FOR TWENTY-SIX SEPTEMBERS I’ve hiked up streams littered with corpses of dying humpbacked salmon. It is nothing new, nothing surprising, not the stench, not the gore, not the thrashing of black humpies plowing past their dead brethren to spawn and die. It is familiar; still, it is terrible and wild. Winged and furred predators gather at the mouths of streams to pounce, pluck, tear, rip, and plunder the living, dying hordes. This September, it is just as terrible and wild as ever, but I gather in the scene with different eyes, the eyes of someone whose own demise is no longer an abstraction, the eyes of someone who has experienced the tears, rips, and plunder of cancer treatment. In spring, I learned my breast cancer had come back, had metastasized to the pleura of my right lung. Metastatic breast cancer is incurable. Through its prism I now see this world.
I’m not a salmon biologist. I don’t hike salmon streams as part of my job. I hike up streams and bear trails and muskegs and mountains for pleasure. The work my husband, Craig, and I do each field season in Prince William Sound is sedentary. We study whales. For weeks at a stretch, we live on a thirty-four-foot boat far from any town, often out of cell-phone and internet range. We sit for hours on the flying bridge with binoculars or a camera pressed to our eyes. Periodically, we climb down the ladder and walk a few paces to the cabin to retrieve the orca or humpback catalogue, to drop the hydrophone, or to grab fresh batteries, mugs of hot soup or tea, or granola bars. We climb back up. We get wet; we get cold; we get bored; sometimes we even get sunburned. We eat, sleep, and work on the boat. Hikes are our sanity, our maintenance. We hike because we love this rainy, lush, turbulent, breathing, expiring, windy place as much as we love our work with whales. It’s a good thing, because in autumn weather thwarts our research half the time and sends us ashore, swaddled in heavy rain gear, paddling against williwaw gusts and sideways rain in our red plastic kayaks. What we find there is not always pretty.
Normally, September is the beginning of the end of our field season, which starts most years in April or May. But for me, this year it’s just the beginning, and conversely, like everything else in my life since I learned cancer had come back, it’s tinged with the prescience of ending. The median survival for a person with metastatic breast cancer is twenty-six months. Some people live much longer. An oncologist told me he could give me a prognosis if I demanded one, but it would most likely be wrong. I changed the subject. No one can tell me how long I will live. Will this be my last field season? Will the chemo drug I’m taking subdue the cancer into a long-term remission? Will I be well enough to work on the boat next summer? Will I be alive?
A summer of tests and procedures and doctor appointments kept me off the boat until now. A surgery and six-day hospitalization in early August to prevent fluid from building up in my pleural space taught me that certain experiences cut us off entirely from nature — or seem to; I know that as long as we inhabit bodies of flesh, blood, and bone, we are wholly inside nature. But under medical duress, we forget this. Flesh, blood, and bone not withstanding, a body hooked by way of tubes to suction devices, by way of an IV to a synthetic morphine pump, forgets its organic, animal self. In the hospital, I learned to fear something more than death: existence dependent upon technology, machines, sterile procedures, hoses, pumps, chemicals easing one kind of pain only to feed a psychic other. Existence apart from dirt, mud, muck, wind gust, crow caw, fishy orca breath, bog musk, deer track, rain squall, bear scat. The whole ordeal was a necessary palliation, a stint of suffering to grant me long-term physical freedom. And yet it smacked of the way people too often spend their last days alive, and it really scared me.
Ultimately, what I faced those hospital nights, what I face every day, is death impending — the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown — what writer Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with. I don’t understand how to meet it, not yet — maybe never. Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies — our whole selves — know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.
