Several years ago, geez, over six years now, a friend and mentor of mine died; one of the few people on this site I’ll ever write by name, because she was a great woman: Artis van Rassel.
Artis was also a tall woman with henna-red frizzy hair that made her even taller. She had both grace and strength and worked most of her adult life to bring peace to the masses in various ways. While she was alive, I leaned on her often for advice and wisdom and she always delivered both with a smile that showed off her little crow’s feet, full of love. There is much to write about Artis, and some day I hope to write much more. But for now, I’ll say, the greatest gift she gave me is the knowledge to not fear death.
When Artis was dying at her home, already on hospice care, she had three writers, of whom I was one, take notes and listen to her thoughts on death, and at her wake, we all read from the pieces we had written. That time of my life is blurry, the sadness and grief I was experiencing overshadows my memory of all she said and I’d have to look back at those scribblings to relate more.
But a few facts to note: the day before she died, the university where she’d been getting her Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution bestowed upon her the certificate of her completion. When she received the degree, she asked, “does this mean I don’t have to finish my thesis now?” Everyone laughed. They laughed at the irony. But a part of Artis believed she might live beyond the day of her death even though she knew that day would be soon. The other fact is, after she was dead, her husband and good friends lay her out on her bed, with flowers all around and candles burning. The day was sunny and I went up to say goodbye. She was on that bed with her skin smooth and her lips parted just slightly into a Buddha-like smile. She knew death was not scary, and she knew that her death was beautiful.
Several months later, I ran into a student of Artis’ from the university. The woman didn’t know she had died and when I told her, she didn’t say, “oh no,” or offer any other kind of sorrow, all she said was, “Did she have a good death?” I cocked my head at the surprise of the question, but then smiled and said, “Yes, she did.”
When I was dying on that table in the recovery room, I didn’t know I was dying the way Artis knew she was dying. But I can see now – I can know – that with just one more pint of blood lost from my limbs, I would have died. That line, that veil between life and death, is gossamer thin. I could have lost consciousness and just been gone. It’s that simple. And while, thanks to Artis, I’m not afraid of that moment, I am glad that I stayed on my side of the line because I am joyous and honored and proud to be a part of rearing my daughter with my husband. I don't think anyone would have said I had a good death.
In death, I don’t know if I could have been sad about missing out on my daughter’s life, but in life, I sure am glad I get to be here. Even though so much of mothering is really one experience of loss after another – loss from the body, loss from newborn smell, loss from laying her on the bed and not having to worry about her rolling off, loss from crawling to walking, etcetera and on and on – all that loss is the regular kind where a child born is growing and thriving and getting on in the world without me step by step. That’s her job. My job is to be here and I'm grateful I am.