In yet another example of how our minds scatter the particulars of our memories, it turns out that my recollection of my grandmother raising her arms to the ceiling was inaccurate. It did happen, but it happened the day prior to her death. She was essentially unconscious, never again to wake, when my cousin Leila tried to talk to her. Whatever Leila said must have cut through the death haze in which my grandmother was lost, because that was when she lifted her arms. Perhaps she was trying to find a way out.
I’m tempted to pass this off as an attempt to solve a mystery that doesn’t exist, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s just less dramatic this way. There was no gesture to mark my grandmother’s passing – simply a failed attempt to breath, a ceasing of function, and an end. That’s just from the outside, however – my grandmother must have had a final thought or impulse. What form it took is the mystery.
Most aspects of our existence have, over the course of our history, been given human form in our minds. Egyptians looked into the eyes of their household cats and gave the perceptive intelligence they saw the name Bast. Norsemen heard the sky flash and erupt and called it Thor. Greeks tracked the motion of the sun across the sky and imagined it to be the wheel of Apollo’s chariot as he made his daily rounds. Death is no different, and may in fact be the only one that’s ubiquitous. The Grim Reaper. The fourth Horseman. An angel with outstretched black wings. Hades. Nergal. Orcus. Izanami. Anubis and Osiris. Hel.
Indiscriminate and unrelenting. The only true certainty. Is it any wonder that nearly every human culture has anthropomorphized something so terrifying? It’s easier to rage against nonexistence if it has a face, or a name, or a personality. Something you can talk to. Hades can be bargained with. You can play chess with the Reaper. Thanatos can be tricked – although he’ll get you in the end.
He got my grandmother. He got her mother. He’ll get you, and me, and all of us, unless someone like Aubrey de Grey takes the aging process apart and reforms it into a pure, unbroken golden circle. The supply of oxygen to our brains will be cut off, either gradually or without warning, and we’ll evaporate. End of the line.
What comes after death is a mystery to us, but the inevitability of it, though shocking, is not surprising. We’ve spent our entire lives reminded of it, whether through the death of a loved one or the spectre of Thanatos flitting across our culture. I may not be prepared for death, but my subconscious has been training for it since Day One.
Have you ever had a dream that seemed to last for days? Our brains can play around with time in the proper context. I mentioned before that the brain does strange things in the instant before death. Maybe it’s working overtime to find a way to keep us from the looming terror. Maybe we live forever, in our heads, in that final moment.
That’s a pleasant thought. I tend to doubt it, however. What good does wishful thinking do except mire us in our delusions? When dealing with death, it’s best not to fantasize.
That won’t help with answering the question of what my grandmother saw, somewhere between raising her hands and turning off her mind. If you’ll allow me one more moment of pure speculation …
… maybe she saw whatever she wanted.