NO ONE TEACHES US how to die. No one teaches us how to be born, either. In an essay about visiting the open-air cremation pyres of Varanasi, India, Pico Iyer quotes the scholar Diana L. Eck: “For Hindus, death is not the opposite of life; it is, rather, the opposite of birth.” It happens that my stepdaughter, Eve, is pregnant. I’ve known her since she was three years old; she’s thirty now. One late afternoon this spring, early in her pregnancy, early in my diagnosis, we picked bags of wild rose petals together in a meadow below my house; she intended to make rose-flavored mead. We hadn’t talked much about the implications of my cancer recurrence; in the meadow, we almost didn’t have to. It hovered in the honeyed sunlight between us. That light held the fact of life growing inside her and the cancer growing inside me equally, strangely. We talked around the inexplicable until, our bags full of pale pink petals, we held each other in the tall grass and cried. Watching her body change in the months since, without aid of technology or study or experience, watching her simply embody pregnancy, should teach me something about dying. In preparation for giving birth, she reads how-to books, takes prenatal yoga, attends birthing classes. She studies and imagines. Yet no matter how learned she becomes, how well informed, with the first contraction, her body will take over. It will enact the ancient, inborn process common to bears, goats, humans, whales, and field mice. She will inhabit her animal self. She will emit animal cries. She will experience the birth of her child; she will live it. Her body — not her will or her mind or even her self — will give birth.
Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment, the jellyfish, the barnacles, the orcas, the salmon, the fungi, the trees, much less the humans? I woke this morning to the screech of gulls at the stream mouth. We’d anchored in Sleepy Bay for the night, a cove wide open to the strait where we often find orcas. The humpbacked salmon — millions returned this summer, a record run — are all up the creeks now. Before starting our daily search, Craig and I kayaked to shore. As we approached, I watched the gulls, dozens of them, launching from the sloping beach where the stream branches into rivulets and pours into the bay. They wheeled and dipped over our heads, then quickly settled again to their grim task, plucking at faded salmon carcasses scattered all over the stones. The stench of a salmon stream in September is a cloying muck of rot, waste, ammonia. Rocks are smeared with black bear shit, white gull shit. This is in-your-face death, death without palliation or mercy or intervention. At the same time, it is enlivening, feeding energy to gulls, bears, river otters, eagles, and the invisible decomposers who break the carcasses down to just bones and scales, which winter then erases. In spring, I kneel and drink from the same stream’s clear cold water, or plunge my head into it. It is snowmelt and rain filtered through alpine tundra, avalanche chute, muskeg, fen, and bog. It is water newly born, fresh, alive, and oxygenated, rushing over clean stones, numbing my skin.
After we dragged the kayaks above the tide line, Craig wandered down the beach to retrieve a five-gallon bucket he’d spotted and left me alone at the stream mouth. Normally, I am nervous about bears. But this time, I walked up the stream toward the woods without singing or calling out. I stood on the bank and watched the birth-death spectacle. When Craig joined me I uttered this platitude: “We have separated ourselves so much from nature.” I didn’t say what I really meant. I rarely do these days. I fear most people, even those who love me best, would think me morbid if they could read my thoughts. Sometimes, with Craig, I imagine he hears the words beneath my words, knows my mind, and then silence seems the best form of conversation. What I really meant was that despite the lack of palliation or mercy or intervention, I envied those salmon their raw deaths, not for a moment separated from nature, not even when dragged from their element by a bear. I thought about my childhood cat, Mince, who, when she got sick, wandered off into the woods to die. She didn’t want our comfort. She reverted to her primal nature. My mother told me that was what animals did. They died in private. I imagined Mince’s brindled form camouflaged in a bed of leaf litter deep in the neighbor’s blackberry bramble. I confess. I have imagined myself laid out naked on a muskeg, shuddering my last moss-and-tannin-infused breath.
I know, I know. Dying of cancer in a bog would not look or sound pretty or peaceful. Hidden from view in this dream scene is the suffering, is the agony. Is the needle, and the morphine pump, unavailable to the salmon, eyeless, its wordless mouth opening and closing, body swaying in its tattered, whitening skin.
I DON’T BY ANY MEANS think constantly about dying. My reality is dual: one foot firmly in the living stream, the other on the gory bank. Life has become vivid and immediate these last months. No years of Buddhist meditation got me to this place, just words on the phone: the cells were malignant. Later that day, after the crying, after the sitting mutely on the living room couch and staring out the window, Craig and I hauled a quilt into the backyard and lay down on the ground at the edge of the woods. We curled up, listening to wind in the birch leaves, the frenetic din of territorial birds, staking their claims. Spring sprung on while we dozed off. Staying in the present moment isn’t difficult when the alternative is dire: useless imaginings of what might or might not come to pass.
