Slow fade to black

10 01 2021

During this winter I’ve taken a walk most evenings at twilight. There’s a moment when the sun lowers behind the trees that makes me reach for my camera. As the cold laps across the fields and starts to freeze my fingers, I frame the last filaments of light. Scrolling through my photo collection, I notice dozens of images of trees at twilight, each tree with bare branches outstretched as if to ward off the oncoming night; holding it slippery, gleaming and alive in the sway of a dark net. This slow fade to black creates the kind of ending I would wish for all dying beings. There’s no agony in twilight, no fuss, no sense of loss: the light dims and merges into the lovely muted softness of the time we call dusk.

The year itself has now gone past its own twilight and is again in the ascendency. Already I notice the evenings drawing out, reaching further into the light and the rise is welcome after a dark year of loss with heavier loss to come. Driving home each day, I hear the bone weariness in the voices of the intensive care doctors and nurses interviewed on the radio. I hear the urgency in the reports of a crisis in the NHS overwhelmed by a virus ‘out of control.’ Driving through the twilight, I think about beginnings and endings. I wonder what is beginning for us as a community of beings dedicated to looking after the most frail and the most vulnerable. I feel hope that elderly people who have been housebound for months will live to experience another spring. At the same time, I know many will not.

In living and loving so fiercely, we so often forget that we must die. It’s hard to look death in the eye. Our instinct is to hold onto life at all costs and we have developed such intricate ways to prolong life, sometimes for good years, but in the end death outwits all our technology. Death endures our best attempts to slow it down. It comes whether we are looking or not.

None of us can know how we might meet death. The philosopher Socrates met his end with maddening good cheer, refusing to go into exile and stop his teaching, refusing to stop pointing out what was obvious to him and infuriating to his prosecutors: that he couldn’t die anyway. He would merely change from a mortal being to an immortal one. His soul was going somewhere better, thanks. Now hand over that cup of hemlock.

Socrates’ death began a revolution, a commitment to bring his ideas out of obscurity and into the light. Grief created an explosion of ideas and an outpouring of brilliant work by his most faithful student Plato. Without Plato’s commitment to honouring the ideas of his mentor, some fundamental principles of education, mathematics and the beginnings of the universe might never have been born. Grief is so often fertile soil for making things anew. At the same time, death takes away our illusion of control. It lets us know that we have limited time to live, and that, according to Plato, is a good thing. We should live our lives remembering that we will die. A good life is a life that has recognised death and made room for it. All living is a preparation for death.

Not many of us are like Socrates, boldly going to his final destination, as if he were merely hoping from one Greek island to another, but perhaps we could learn to open the fingers we habitually place over our eyes when considering death. Perhaps we could in the words of Joan Halifax, anthropologist and Zen priest, who spent years sitting with the dying, meeting them in their pain and suffering, find a ‘sane relationship to our sadness without being overwhelmed.’

This makes me think of the way animals grieve and die: sanely, simply, softly. At the start of this week, our resident elderly goat Bill died. Rickety, tired and prone to infections, Bill was in human years the equivalent of a centenarian. He spent nearly every morning seeking out a warm sunny patch in which to rest his old bones. Although often exhausted, he was always gracious to visitors and enjoyed a good scratch between his horns. His death came as no surprise. Last winter his grave was dug in preparation, but he lasted longer than anyone expected. Our Dartmoor pony Tinker tenderly nosed Bill’s lifeless body as he was lifted into the wheelbarrow to be wheeled off to his burial.

In Greece, people are buried the day after they die, which means there is little time for elaborate funeral preparations. One of my Philosophy students said there was no fuss around death in the Greek village where he grew up. One minute, you’re there, the next you’re not, and everyone just gets on with it. Nevertheless, no fuss doesn’t have to mean no care. Maybe caring means acknowledging the fact of death itself with full presence and gentleness, just as Tinker did for old Bill.

Some Christmases ago, I witnessed a pair of horses show a similar interest in the death of one of their herd members, an old thoroughbred mare who collapsed in the field where she was later that day buried. The remaining herd members, a pony gelding and another pony mare, remained present to the death of their herd member by standing near her grave, pawing at the earth, turning over the soil under which she lay. I witnessed vividly that day how animals are not afraid to get close to death. They are perhaps aware of death in ways that we are not.

As I write this, I notice two images: a tree at twilight in a beautiful winter scene painted by John Skinner, and the gentle smile of my friend who ended his own life. I also notice the new ticking life of my young hound, licking his paws on the sofa and I sense that here is life beginning and ending, beginning and ending. I don’t need to understand it. I just need to remain still and sane enough not to be overwhelmed. I think of Tinker taking the time to caress old Bill with her lips, and I secretly hope that wherever the old goat has gone he gets to hang out with Socrates.

Bill, right, never passed on the opportunity for a good scrap with Betty.

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