The Omnipresence of Death in my Life.
Originally, I wanted to post this piece as a response to Mike Essig’s ode to Death: “Nocturnal Remission”. At least that was what I understood it had been.
Not having been able to respond earlier, I wanted to finish the response today, but wasn’t able to do it in the way I had first attempted. It grew out of proportion, into something new, something quite extensive, since I have woven a story into it, that exemplifies my experiences with Death and my subsequent acceptance of The Universe’s terms and conditions for my own departure.
My hope is that I can offer a meaningful contribution to the discussion about Death. Here it goes:
Death is omnipresent — at least in my life. Not only did Death come by and visit the two most important and most loved people in my present incarnation, Death also took my most beloved Cat with him/her.
Oh yes, the gender thing. Death is always described as a male occurrence, but that may just be a way to personalize IT.
Since I came down with Pneumonia from working in the freezer of a health food store in Hawai’i and subsequently quit, because the store is not giving any compensation for haven gotten sick while working, I no longer have health insurance as well.
Now, I would like to emphasize, that Death by itself does not exist. Death is the counterpart of Life. No Life — No Death. No Death — No Life. Therefore, one could also say “Life” came by last night and it told me “time’s up!”
Although throughout of history, Death has been painted as an independent contractor. But that is not the case.
Back to my Pneumonia and the increasing effort to breathe, it needs to be mentioned that I live in the proximity of Kilauea and Pu’u O’o the children of Mauna Loa, so to speak. For over two years, there has been a lot of huffing and puffing going on, including a surface lava flow to the Ocean that is always a ‘gift’ to those living downwind of it. It is said that Death lives there.
What made me respond to Your communication with Death, are my own personal experiences with IT. At the early age of three, my life was not really doing well. Severe Asthma had befallen me and I leave out that there are psychosomatic causes possible. The apparent trigger was the coal dust in the air — I was born int he Industrial Center of Germany also called “Ruhrpott”, which I would translate as “Ruhr-Bowl”, with the “Ruhr”, a river, being the major source for water for the industrial processes in the area. The first steel mill in Germany was only miles away and there were coal mine elevator towers everywhere. As per vivid anecdotal stories about the coal and steel mill dust, my Mom would always tell the story of ‘not paying attention to a change in wind direction’, with the painful consequence, that the laundry hung up outside to dry, was black.
So where my lungs. For close to two years, Death paid me a visit every night. Receiving one million units of penicillin everyday, I was not doing well at all. Unable to sleep in horizontal position — my Mom kept me sitting upright in bed. Needless to say that she couldn’t sleep horizontal either. Eighteen month of sleeping this way. At the end of that period, my parents were told, that there is nothing that they could do for me anymore. Absent an immediate move of the family to either the North Atlantic coastline, or to the foothills of the Alps, we moved within two weeks to Bavaria.
From then on, I recovered very quickly. Six month later I was able to play outside again. Just in time to start riding a tricycle to keep me from running. Two years later I had a relapse as a consequence of having been beaten up by Bavarian=Barbarian kids that put the dislike of their parents for “Zugroaste” (people from other areas in Germany, especially those “Prussians”, to which we certainly belonged, coming from former Prussia) into practice. They beat me up and let me lay in the snow. It was so severe, that I was taken out of school. I lost a whole year and was schooled in with much younger kids the next year. A fact that changed my entire life for good.
Starting at around 12 years of age, I had this recurring nightmare of Death coming and taking me with it. A nightmare that would accompany me for 15 long years. The nightmare was always the same. I am laying flat in my bed, on a meadow, or in a forest. It’s always dark and an all absorbing blackness would descent on me. Very slowly, but very surely. While it was coming closer, I first lost my vision and then all sounds. At the moment just prior to contact, I would wake up shaking from fright. The shaking from fright lessened as I grew older, but it was always part of this nightmare.
There is no doubt in my mind, that Death was indeed visiting me — night after night — when I was terminally ill. That experience was hard wired into my brain and re-played like in an endless loop. With sixteen, the paralyzing effects mostly disappeared and made room for an attitude of having lost all fear from Death during conscious times. Nothing could keep me from going to the edge in any conceivable way. “Daredevil” would have been fitting and that I survived my wildest motorcycle years is still enigmatic to me. There were so many ‘close calls’, that You could say I was a living ‘close call’.
I got into severe car accidents, that were all ‘close calls’ — one would fracture my Atlas from having gotten rear ended by a cop doing 35mph on black ice, on January 2nd, 1980. That day will always be in my memory, because I was on my way to report to my military service.
From a certain point on, I would be surrounded by Death on a regular basis. Friends of mine and classmates succumbed to injuries from motorcycle and car accidents and some of them to the early cancer wave in Germany in the early seventies. Much later we were told that a large number of children came down with cancer due to the nasty colorants in candy that You could buy for ten cents in one of these vending machines for bubble gum and such. Vividly do I remember that the friend in question always had a bright red mouth from eating the red ‘raspberry’ candy.
