In the Footsteps of the Dead

On Friday 23rd August 2013, in the evening, my grandmother died. She was 90 years old, bright and sharp and, in many ways, untouched by the passage of time. And yet within a few weeks, after some fairly brutal surgery, she deteriorated and vanished like falling stones.

Death always comes as a cautionary tale. It reminds you that none of us is invincible; that time spares nothing; and that just as sure as you are that you will be here tomorrow is the certainty that you may not be.

Death teaches us a lot about life. Life is limited. We have no idea of what comes before it or what comes after, but we do know that it is a bounded thing. And what happens within those boundaries, how we are and who we choose to be, is our great burden and responsibility.

Anyone who tells you they know more about death than its mere fact is selling a lie. Near death experiences, we know, are chemical reactions in the brain. Spiritual knowledge is nothing more than wishful thinking, or its opposite. The only point we can concede to the devout and the fearful is that we do not know. And in that not knowing is art and ritual and hope and faith.

But death also reminds us that we leave a legacy. It’s in the tears of those who loved us. It’s in our children and theirs. And it’s in all the other transient physical and emotional indentations we leave in our wake.

We also leave behind the ideas that we helped shape and give permission to, good and bad. We invent and we create. We shape the hegemony. We are the cause for effects that may only be realised in generations to come. I am an effect of my grandmother’s life. And for this she is to be thanked by each person I have loved and helped, and loathed by each person I have hurt and betrayed.

Death does not tell us how to live, though. It does not tell us to make the most of every day or to be kind or to love others in case we lose them. Or even to forgive. Because we do not know its nature we cannot use it to extract more value from our lives. We should live the in the best way we can because that will minimise our suffering, and that of others. And to minimise suffering is the greatest dominion one can have while we are in this world.

Finally, death resolves our relationships with those who are gone, but not our relationship to them. Everything that was ever to pass between my grandmother and myself has now passed. There are no more words I can share with her. I cannot apologise for my many failings as a grandson, or hear any more stories about her life and concerns. Her painful feet are a pain no more. That is all over with a steadfast permanence that is almost too much to bear.

But my relationship to her, and the fact of her life, will continue for as long as I am alive. More than a memory, she is the source from which I run. And what that means will perpetually shift, vaporously, as I live out the rest of my own lifetime.

gran Mildred Nackan (1922 – 2013)