My daughter and I watched a lot of nature TV shows about human evolution. As a species, we seem to have been telling stories through art since the dawn of our time. Cave paintings, jewelry, body art, pigments, stone circles, and carvings are all things that have been left behind by human and proto-human societies.
We have a drive to make art, to tell stories, and to develop rituals that goes back to our beginning.
It comes to us at our end as well. One of the many things I learned as part of helping to take care of my mom during her last weeks was that it is common for people to start using metaphorical language. They talk about: going home, packing for a trip, or they might ask about their passport or airline tickets.
This happened to me when I was sitting with my mom in her last days. She suddenly asked me if she was all packed for her trip. Even though I had read the hospice guide many times over the previous week, I was still caught off guard by how clear and cogent she sounded when she asked the question. This was one of the few times I was unsure of what to say. However, since she seemed worried about it, I decided to address the worry and not the words. I told her that everything was taken care of and that she didn’t need to worry. She relaxed after that.
Even though I had been prepared for the idea that Mom might use a journey or travel metaphor as she neared the end of her life, it still hit me harder than I expected. We had already had a lot of frank and sometimes difficult conversations about her coming death. She and I were able to talk about death and dying in a very straightforward (if sometimes darkly humorous) way; and, while it made me sad to reflect on losing her, I rarely had a problem talking about death and all of the related logistics. So I was surprised when I had such a strong reaction to Mom’s almost unconscious use of metaphorical language to tell me that she was ready to go.
This past week, my husband heard from his parents that his grandmother has started talking about ‘going home’ and she pretty clearly isn’t talking about trying to move back to her apartment from the nursing home.
It makes me both wonder and appreciate our human ability and need to tell stories.
Humans throughout the ages have made up stories to explain the world around them, we have created rituals to re-tell and re-enforce those stories. We use just about anything we can get our hands on to make art that tells stories. Even Jesus tried to communicate his teachings through parables, telling stories to try to get his disciples and followers to more fully understand what he was trying to say.
And when we reach the end of life, our minds, bodies, and spirits work together to tell one last story. The story of leaving everything behind and going on one final journey.
Neither Mom nor I really believed in an afterlife– at least not the ideas of ‘heaven’ that seem to have grown up around Christianity over the past 2000+ years. Mom was a big proponent of living and working in the here-and-now. She said many times that we should be working to create heaven on earth and not be waiting around to go to heaven after death.
I don’t have any good answers to what might happen after death. I don’t know if Mom’s spirit went anywhere or if she lives on only through the love of her family and the friends that remember her.
I do know, like millions before her, she set out on a journey and for once I couldn’t go with her.
However, while she may be traveling beyond my reach on earth, I maintain my connection with her and with all of our human and proto-human ancestors by telling stories.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.