When I got old enough to disagree with my Mom and to reject her demands for me to stay close to the house, based on the heightened concern for my health, I started mountain climbing in the Alps. You would have never guessed that I once almost succumbed to respiratory failure. Like a mountain goat, I was jumping from one rock to the next, surefooted like nobody else I ever met. Which makes You do things, a normal person would refrain from. Jumping over a 300 foot deep ravine, for example.
Death became my advisor. Where there is Death around, one could experience the most rewarding moments in life. To a degree, where, if it wasn’t really dangerous to life, it was boring. The trill to do things with Death being right next to You was like a drug addiction. For someone with great fear of heights, I ended up conquering the tallest objects around. Anything would suffice. One time, I was shooting a movie close to where I was born and enjoyed two exact opposites: climbing up a 300 feet tall cooling tower and descending into a coal mine — all the way down, one kilometer below the surface of the Earth and two kilometers horizontally, passing by under the river Rhine — my personal ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ — accompanied by the ‘Obersteiger’ (responsible for everything that happens under the surface), that I had befriended during the shoot. We had borrowed mining equipment from the biggest coal mine in Germany at the time, “Zeche Walsum”. It is now closed.
At first I was not aware what would happen to me, when I was given a coal miner uniform to wear. I thought “Oh, how cool, I am a coal miner now — close to thirty years after I had to leave the neighborhood. It was too noisy to understand what my friend Willi yelled at me. We are standing at the elevator shafts that transport coal lorries from deep below the surface to the top. He explains to me, yelling, that he has to inform the elevator control tower to lower the speed of the elevator to transport coal miners an not lorries. Without humans in the cages, the elevator would make about 35 mph. With humans that speed was greatly reduced and was reminiscent of an elevator in a sky scraper. Not quite that slow though.
When he received the phone call from the tower, the elevator stopped before us in the shaft. Each elevator has several levels, my memory tells me there were at least eight floors for carts in each elevator. Considering how much coal was dug out every hour it made sense. He yelled again: “Come, let’s go!!!” and dragged me into the elevator. Just the two of us. Mind You, that at the time I was still both claustrophobic and with a history of a coal dust allergy. The the floor under my feet dropped into the abyss. It takes a secon or so for You to get resistance under Your feet again. What a trip. I came down with a panic attack. He yelled, asking me “You don’t look too good. Everything alright?” “I tried to explain what had happened to me 30 years earlier. But the noise made than impossible and since I had a hard time breathing, I shut up and gave myself to Death, of which I was certain that it was riding with my. 300 feet down comes a horizontal shaft — we are racing by on our way to the center of the Earth. 600 feet, the second horizontal shaft. I found it odd, that they were all painted in snow white, with white trucks driving around. At 1800 feet, the elevator stopped. Willi let me know, yelling, that “we have to switch elevators to go down further!!!” “Further???” was my muted response. “Further” I thought, just how deep are we going? “How deep???” I yelled back at him. “3000 feet” he responded over the noise of the strong airflow — air that is constantly pumped down into the mine for the coal miners to be able to breathe.
When my panic attack went into stage two, I was convinced that the air may just stop coming down. Then I looked at Willi and realized that he had a wonderful wife and three amazing children. He was not panicking at all. As a matter of fact, he was very relaxed. Like riding a merry go round of sorts, or an amusement park ride. The most important thought I could have had came to my mind: “If this awesome man would die right here right now with me, he would leave a devastated family behind, a widow and three sons. What am I whining about? If he can die, it should be an honor for me to be next to him!”
I felt Death had left from my side. There was no more panic. There was only the curiosity of a young child left, descending to the very bottom of the ‘Ruhrgebiet’. Then we arrived at the bottom. Once more, Willi was yelling to follow him to a conveyor belt, roughly four feet wide and endless. He instructed me how to run on the ramp next to the conveyor to match the speed of the belt and to then hop on. His excitement over me doing exactly that in a flawless fashion — like a professional coal miner — will be with me forever. He had instructed me how to sit down in a yoga like position, legs crossed to dampen the rollers that were placed every two feet. That was by far the longest butt massage I would ever get in my life — two times, one time forth and one time back — four kilometers of riding a conveyor belt 3000 feet under the river Rhine.
Little did I know what would happen next, when we arrived at the coal grinding machine — like a vertical planer that would grind out the coal from the layer that was clearly visible before us. Up to this moment. An hour earlier they had a collapse and couldn’t continue mining for that time. The other coal miners that were down there greeted me, laughing, yelling “You just got here on time!!!” They pulled me into the shaft about two hundred feet in. There I had to take position between those hydraulic posts that move with the coal planer. Each time the planer cut out a swath of coal, every other post lifted up and moved forward, following the layer of coal.