Every morning when I wake, my mind darts down the dying-of-cancer path, and I reel it back by reminding myself of a poem by the late Jane Kenyon, called “Otherwise.”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
Kenyon died of cancer when she was about my age. She ends the poem: But one day, I know, / it will be otherwise. Her words in my mind, I talk myself home to the real. Right now, Eva, you are here, listening to gulls shrieking on the beach. Right now, your two legs, your two arms, your two lungs, your beating heart will carry you, under your own power, up the salmon stream, into the woods, where the blueberries are ripe. You will pick gallons to freeze, a bulwark against winter’s want, against a dearth of hope.
Craig and I hiked up the creek to where a path led into the forest, where blueberry bushes grew along the margins of bog. It wasn’t a pleasant way to get there. The rocks were slick with decay, the water rushing and tea-colored from weeks of rain. The stink was thick as syrup around us, unrelenting. I stepped around half-consumed corpses, curled and sloughing skin, over eyeless heads, headless flanks, brainless skulls, pearly backbones stripped of meat. As I crossed the creek, live humpies thumped my ankles, then battered themselves against the rocks to get away. In their singular drive to spawn, they plowed right through eddies of bleached-out dead, as if that fate were not meant for them. Pico Iyer describes the charnel grounds along the banks of the Ganges in this way: “Spirituality in Varanasi lies precisely in the poverty and sickness and death that it weaves into its unending tapestry: a place of holiness, it says, is not apart from the world, in a Shangri-La of calm, but a place where purity and filth, anarchy and ritual, unquenchable vitality and the constant imminence of death all flow together.” If there is spirituality in nature, it is in the sublime purity of wild roses and wild mushrooms in mossy woods and the vitality of deer nibbling kelp on the beach and the violet light of an oncoming storm and, equally, in the anarchy and filth of the spawning grounds, in the undoctored real of the ever-dying world.
In the seminal 1989 book The End of Nature, Bill McKibben confronts a new reality, a world in which human impact alters even the untamed force of weather. Our dominion over the earth, our global reach, our changing climate, our acidification of the rain and the ocean, our mass poisoning of the communal food supply mean nature as we once conceived it — bigger than us, out of our control, pure and free — is over. Nothing on this earth is apart from human tinkering. No raindrop falling on my face is free of human causation. Even my body, burdened with cancer, burdened with fifty years worth of toxins, enacts this truth. My greatest fear is a variation of McKibben’s revelation: that the end of nature means the end of natural death, the end of a natural return to earthly elements. I read his book years ago, and my new eyes see it differently now. Maybe you can’t trust the perceptions of someone like me, desperately seeking meaning in the face of metastatic cancer, in the face of personal extinction. But I will give you my scouting report just the same. Watching those salmon, stepping around their wrecked, spent flesh, I kept thinking, “No one told them. No one told these fish, or their predators, the bears, the gulls, the eagles, the microbes, that nature is over. They don’t get it.” No one told the cancer in my body either.
IN “KING OF THE RIVER,” a poem by Stanley Kunitz, he too watches salmon battling up a stream, and the parallel he draws with human life and striving and passion and aging is tight and explicit and maybe even a little overwrought — at least I saw it that way when I first read the poem. I was in my thirties then, and my health was a given. Now the poem reads more like a biblical truth. The great clock of your life / is slowing down, / and the small clocks run wild. These great clocks and small clocks are the very texture of our days on earth. Yet for most of us, most of the time, they tick on unheard. In the society in which I live, in that other world, across the mountains — far from this wild place where death is explicit and occurs in plain sight, where it is ordinary and everyday and unremarkable — people don’t talk about dying. People rarely witness the dying of their fellow humans (much less the animals they eat). Special people minister to the dying. Sometimes people in their travail fly overseas and pay strangers to hasten their dying. We have no charnel grounds, only cemeteries shaded by big trees, mowed and tended by groundskeepers. Or we’re handed the ashes of our loved ones, in sealed urns or handsome boxes, to disperse at sea or from mountain peaks.
