March 26, 2015

Death Becomes Her.


I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately…more than usual, though death has been a pretty consistent visitor to my thoughts my whole life.

Perhaps some of us choose to indulge those thoughts and some of us choose to push them away, but the thought is there regardless.

I’ve done both, dwelled on, and denied those thoughts at different times throughout the years. There have been times when life was so vivid, so amazing and fruitful that I couldn’t possibly entertain any thoughts of it all coming to an end some day.

There have been times where, emotionally, my situation seemed so desperate that I spent most of my waking hours contemplating whether death might be a nicer alternative to life… And I have involuntarily stared death in the eye, went a few rounds, and came out still on top (for now).

In 2008 I contracted E. Coli 0:157: H7 from a tainted batch of local, grass-fed, organic raw milk. The E.coli infection turned into a serious complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. My kidneys completely shut down and were it not for a physician’s assistant in a walk-in clinic who was fortunately paying attention…well, lets just say I was less than 24 hours from certain death.

I spent the next month in intensive care receiving plasmapheresis, a form of dialysis where all blood is removed from your body, the plasma separated out, and then donor plasma and my blood cells were put back in.

For most of the month doctors continually told my family that there was not a very good chance that I would survive. I suffered a heart attack and a Grand Mal Seizure. I required twice as many plasma treatments as those suffering from my illness typically would need to recover. When my kidneys finally regained most of their function, and I was released, I was a bloated, scarred shell of my former self.

I could barely walk, and I was taking 15-20 different medications for everything from blood pressure and cholesterol drugs, to steroids and diuretics, to anti-psychotics (for PTSD), anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills.

Before my illness I wouldn’t even take Tylenol because I didn’t want to expose my body to potentially toxic laboratory chemicals. I ate all organic and natural. I was in excellent physical shape and rode my bicycle miles every day with my toddler son strapped into his child seat.

After my illness, I spent the next two+ years recovering as much as I could of my physical health. I spent a few more years after that recovering my mental and emotional well-being, and I’ve spent mostly every day since then remembering (and trying to forget) what it felt like to be standing on that shaking, quivering bridge between life and death.

I remember the day I had the seizure and heart attack, and the panic and helplessness of knowing that my body was (possibly fatally) malfunctioning and that I could do nothing to change that. I remember the anger and frustration, the rage that overcame me at times because I did everything “right” for the sake of having a healthy body and it still could not save me from illness and near death.

I remember the feeling of spinning and falling into blackness. I remember lights, the colorful halos and energetic impressions of love and compassion from the doctors and nurses doing everything in their power to pull me back from death’s grasp.

I remember vividly, though I can’t recall when it happened in earthly terms, that there was a moment when it was my choice. My choice, whether to let go and find release from my suffering…or hold onto my body despite the pain and suffering that came along with holding on.

I remember being saved by being a single mother. I know without a doubt that my 18 month old son, who was waiting at home for his one and only parent to come back, was the only reason that was worth holding on for. That I chose to live rather than embrace death seven years ago, and I have been running from her ever since.

I have thought a lot about death. I’ve also spent a lot of time distracting myself from all of the unknown that death holds. I’ve spent years pushing away the fear that, for several years after my illness, consumed nearly every moment, waking or sleeping. That even now, years later, sometimes sneaks up on me in the dark or stillness and catches me off guard.

It’s the panic that wraps around your throat, sits on your chest until you beg, eyes stinging, ears ringing, gasping for your breath and drowning on dry land. The feeling that the whole room is spinning, the world is whirling so fast that the sky above is an empty hole that I could fall into, lost forever. The helpless realization that not my beloved parents, not my home, my dog, my martial arts training, shotguns, or even the solidity of the earth itself offer even the slightest protection from death. That I am being chased by my doom…and that there is no escape. Not for me, not for you, not for the kindest person I know, or for the richest famous jerk we all envy and despise, and not for the poorest folks I’ve seen sleeping on the streets…it is truly the great equalizer.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know that this realization has scared the shit out of me for over three decades. I’ve alternated between being paralyzed by my fear and living in denial of my mortality since I was old enough to remember and I am tired of this routine. I am tired of choosing safety over freedom out of desperation to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible. I am tired of existing in a state of semi-consciousness and finding distraction after distraction to keep me from facing reality and all that goes along with it.