The really big machine was yellow and had a lot of lights blinking, in red, yellow and green. Dozens of them. Willi had to use the phone and was yelling to the extend of “WTF are You doing up there???” to the above ground control center. “I need to get this coal out, goddammit!!!” A jam had occurred at the coal cart distribution towards the coal bunkers. Without that jam removed, coal could not be ground out.
Not more than a minute later there was lots of yelling and the Turkish coal miner smiled and said “Grab something!!! We’re going IN!!!” An inferno was unleashed. The noise was intense, even with earplugs. I vividly remember my helmet light — in reaction to the starting up grinder wheel, that would get faster and faster — the reach of my lamp beam shrunk before my very eyes. The ground started to vibrate really badly. Then, an impenetrable darkness engulfed us. My helmet light was no longer visible. The machine was screaming and the grinder sunk its teeth into the coal — creating a blackness that a cloud covered new moon night would be bright like a flood lit baseball park in comparison.
“Okay, that’s it NOW!” None of the coal miners were wearing masks. You would need scuba tanks, I was later filled in. The masks against the dust would suffocate You in no time at all. Clogging up quickly. So, the clogging takes place inside the lungs. There was a reason that the average life expectancy for coal miners was around 40 years of age. The dust lung and its incurable effects were deadly for many miners throughout history. Life began passing by before my eyes. From the early sickness to all the fun that I had until then. But it wasn’t really the film that is playing when You really go. It was made up by my mind and I realized — again — if all these wonderful people would die from this right now, I would be in excellent company to go non-physical.
Of course I didn’t. Of course they didn’t, on that day. After having witnessed the hell of a workplace in the belly of the Earth, that so many generations of coal miners have endured for us to stay warm in the winter and have light in the darkness, my already infinite respect for these bravest of all workers — with the possible exception of the guys that lay the bricks for a 300 feet tall chimney — was engraved into my heart and mind for all eternity.
From that moment on, I had a few notable chance encounters with Death on a personal level. Then, starting five years ago, the people I loved most in my life (second only to my Mom) all took an early exit. Cardiac arrest and respiratory failure thinned out my chosen family. Beginning in the New Year, things got really out of hand. It appeared that no matter what I would do, I was sliding deeper and deeper into the same absorbing darkness, that had been with me for so many years.
I started to ask The Universe to come and get me. Even my beloved Felines would surely have it better without me — my depression was hurting them as much as it hurt me. Their perseverance is without equal. Every time it would get really dark in my mind and head, they were there, reassuring me that they were there and that this fact alone would make anything else obsolete.
The breakthrough came, when I realized that I was actually suffering from a ‘circumstantial’ depression. The circumstances having been and still being the completely gone nuts society I live in. My value system is exactly opposite to that of this society of late. It nearly completely extinguished my joy for life, the love for life that I had ever since Death gave me a free pass. Life is a precious gift and to waste it for profits is the very lowest level a human being can degrade to. Death and destruction are part of this Universe in the first place. Why promoting it? Why pushing for ever more deadly weapons? What’s broken in the head of those who itch for wars? What kind of damage is prevalent in a mind that believes to be able to win an atomic war against two super powers? Russia and China are not like Iraq and Libya.
It was the utter insanity of the fake elections and the subsequent fake presidency that made it possible for me to turn my back on this preposterous governance in the Western hemisphere. If it all blows, I would want to have spent as much conscious time with my remaining loved ones and with my beloved Felines.
Death has lost all its threatening nature to me. More than ever before. Now, I feel like a terminally ill person, a person that knows, her/his time has come to leave. No more fear, but the uncertainty about how it will happen. My beloved late life partner used to make the statement: “I don’t fear Death. I am ready to go. all the people I love — with the exception of You — are already on the other side. It will be wonderful to reunite with them. The only thing I am asking for is, for it to be as painless as possible.”
Her wish was granted and to have seen the indescribable peaceful expression on her face helped me to make peace with Death for once and all. Death is not a mean character. Death is kind to those that have been kind to others. Death is fierce to those, who have abused others. Death is sudden for those who forget that it is living between the heart beats. Death is never farther away than a heart that stops beating.
Now I understand, that true peace of mind comes with Death as a companion, not as an enemy of life in our lives. With my wishes for an equally peaceful departure from platform one, I affirm once more the beautiful mix of Life and Death, of coming and going, of trusting The Universe to take care of the journey planning and schedule — not rushing ahead, but to be prepared when the time comes.
In my Bavarian exile, a great writer of mystic literature had spent all his life in this town. His departure is one of the most beautiful events I ever heard of. He knew that his time had come and he surrounded himself with his entire family, everybody was there. He said that the time has come to bid farewell and to jump into Death’s ferry. According to his wishes, the big armchair was moved to the Eastern window. Gustaf passed away with the first rays of a new day.
May we all have the strength to look Death into the eyes and say:
“Ready when You are!”