Facing death in a death-phobic culture is lonely. But in wild places like Prince William Sound or the woods and sloughs behind my house, it is different. The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone. The evidence is everywhere: in the skull of an immature eagle I found in the woods; in the bones of a moose in the gully below my house; in the corpse of a wasp on the windowsill; in the fall of a birch leaf from its branch. These things tell me death is true, right, graceful; not tragic, not failure, not defeat. For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon. A tough, gritty fisherman friend I knew in my twenties called Prince William Sound “God’s country.” It still is, and I am in good company here.
We have no dominion over what the world will do to us, all of us. What the earth will make of our tinkering and abuse can be modeled by computers but is, in the end, beyond our reckoning, our science. Nature is not simply done to. Nature responds. Nature talks back. Nature is willful. We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us. It is everywhere, under our feet, in the air we breathe, but we know nothing of it. We know more about the universe and the mind of an octopus than we do about death’s true nature. Only that it is terrible and inescapable, and it is wild.
Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, the gore at the creek comforts more than it appalls. In the end — I must believe it — just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it. O
First of all let me say I am so sorry to hear of the recurrence of your breast cancer and that you will be leaving this world sooner than later. Though we have never met , I have appreciated your voice and know the world will be a poor place without it. Thank you for lending your eloquence to the topic of death and for your â€œscoutâ€™s reportâ€ from the forefront.
I often think of death in nature, which we have come to define as everything other than us, and how differently wild animals experience death. We have wild chickens that inhabit our neighborhood. This winter several died, perhaps of avian botulism. I have nothing to offer them except a safe place to be while they are sick. Some recovered, others died. I wonder if the quick, savage bite from a dog is preferable to the long, lingering death, but then I remind myself that I cannot guess the outcome.
Watching these creatures coping with pain and sickness is deeply humbling for me. I see how domesticated we humans have become when I watch these birds endure through pain, one breath following another, eyes closed, sometimes head bent to breast. As you point out:
â€œthe needle, and the morphine pump, [are] unavailable to the salmon.â€
I understand what you are pointing at when you ask: â€œCan I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment, the jellyfish, the barnacles, the orcas, the salmon, the fungi, the trees, much less the humans?â€ To abide with any wild animal and watch its breath come and go in the labor of dying opens me to the reality that I will die and the vast community of living beings with which I share this same fate. It is a profound teaching that we have lost in our culture: that all things die and so we will we. As I watch them die â€œwithout palliation or mercy or intervention.â€ I envy them that ability to endure silently to the end. We have lost that ability; domesticated ourselves into dependency on drugs and medical intervention. We have created for ourselves a purgatory outside of wildness where we are more vulnerable to pain and sickness. Konrad Lorenz points out in Civilized Manâ€™s Eight Deadly Sins how we have lost our ability to endure suffering and in doing so forfeited joy.
I wish you all the best as you approach death. I hope that your practice, those close to you and your affinity for nature help to support you during this momentous time. Thank you for so eloquently expressing a sense of intimacy with the natural world and our myriad kin that are fast fading from this planet.
Dear Eva I thoroughly enjoyed your arctcle – thank you!!
Thank you for share of the beauteous spot of nature you enjoy!! What a blessing!
Hester Hill shared your article on her blog – I am reaching out to you as I have stage IV metastatic BC – right pleural effusion as well- I would sincerely appreciate if you would email me .
We met years ago, both in Fairbanks and later, upstairs in the Cordova bookstore where you had given a talk about the whales I think of as yours. It was a lovely talk. I always hoped you would come back.
I’ve lived near Prince William Sound for most of my adult life. The way you write about it is true and real. But this piece is the one I’ll remember best. It does give me hope, in a way I can’t articulate. It is beautiful.
When you write about “wild darkness,” I think you may have in mind not Joseph Brodsky, but the American short story writer Harold Brodkey, whose last volume was titled “This Wild Darkness.”
Thank you for the gift you unknowingly gave me. I was drawn to your story, as my best friend is enduring breast cancer and I am so deeply saddened by the potential loss of her from this world.
The sadness wasn’t lifted, but the beauty of the world was renewed for me through your article. My friend and I am deeply in love with LIFE and all we have been fortunate to know. I accept death as another thing we learn.
My very best to you. Again thank you.
