Facing Death

For Nicole, for the last time

I arrived home from Vermont with a tick burrowed in my thigh, and spent my first morning here in the Emergency Room getting it pried out. Since I was in the hospital anyway, I decided to take care of some routine tests I’d been ignoring for awhile, only to receive some totally unexpected results. It seems that I have something called an aortic aneurism; if it should burst, I am told, I could be dead in five minutes!

This doesn’t seem realistic because just last week I was lifting a heavy canoe on and off the car and paddling it vigorously on a wind-whipped lake with nary a hint of strain.

But there you are!

I am sharply reminded that death is right there for me and for all of us, just a heartbeat away even when we don’t feel a thing. But this is true every single minute of every day of our lives, from the moment we are born!

I have actually come close to dying two times in my life, and they are great stories, so I’ll tell them:

One happened in Big Sur in my twenties, where I went to visit my sister shortly after our father died. She lived at the edge of the seacliff in a live/work cabin with her boyfriend, a potter at the Esalen Institute. My bed, the guest bed, was up a steep ladder in an open loft fifteen feet off the floor where stood a wedging table, a potter’s wheel and a cast-iron stove. During the night, dreaming that I was being called, I rolled out of bed off the loft and into thin air, falling miraculously into the only clear space on the ground below. Had I hit either the table, the stove or the potter’s wheel I would not be here to tell the tale.

I can never forget that split second of awakening in mid-air, understanding exactly what had happened, in that moment before I hit ground. I had been dreaming that my child was crying and I had rolled out of bed to get to him.

What saved me, I think, was that I fell without tensing, still asleep and relaxed as a rag doll. Even so, I was pretty banged up and required a multitude of stitches to put me back together again – in an Emergency Room many miles away up a winding coast, where the doctor presumed I was one of those ‘hippies on drugs’ and treated me accordingly. It was, after all, the middle of the night and my story was an unlikely one.

I survived, although my sister’s relationship with the potter did not. “These Cooper girls are too much for me!” she later told me he said. I still am very sorry for that.

The other time I nearly died was in the Galapagos, alone for a week on the coast of the uninhabited island of Fernandina. It took some doing to get special, though reluctant permission to have a solo stay on the island, and only if I obeyed a number of strict rules, which I’m ashamed to admit I did not exactly follow.

The short story is that I left the coast to walk inland – just a little bit to see what was there – under the equatorial sun at mid-day, over sharp lava and pressure ridges to get to a ‘close by’ anomaly I spotted from the shore. It was a bit of red in an expanse of black lava and my curiosity got the better of my common sense. Indeed when I finally reached it – way out on the lava field - I found a rusted bomb as big as myself.

The shock of it in the middle of all that silent, lifeless volcanic rock crumpled me, and I sank to the ground alongside the bomb in a gasping heap. I later learned this island had been used for target practice during the war.

I might well have died there exposed in the sun, never to be heard from again, if a persistent voice in my head had not kept shouting at me to get up, get up, Get Up! Turn yourself back towards the sea!

Again and again I stumbled and fell, bloodied by shards of glassy lava, scraped up with each fall, but always that voice urged me up again and again, eventually getting me back to my camp on the coast dehydrated, heat-stroked and wasted.

I survived, dear reader – and in retrospect am astonished by the power of the life force that kept me here. I am certain that if there is such a thing as a Guardian Angel, mine was sitting firmly on my shoulder that day.

Both times I stupidly walked myself right into the jaws of Death, neither taking my life seriously enough nor paying attention to what I was doing. But then, I was young, curious and willing to try anything. Perhaps those misadventures were actually training me for this transformational time in the world when everything is precipitously changing, dangers are rife, possibilities are infinite and a fierce willingness to walk right into the maelstrom with chutzpah is being called for.

Big breath.

Yesterday I spoke at the Memorial of my closest friend, Nicole, who died three months ago with her doctor’s legal assistance after a long and debilitating illness. I told the gathering about our last conversation, when she and I agreed that Death was merely a stage in a larger journey, and so we would meet again. We also wept together, realizing we were both losing the very friend with whom we could safely have such a conversation.

“May you go from ecstasy to ecstasy,” she whispered as I took leave of her for the last time, kissing the knuckles of my hand held in hers.

“See you later, alligator,” I whispered back, kissing her knuckles in turn and slowly letting go of her fingers.

Our last communication was “After awhile, crocodile” and a shared giggle through our tears.

It is all about transformation, I think, and preparing well for major changes with as much acceptance and as little fear as we can muster. Here on Earth we are completing one phase of existence and being born into another, on our personal paths as well as in the shifting trajectory of our culture’s evolving consciousness.

New beginnings are what’s up now, and a changing focus on what comes next. Of course there is chaos – how else could change possibly happen? We do not have the luxury of either despair or hysteria. It is time to take stock, take a deep breath, summon up courage and all our creative juices, and get ready to jump into the fast-flowing rapids of the river.

Time to learn how to swim!

What do we wish this changing world to look like? How can we make it happen? How do we want to raise our children; share our lives; protect our glorious planet and feed the world with beauty, as the Mayans say?

Nicole has moved on and Herb has moved on and both of them are seeing the profound glories of the larger world we are not yet privy to. One of these days it will be my time and yours, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, we have to dream up everything we want to see happen, find our friends and allies to create it with, and Go For It!

The world is our oyster, after all!

What else is Life all about anyhow?