This February was my 34th birthday. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to spend it in Italy with some of my loved ones. The trip there was supposed to be a relaxing, sightseeing vacation, but for me, it turned into a pilgrimage. Everywhere I looked I saw my mortality. I saw my death, our collective death, tombs, and great arenas where thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children had lost their lives violently. Entire cities lost in fire and ash. Churches filled with statues of humans that once walked the same earth as I now walk…beautiful paintings almost all with images of suffering, of the horrors of religious wars, buildings built by unknown, nameless masons, still standing though their names are long since forgotten.

Marble busts of important (or self important) wealthy rulers, intelligent thinkers, godly men, and gifted artists…none made anymore immortal by their gold or gifts or by the noiseless, soulless stone ghosts they’ve left behind than the ones whose faces and flesh have long since decayed and returned to the earth. All just as dead—no one was spared.

The climax of my journey came at the crypt of the Capuchin Friars. The crypt is built from thousands of human bones; the ceilings, walls, and doorways built from and decorated with the bones of believers. I stood looking, almost in a state of disbelief at the piles of skulls, of leg bones just like mine, vertebrae of spines that once help up a living conscious human being.

 “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.”

This is what the sign underneath the bone archway said…and it finally hit me! Standing there breathing in the dust of lives long since ended—I will not live forever. It is so obvious, and yet so earth shattering in that moment that I finally really understood it. I will not live forever and no amount of running, no amount of denial, or fear, or hope, or being good or being bad is going to change that.

All the books I buy, all the yoga mats and Buddha statues, the alter with Jesus and Mary and all my other religious figures, my cabinets full of the healthiest foods money can buy, my bottles of pills, my love for my son—nothing is going to stop my life from ending one day or another, just as so many other lives have ended before mine, are ending at this very moment, and will continue to begin and end for long after I have breathed my last. I cannot run. I cannot hide.

I cannot make bargains to prolong it and I have no idea when it will arrive. And despite the various scenarios I can hope and pray for in an “afterlife,” the fact is that I have no idea what happens after we die, and I don’t believe that any of us do. So it seems that what I am left with, is the need for peace. And if I cannot find peace in any of the human answers about what comes after death, than I must make peace with death itself, with my own soul, and with the life that leads me to that death.

As I carried that crypt with me through the rest of Italy, I came to a few further realizations. In particular, I was thinking about terminal illnesses and how I have heard stories about people who find out they have a year to live, and how they spend that year making peace with death, living fully every moment they have left. In that year they realize the preciousness of every breath. I realized that when I hear those stories I feel a twinge of envy. Yes, envy. I want to know what it is to live with such intent, intensity, gratitude, purpose, as is inspired by a death sentence. But what folly! I have a death sentence same as they do, same as you. Why can’t I choose to live as if I am dying without a cancer diagnosis?

I have returned from my unintentional pilgrimage a changed woman. I have decided to live this next year as if it is my last, and for all I know it could be! In fact, I am consciously choosing to believe, and behave as if this might indeed be my final year. Perhaps I truly will not live to see 35. I have begun the process of facing and letting go of my fears of dying. I have begun treating all those who I love as if these interactions may be among our final ones.

Krystal Prue McNerneyI am finding myself quicker to smile. Quicker to admit when I am at fault, to say, “I am sorry,” or, “I love you.” I am already noticing I am less inhibited and cautious in socializing with friends, family and acquaintances alike. If there is no “tomorrow” how can I go wrong in speaking the truth through my eyes? If my intention is to leave this world with slightly more love in it than when I came into it, then why do I need to fear being real in expressing my love?

I have spent many moments already the past few weeks crying and letting myself feel my fear—my pain at the thought of leaving this beautiful world. Of saying goodbye to those I love the most. I have spent much time sitting by myself or snuggling with my son, and asking myself: If this is my last year on this earth, what do I want to do with it? Who am I when all the non-essential is stripped away, and what is it that is truly important to me? What is it that I want to leave behind when I am gone?

I can’t say this has been an easy process or that I haven’t slipped at times into old habits of momentary denial or complacency. But I can say that I keep faithfully coming back to this process, breathing through this meditation that is steering my life now in ways I’ve never experienced before.

Maybe it is morbid to consciously focus on my own demise, but I have never felt so alive, haven’t felt so conscious in going through my days since I was a child. I have no idea where it is leading me in life, but if nothing else I believe that in facing the end head on, I may go more peacefully to my grave some day, whether sooner or later.

One way or another, I hope that when she arrives on my doorstep, Death will be like an old friend that I know well. And just maybe, instead of grasping and gasping in terror at my last breath, I will find that I am able to greet her lovingly, and graciously make my final exit.



10 Excellent Books for Children about Death.


Author: Kalee Prue

Editor: Travis May

Photo: WikipediaKrystal Prue McNerney (meditation pic)


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