relaxed a little. “I’m going to do the laundry tonight and change the sheets…” Now it was her face that hinted she was taking the warning seriously.

I found myself watching her lips move -they seemed to snag on a tooth every so often. But in fairness, she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, so there was probably not the lubrication they were used to.

“And I’ve taken to keeping a brush on the bedside table,” she added, but with one eye closed as she said it, so I couldn’t be sure if she was serious. Maybe it was the wind.

“That’s a good idea, I guess, Janet… But do you think you’d have time?”

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye as if she was trying to decide if I was serious. “Time? Who knows -but at least I’ll be prepared, eh?”

I tried to look serious. “I keep the bathroom light on.”

She thought about that for a second, then nodded slowly. “In case it’s a false alarm, you mean? That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll try that too. I’d hate to be just sick or something and then end up slipping on the carpet on the way to the sink…”

Humour is definitely wasted on Janet.

“But I do keep an ear open, you know,” she said with a solemn shake of her head.

I tried to look calm, but she was beginning to sound a bit too morbid for my tastes. “Uhmm… So, what are you listening for exactly?” I pictured her awakening each night, listening for the shuffling footsteps of the hooded man with the big scythe.

Her eyes flew towards me and her forehead wrinkled. “I’ve already told you, Ga…” she said, clearly miffed that I hadn’t really been following her conversation. Then she blinked –and this time I was sure it wasn’t the wind.

“You told me you’re worried about dying alone, Janet!” I replied irritably. “You’re always worried about that…”

“Sometimes it’s life that worries me, too…” She stared at me with a puzzled expression and then turned to face the wind again.

“Huh?” I couldn’t stop my mouth from falling open. She was definitely caught between the devil and a hard place.

She swivelled her head suddenly, and rolled her eyes. “My nephew and his girlfriend!” she said, in a voice mixed with a hiss and a yell. She sounded really exasperated with me.

“Janet, for god’s sake, make up your mind, eh?” Her mood was rubbing off on me -and so were her non-sequiturs.

“They’re hitchhiking here from Toronto,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “They said they could arrive any time -day or night…” She sighed dejectedly, although the sound was buried in a wave that crashed nearby. “I’m trying to stay prepared…”

I shook my head slowly to show I understood. You get used to living alone.

Maybe losing that, even for a while, is more alarming than Death.


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