When it comes to dental work, I’m a real wuss. If anyone is going to go rooting around in my mouth with sharp instruments, I need to have a heavy dose of nitrous oxide to get me through the trauma. (Confidentially, I think N2O ought to be sold over the counter in personal-size canisters – gentler than a martini for taking the edge off stress.)
One a morning I had a date with my dentist for replacement of a worn out filling. The dentist put the nitrous oxide mask over my nose and left the room while I mellowed out. When he returned and began preparing the novocaine injection to numb the procedure site, he asked how I was doing. I replied, “I’m doing fine. I was just practicing dying.” He paled, and the hypodermic needle froze in mid-approach. “What?” he asked in a tone of voice that meant, “Not in MY chair you don’t!”
I explained that inhaling N2O gives me a chance to experience the dulling of the senses, to practice consciously the letting go that will be required of all of us as we die. I smiled at him serenely through a nitrous fog – at least I think I did, just before I opened wide at his command and received the injection.
Last week I tried a different way to practice dying. I know from experience that active imagining can be a powerful exercise. Since I live on Puget Sound, and I needed to take a ferry ride that lasts over an hour, I decided to visualize the entire ride as an experience of dying. Rather than going up to the passenger lounge, I stayed in my car; I imagined myself gradually slipping away from life the way a ferry slips away from the dock and out onto the Salish Sea.
I feel the engines power up and pull us forward.
White caps slap and splash against the sides of the ferry, making it rock.
I don’t recognize where I am – all islands look alike to me.
At first I had to keep settling back into the imagining every time the visuals distracted me. Yet I wanted the visuals to be integrated into the imagining. I won’t be able to control my deathing, so I didn’t want to try controlling this experiment.
Ah, the other cars and drivers have vanished from my awareness now. There are just me and the ferry and the passage.
I wondered: If I am “dying,” what is the medium on which I float? It bears me, waves of it splash against the shores of distant islands. What is the element that allows not-quite-living/not-yet-ceased-living to be carried from one shore to another?
Gray light bounces off the waves, creating irregular shimmers to play against the white surfaces of the vessel. I think of my mother who, when I was little, would position her cup of tea in a patch of sunlight on the round oak kitchen table; she’d subtly jostle the porcelain so that “pixies” of reflected light would dance on the kitchen walls. It is a pleasant memory, a forgiving memory. A part of my deathing journey.
I see another ferry passing in the opposite direction. “Have a nice life,” I think, and I’m surprised by how deeply I’m inhabiting this imagining.
Imagination is different from fantasy – fantasy is manipulated, while active imagining, if one allows it, unfolds with a will of its own.
I’ve lost track of where I left from and where I’m going. I sink into near-sleep – can you fall asleep inside a dying?
I see channel markers, rocking buoys with gulls and cormorants flying in, balancing, flying off again. Tiny shoreless green islands. Icy sage green water.
Engines slow – I feel a twinge of apprehension – what does this mean? Is the journey over so soon? “No, just discharging some passengers at a smaller island, not your destination.” Wind whips the island tree branches fretfully. Orange windsock on the dock points in the direction I have yet to go. This is not my stop. “Stay on the journey – you’ll know when you arrive.” A crewman signals up to the captain, engines in reverse pull the ferry back into open water. It holds still a moment, the engines reverse again. Who knew that a deathing boat could move in both directions? And yet I’ve seen it, at a bedside, a dying person seems to be at their final moment, then revives and stays around another day or two. Or a baby, in its birthing, is so close to crowning, and then slips back in, uncertain how it feels about abandoning its nine-month home.
In a curious mix of calm and concern now, I feel as if my imagining and my reality are one. I let go of the possibility of returning. Then, through unfocused eyes, I’m aware of a gradual change of direction into a leeside harbor. . . calm sheltered waters . . . a ferry berth just the right size to hold its new arrival.
I startled as the MV Kitsap’s speaker system informed me of the end of the line. I coughed. My mouth was dry. Drivers returned to their cars, cars returned into focus. I took a deep breath and when the crewman signaled me, I started my car’s ignition and drove off the ferry.
I’m grateful for what I learned last week about deathing.
And I’m grateful I got to return to another day of living.
Blog post by Cynthia Trenshaw, Author of Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Our Culture’s Invisible People, available at your local bookstore, or from Amazon.com.