I was so moved by your words, your poetry, as you go forward with your life. I don’t know why cancer can give a person such a jolt, such terror. After all we all must die and some live with diseases which are know to shorten a life. But cancer is different. Maybe it’s because even when we are told we are in remission or have made it through the required 5 years to be labeled then as “cancer free”, we are never “free”, we are always waiting for signs of that one wild cancer cell to take hold somewhere in our body and begin destroying us once again.
I do not know if you speak or read German, you have a German name, Eva, but there is a poem to which I return over and over again written by Goethe. It’s called “Lied des Lynkeus” from Faust. It’s the poem from a man whose job confines him to a watchtower and from that height he describes what he sees. I would love to send you the German poem and my English translation. The last lines always make me cry because he says essentially that even though we must die, life, existence, all that we have experienced was so very beautiful.
To you and all the life you have to live,
Eva, thank you for your eloquence on a subject that so few want to discuss. My husband died young from bladder cancer and I help both his and my mother’s hand while they drew their last breaths. It was as you described – even hooked up to morphine – there was a wildness to it – nature had come to claim hers – even in the hospital room or the bed I shared with my husband.
You have such a lovely voice and I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share this journey with us.
I don’t know what is next, but I do know that after losing these two people, I hear the clocks both big and small and I want to be ready when nature comes for me. I wish you beautiful moments in each of your days. None of us know the number of our days and although you may feel yours are less than mine, there is no knowing.
The closing sentences of this fine essay remind me of a favorite passage from Walden:
â€œI love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, â€“ tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.â€
Nothing eloquent to say, only thank you for sharing these heart-wrenching and honest words. I sincerely wish you the very best.
Thank you for speaking so plainly, and so eloquently, about death, nature, and living in a body. I will remember your words and share them: nature is not dead, we are in nature, and our bodies know how to be born and how to die. Blessings to you and yours.
This article was sent to me by a colleague. I am currently writing my dissertation on befriending the darkness and just finished a chapter on befriending death. I too am a cancer survivor, and felt your words so deeply. I also am deepening my relationship to the other-than-human world and find that i am learning so much in that journey- particularly about death.
Anyway, I felt compelled to leave a comment because I was so deeply moved by your words. I will be quoting you in my dissertation. Thank you.
Thank you, Eva. This is a powerful reflection on our deep kinship with all things and beings in the natural world. Life and death, two dimensions of the same Mystery. I am in treatment for an aggressive prostate cancer, finding a holy integration of fear, pain, blessing, love and joy in my tears. One of my favorite ancient Christian mystics (Pseudo-Dyonisius, early 6th c.) used the term, “dazzling darkness,” for what we glimpse in the ultimate dimension. I see that. And then, another of my favorite mystics, Marguerite Porete (16th c.) spoke of the ultimate as “my dear far-nearness.” Both seem true. There is something utterly impersonal about this life-and-death process, and also something delectably intimate.
What Heather (#9) said. I cannot add anything.
So beautifully written and evocative. I wish you all the best on your battle with cancer.
Please, please look into cannabis oil as it has been shown to reduce and even cure many cancers (see the documentary Run From The Cure). Also, do some research on the scientific work now being done on the positive effects of psychedelics (such as mushrooms) in helping to overcome the fear of death.
Mother nature has given us such wonderful medicines to help fight cancer AND fight our fear of death.
Within a few seconds of reaching this site I was reading your article. I was a little hesitant about doing so, but your soft, powerful and loving words drew me in. I figured my own demise would happen, well, someday, but after having just finished six months of treatment for TNBC, I don’t like to think the major player will be my cancer. How beautifully you described our relationship in nature. You taught us both not to fear death and that nature will continue to exist, regardless. Thank you, Eva.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful writing. It is a very helpful teaching for everyone.
I accidentally left this issue of Orion on an airplane a few weeks ago and had to go out and buy a new copy. Your article was the first thing I read in my newly purchased March/April edition and it made the $7.00 spent seem like a bargain. I’m so glad I did not miss it. Thank you for your gentle, honesty about your own experience of living with mortality. It has a rich wisdom that comforts without sentimentality. I’m sharing it widely.
This is one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read about death.
I knew from the moment I started reading that this was going to be an Alaska story. Alaska has taught me everything I know. Like you, I am living with incurable cancer, but it is in my husband, not me. It changes everything.
