Before I was born, further back than directly before, I think, I remember being in a line of people. There was dim lighting, and the counter in front of the line looked like one that belonged to an airline at an airport, except it was a granite color with a parallel, unbroken solid string of neon light at the top and bottom. Next to where I stood was water, with large granite columns in the water, the same neon lights wrapped around the top and bottom of each column. A rowboat with other people and someone piloting it navigated its way past the columns. At least two passed by before I reached the counter.
What was this place? And if I had a memory like this, I must have already taken human form. I must have been in the womb. Or maybe not. I don’t really know. I didn’t see any part of my body during this. My eyes only followed what I was noticing. It couldn’t have been a dream because I don’t remember waking up from it, and after that point, life was dark to me until I was five. I couldn’t see anything in front of me or around me until that blackness went away when I was standing in another line, waiting to go back to class after lunch at Sterling Park Elementary in Casselberry, Florida. I was in kindergarten. (It wasn’t physical blindness, since I later recalled memories from when I was three that I had no idea of when I was five. It was like life had started for me at that point.)
I’ve never taken all this as proof of anything. I do believe that that counter was perhaps a departure point to souls, like I was a soul yet to be created. I don’t know any more than that, but I’ve believed in some respect that it may be something entirely out of the way of Earth, out of the way of humanity. Heaven, maybe? I don’t know and I won’t claim that that is indeed it. Heaven, to many religions, is the endpoint. This looked like a beginning. I have taken it as a kind of comfort that there may be something else to come after I die, that my soul, my being, goes to somewhere like this place.
All this came back to me as I watched Griefwalker, a documentary about Stephen Jenkinson, as chronicled by his friend Tim Wilson. Wilson went into a coma and was on life support after an operation and after he had recovered, gone home, and prepared to move with his family to Nova Scotia, Jenkinson asked him what made him think he deserved the life he returned to, and it stopped Wilson cold. It is at once a meditation on our feelings about death and watching Jenkinson advise a woman with terminal cancer and a husband and wife whose daughter has to die because there is nothing else to keep her alive. The blood transfusions given to her prolong her life, but there’s only more transfusions. There’s nothing beyond that. Jenkinson tells these people that they fear death, that culture and society have conditioned them to fear it, that they have a death phobia. But it’s what will happen to all of us. It’s unavoidable. And when we can embrace that, to understand that, only then can we truly live our lives.
Jenkinson is an interesting man. In an interview filmed indoors, he looks like a cross between Robin Williams and Bill Pullman. Outdoors, he looks like Bill Pullman with a bit of Sam Shepard mixed in. His face and his mind have explored so much about this topic, and he speaks of his work confidently, respectfully, in seminars and to hospital workers. There’s cinematography at the beginning of leaves falling from trees, the pendulum of a grandfather clock moving from side to side, and water droplets shivering off an icicle, which seem heavy-handed at first since we all know that kind of symbolism, but it’s true. In the autumn, leaves will fall and die. Time will tick away. Icicles will melt. We will die.
Throughout Griefwalker, it’s difficult to listen to the stories told, to see the woman with terminal cancer who will die, to see the baby that will eventually die. But not because of what they’re going through, though it is vastly affecting. It’s because of what we go through as we watch it. You probably won’t pay close attention to these stories because you’ll be thinking of your own feelings about death, which is the purpose of Griefwalker, to ask through these stories how you feel about it, what you believe about it, what stage you are at in your life that colors your thoughts about death. I thought about my late paternal grandfather, who I wasn’t close to, who died years ago on the opposite coast while I was here in Southern California. I thought about my first dog, Beaumont, who I grew up with, and the grief that I felt then. They’re gone and while there are physical traces of them in a graveyard and as ashes, respectively, what I know of them, what I saw, what I heard is gone. The personalities and the voices are only memories.
I don’t think I embrace death yet, as Jenkinson suggests we should in order to fully live our lives. I think it’s a kind of cordial, cool feeling. I know it comes, I know it will happen to me, and I’m not as afraid of it because of that memory I have. There may be someplace else after we die. But I’m not ready to embrace it like that because there’s lots more for me to explore here that I want to experience, that I want to give my full attention to. I’m not ignoring death, but as long as I’ve got this body and this mind, I want to use it for what’s right here, right now. However, I do know that I won’t be able to read all the books I want to in my lifetime. Perhaps that’s a start.