A fortnight ago, over two blistering days, I walked my Grandma home on her final journey. I am changed by it, I hope forever, in these days that have followed. The wind doesn’t feel the same on my face. The blossom on the trees is almost unbearably exquisite. The air in the room is full, and sweetly heavy, with the nearness of death to this life. I am driving more gently through the town, giving strangers time to cross, to inconvenience me. It doesn’t matter this week. I have held Death in my arms, I have smelled it, heard its shouts and whispers, touched its face, tasted it on my lips. I kept my eyes on it even when I could not see for tears. Do not look away, I told myself fiercely. Do not look away even for an instant, for fear you might miss any of this, this devastating, harrowing, holy, infinitely precious moment.
She died by breathing deeply, as though her whole body was this breath, and then pausing for a while, repeating the cycle three or four times before the pause became her resting place. Afterwards my mother and I washed her. Her favourite soap, her beloved English lavender talcum powder. We talked gently to her all the while, asking her permission to lift and cleanse each part. We combed her fine hair, and told her she looked beautiful. She did. We were three generations of women in that room, three generations of mothers. I felt held by all the women who have ever been born as we did that holy work of washing our dead.
My grandmother was 95 years old when she died. When my grandfather, her darling husband, died seven years ago, I sat with his body and learned that Death is not an absence, but a presence. I sat in the immense presence of Death. Grandpa was not there, but his deadness had a palpable kind of being that soaked every molecule in that room with Presence. I can think of no other word for it. I remember saying to my mother – who, again, was there with me – that this was so important, that you cannot but live differently once you have sat with Death, that everyone should wind this Death as intimately as possible into their lives. Because this life is one of contrasts, of opposites – and at depth, of paradox. And surely the more I can befriend Death, and look it squarely in the eye, the greater space there is within me for being alive.
I think that many of us are seeking a greater sense of aliveness in our living. This is a bit of a funny concept; of course we are alive. But how much of our life, ‘your one wild and precious life’ as poet Mary Oliver put it, do we actually experience? When I sit at the table with my family, am I really there? When I stand in the rainy Wednesday school playground, seeing the precious faces of my children as they scan the crowd looking for me, am I there? Am I present as I sit here at the computer typing this? When I get up in a minute to make lunch, will I still be present? And what does it mean to be present anyway? How does being present feel, in my body, my mind, my spirit?
Parents of small children are often told that the days are long but the years are short. I probably discuss how fast this year is passing – is it May already? – several times a week at the supermarket checkout or in the swimming pool waiting room. After the weather, it’s our go-to topic. We are all feeling this, it seems, the poignancy of the speed of our ageing, of our days passing. We are both bemused and devastated, and comfort each other with rueful nods and half-laughs. Yes I know. I feel it too. It was Christmas only yesterday surely. Where on earth has my life gone?
For how much life remains is not known. At the age of thirty I was hit on the M1 travelling at 70mph by the car behind me. Busy motorway, middle lane, traffic all around. I went into a spin and came to rest facing backwards in the fast lane. I had a moment of absolute clarity: so this is it, this is how my life ends, at the age of thirty on the M1. So there we are. There was complete calm and a spaciousness within the moment – time had evaporated. It must only have been a second or two. Then suddenly I was aware that the traffic had somehow stopped without hitting me, and someone was getting out of their car to see if I was ok and to guide me across to the hard shoulder, that a lorry had placed itself on a slant across two lanes to stop other vehicles from crashing into me. For quite a while afterwards, I had a much deeper sense of the truth of the fragility of life. We hear it all the time: it can be over in an instant. But other than a passing shudder, a fear surging up and then stuffed back down, does that actually change us, deep inside? Does it translate into anything different in our lived experience, in our daily life?
Caycedo called this greater sense of aliveness ‘vivance’ or ‘vivantial awareness’. It brings a quality of experience that is richer, and deeper, and more meaningful. More switched on and connected to everything. It is a wholehearted, enlarging ‘yes’ to being here, in this body, in this moment. It has the capacity to bring us into full, blazing contact with the Now. Which, of course, is all there is. The playwright Dennis Potter expressed it beautifully in his last interview with Melvyn Bragg before he died, contemplating the experience of knowing death was imminent: “The only thing you know for sure is the present tense… Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were. And the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the Now-ness of everything is absolutely wondrous.” After an experience of utter terror around my end, which was part of my disintegration a couple of years ago, I am managing these days to befriend the shadow of passing time, to welcome it to my table. Somehow – if I can stay there – the present moment is big enough to hold this and all fears, in a way that past and future are not. Here Sophrology has been helpful. Softly, gently, we can strengthen our connection to our amazing bodies, calm our frantic minds and spend more of our precious time being as here and as now as we can be. We breathe, consciously, connectedly. We notice every smallest sensation within a movement, within a pause. We listen to how much our neck or our leg wants to move in this moment. We do something as simple as noticing the way our back contacts the chair. We focus on our senses, the channels of our physical experience, heightening both awareness and appreciation. We tune in to what we need more of right now – calm, joy, strength, trust, confidence – and we give ourselves the gift of it. We ground ourselves with the earth beneath us – no more floating, disconnected head. Thus the body welcomes the mind into its inner space, which is both tangible and deeply mysterious, and when we return we open our eyes and look around at the room differently. Here I am.
Aliveness. Presence. At the end of the journey, however that manifests, it will bring such peace knowing we actually lived our life.
Wishing you this peace.