I am an Episcopal priest, not a wildlife biologist, but Nature has been my teacher, my theologian, the one who calls me to education and action. She is my truth, in all the gory glory you so eloquently describe.
Thank you. All the best. Blessings.
I regret the pain and loss you are undergoing and have experienced just the slightest hint in my own life of what you have go through. The pain takes on a presence of its own and yet becomes sort of a companion, strangely.
Regarding the idea that ”no one teaches us how to die” I must refer you to Saul who became Paul on his trip to Damascus to root out the Christian believers.
As he became a champion of what he once sought to murder out of existence, he showed us the life with real meaning, a life of being with eternity while building up believers.
I have found in his writings the stuff to carry me past the weeks of having pieces of my spine floating loose and the reality of heart disease. Paul not only writes of what there is in this life, but the stuff of the next.
Thank you, Eva. It puts into perspective my own struggle with cancer and the journey with an inevitable conclusion that I am on.
You gave us beautiful words full of wisdom and comfort. A true blessing for us all.
Thank you for one of the most moving personal reflections on nature and life and death that I have read in a long time. It is a reflection that will stay with me for the rest of my life. And thanks to both you and Orion for sharing it, and for letting us hear you read it. Your words are a great testimony to our common humanity. Best wishes for the days ahead.
My Dear Eva,
I am so glad to go with you on your death’s journey back to the nature from which we were born, and realizing that this soap bubble of human culture, in which we have struggled these many years, is so fragile and temporary. At the age of 82, I have seen that death is nature’s perfect solution to an imperfect world.
Victoria, British Columbia
I love the way you equated your daughter-in-law’s pregnancy with your returning cancer .. i so appreciate your raw authentic honesty in the knowingness that you have about your too soon ending here .. your antennae are attuned to that which many of your fellow humans all too often have no idea about .. you are so in the moment, the zen of life, specifically because you know the sketchy timing of your end … like the salmon it would be more natural if some humans were allowed to feed the earth with their remains, but there are far too many of us and we are filled with lots of toxins .. .but then again so are the salmon, bear, eagles … because man has readily poisoned the earth in his quest for everything ..
Thank you for not just writing your story but sharing it with us all …
Thank you for the gift of this profound and beautiful piece/peace.
This is heart wrenching to read, I am so sorry that you are facing death, but you do it with such beauty and grace. I get all the parallels that you see in nature all around you, there are endless mirrors facing us, I believe this is what we are here to learn, to be able to look in the mirror and not be afraid, to look at the growing child in your niece, the impending birth to be celebrated but your impending death an equal celebration of the life you have lived 🙂 Sending you my love from Ireland and wishing you wellness each day that you stand on your legs, until otherwise and I too love Stanley Kunitz’s poem, he is such a fine writer. You are a fine writer…this is a powerful and moving article bravo bravo bravo :)Blessings and candle lighting for you!! Maire XXXXX
Thank you Eva,
Your piece is so beautiful. I m crying now, there’s so much connection in your words, rawness too, I can touch the humbleness of a life, mine, a salmons.
I love this line “I know that as long as we inhabit bodies of flesh, blood, and bone, we are wholly inside nature.”
Thank you again!
I have never faced what you are walking into now, but like most humans, I’ve had some dark passages of grief, the ‘dark night of the soul’ woven into my living. During these times, and during joyful times too, the natural world is my solace, teacher, and guide. More than anything, I fear that loss of ‘wildness’ from daily life. A poet who has brought me much comfort over the years, and one who I believe you’d connect deeply with, is the American, Mary Oliver. She writes with great clarity and compassion about death in the natural world, death as the owl or the vulture that harvests the small creatures ” as though everything that must be done has been done”. If you can, please find yourself copies of her two books of collected poems as they are so fine and wild and precious, so deeply attune to us all being part of a great mystery. I hope they will bring you courage and comfort, and I hope you will live fully every moment of your “wild and precious” life for however long it is yours to live. Peace to you. Troon
I’ve waited long enough to tell you that we already have a solution to this whole death thing. You’ve had the other reality tugging on your sleeve most of your life and it’s past time to realize it for what it is.
