Part 3: ‘Discussing Death’
My first memory of death is linked to a man I never knew. My mother’s father died of a heart attack before I was born; the irony is that I know more about his death than I do about his life.
The entirety of the man has been reduced to a single black-and-white obituary photograph that my mother faithfully keeps at her prayer altar. Then, there are the stories. The stories of what an influence he was in my mother’s life, how he used to work with the British Royal Navy (this was in the 1940s and 1950s, in a pre-independent Singapore that seems as much of a myth as my late grandfather), and of course, the stories about how he died, and how that changed his entire family’s life.
It is funny, what death does. It slowly morphs to form the central narrative of a person’s life, as if only through death did his life gain meaning and importance and weight.
There have been other interactions with death, some a little closer to home, some so far away that they were easily dismissed.
An uncle I was never close to passed away – the biggest impact of his passing was that I did not see him when I went to visit my relatives during Deepavali in Singapore in the subsequent years.
His death was a passing breeze.
My mother’s friend whom I had only met once or twice in my life – my only memory of her death is the sight of my mother curled in a corner, crying for the friend. I did not understand her sadness, but I could tell that it was a consuming force.
This time, death was a sizeable boulder, to be watched and feared from a distance.
Then, my mother nearly died. Not once, but several times, over the course of a few years.
The first time, the fear was monumental. The second, third, fourth times, the fear became white noise, playing in the background like a constant soundtrack. A soundtrack that eventually got softer, and softer.
That’s when I realized that death was just another incident that had to be dealt with when it happened. An eventuality. Fear had no place with death, contrary to popular sentiments and belief.
Remove fear from the equation, any equation at all (including the one with death featured in it), and it becomes something to be seen with in a brighter light.
Really, fear had no place with death at all.
At home, we talk about death often.
My parents often joke about how they want their funerals to be conducted – no burial, cremation please. My mother swears that she will pass on before my father does. He does nothing to correct her. Instead, he spells out a fantasy about how peaceful the house will be without my mother looking over his shoulder, making sure that he’s doing the house chores the way she wants them to be done. My mother berates him for making fun of her and they laugh together.
Sometimes, I share these anecdotes with friends, and they wonder at my family’s nonchalance. Why are you so morbid, they ask. Surely this must be a manifestation of some deep-seated cynicism of life?
I think about this often and realise that it is not cynicism towards life, but rather, the celebration of it, that makes death seem less of an enemy, and more of a continuum, an eventuality.
We do not live in a society that is entirely comfortable with great mysteries, events that cannot be understood with logic and rationale. This is even less so with the greatest mystery of them all – death. In some cultures, it is even considered to be inauspicious to talk about it, an invitation of bad luck and all that is unsavory.
In other cultures, the reverse is true. Life is seen as inseparable from death, and as we enjoy the gifts that life has to offer, so should we enjoy death as it passes us by. It is counter-intuitive to think of it in this way for most of us, but there is some truth in this, and perhaps it is this truth that rings true for my family.
The nine-year-old me would have been appalled at this conversation. Why would anybody joke about death, she’d wonder. And worry.
The 26-year-old me understands things better now. Time teaches great lessons.
After all, would we understand the greatness of light without darkness?
I think not.
Similarly, would we understand the beauty of life without the finality of death?
Again, I think not.
Arathi Devandran curates personal experiences, snapshots of the world and the stories people are willing to share with her through prose and poetry http://www.miffalicious.com