The Messiah has already been here and showed us in shocking detail with raising Lazarus that he turns death on and off like a light bulb. Lazarus proceeded to the natural end of his life but you’ve got o know where he is today – exactly where I’m going, and those in my family.
I’ve been on that bed that I wasn’t sure I’d be the person taking me off a few days later, but while the obligations of this life bothered me, I knew full well where I’d awaken after the briefest of passages.
Besides, the body you get there is going to be so much more excellent than the one being worn out here that – well, I’ll be thrilled – and looking for you right outside that huge gate.
Of course it’s real. Isaiah saw it coming and even earthly David got to FEEL what being on that cross was like. But remember, nothing here is anywhere close to what waits for us there.
You just have to let him into your heart.
Eva, thank you for your moving and, I believe, ultimately joyful reflection on dying. So hard to take comfort from the gritty dying itself! What you offer here is what our death-phobic culture needs, not just in relation to our own individual dying but also in relation to the wider crisis of nature, a crisis we have fomented precisely by hating and fearing the breathing-out half of life. Thank you for your courage and your wise and comforting words.
What a blessing and what a lesson to learn from you.
Thank you for share of the beauteous spot of nature you enjoy!
Death is not to be feared. It is the natural consequence of life. It is inevitable, and we must look at death from that perspective. Eva’s article is just that-death is part of nature for all living things, as Eva so beautifully expressed it.
Eva, Your beautiful words reached me in New York City by way of an excerpt reprint in the publication, The Week. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections and reminding us life is lived in the moment. You have touched many lives and will be remembered.
I’m not dying of cancer, but at 81 I’m thinking about the end. Today we go to look for a spot for a natural burial. I will be wrapped in a cloth & buried in 3 feet of earth so the natural forces can return me to dust. You have helped me to look forward to rejoining nature.
I so appreciate this story and the (re)connection with nature that it brings. I just want to mention that there is another way to be buried after death that does not involve embalming, manicured lawns, or greenhouse-gas-producing cremation…that is natural (or “green”) burial. I am a volunteer at a natural cemetery in Florida and we offer completely natural burial (no vaults, biodegradable containers…) and we even go a step further and use all burial proceeds for land conservation and restoration. For anyone who wishes to find and support such efforts, please visit the non-profit Green Burial Council (www.greenburialcouncil.org/) to locate similar services in your area. This type of burial allows us to “become one with nature” in a much more profound way than the current industrial burial choices. Peace to all.
Eva, saddened for your prognosis. As in nature we humans are destined to die. Unlike God’s animals we will live eternally w/GOD in heaven or without Him in another destination. The choice is ours. There is GOD,. He IS light–the light in this world & the next. As HE IS love so has HE bestowed His everlasting love to us through the death, burial & resurrection if we trust His Word. 1 Corinthians 1-4 is THE gospel of your salvation from sin penalty. God, through His Son, Jesus Christ , washed all humanity who was, who is & who will be forevermore the BIBLE states in Romans through Pilemon. Only those who have heart felt belief that when Christ said from the cross as He died: “It is finished” & believe GOD raised Him from the dead that we are forever forgiven & become a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Believed & be saved. Do not deny yourself the opportunity to live in glory with your Savior. Lesfeldick.org
Dear Eva, Usually, I have trouble quieting my mind and just listening. But it was quiet when I read and listened to your beautiful words. I’ve always thought that we’re born alone and we die alone, in spite of “being surrounded by family and friends,”, as is sometimes the case. Just having you and your husband here with me, and the rest of us, on our lovely earth, helps me to feel better. I hope for all our sakes, that you and your husband hang around with the rest of us for a good while. I hope Mother Nature, and your body, do us that favor. Danny, Aventura, Florida.
Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story. I am a hospice nurse, and a breast cancer survivor, and the sister of someone who right now is dealing with metastatic breast cancer. Your words meant much to me and touched me. May your journey be meaningful, my friend. Please keep writing and sharing your experience.
Thank you for featuring this story during the anniversary of the week of Eva’s death. In an increasingly fraught and dying world, her perspective and voice is more important than ever.
My favorite Eva essay. She has a way of getting down to it. She walks softly, but wields a big pen. I’ve known her since high school, and can say I know only a fraction of her. A source of inspiration that continues to this day.
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