Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The untwining of death.

Last Thursday was the Feast of All Souls (as a practicing Catholic those words don't sound at all as gruesome as seeing them on the screen), and as a member of the St. James Cathedral Choir, I had the profound privilege of singing Durufle's Requiem Mass that night. This mass is an opportunity to mourn those we have lost, to meditate on our mortality and to look death in the face.

Death is apparently a part of life, a natural progression, inevitable... and yet I would venture to say that there is nothing in life that instills more fear (but then, I like public speaking).

Fear of our own death for sure. And the scary part of our own demise is the unknown, the uncertainty that comes with death. As a catholic, I recite the Nicene Creed each week. And as a conscious catholic, I always stumble over the line:

... and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Do I? As far as I can tell, death is the ultimate adventure, the great unknown. What really happens after we die? You don't know! (kudos if you get the reference) I know I'm supposed to believe something, but REALLY? There is no way to know. Until it happens, and then I suspect I won't care anymore anyway. And while being afraid of something that will eventually happen, regardless of how much I try to avoid it, is a possible way to spend my time - it seems like a rather sad existence.

I think the harder part of death is when someone else dies. Because we have to continue living life without them. My daughter is a freshman at the University of Utah studying Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. The same majors as the young man who was randomly murdered there this past week. When I got the campus alert, I had a visceral reaction until I got her on the phone. Death of someone young or violent death is the most crushing. And as a mother, I'm terrified of the thought of losing one of my off-spring. My parents too. The closer it gets to the end of their lives, the more fear I have of losing them.

My father-in-law died two years ago. Les was the first of our parents to succumb, to go, to pass, to die. It's hard to even call it like it is. It was heart-breaking to be with my spouse's sorrow in losing his Dad, and in my own sorrow, but the hardest part to be with how heart-wrenching it was for my mother-in-law to lose her love/partner/soul-mate. My mind balks at merely having to imagine, much less be, in that position.

Let's talk about that. Hebbian Theory very simply states that "neurons that fire together, wire together". Practically speaking, that means that when two things are associated together, they become intertwined. My daughter's first word was "kitty". A word that was spoken whenever the four legged furry being was present. She associated that sound with that phenomenon. It's what we call learning, associative learning to be precise.

When we associate with another human being, our neural pathways become intertwined. That emotion with that experience of eating at that place with that person... they all become intertwined. Even the routine that happens as you start to leave a place, especially when you have been leaving places for many many years together. A moment that sticks with me from Les's funeral was my mother-in-law turning around after the service to make sure Les was with her.

That funeral was such a surprise to me! It was so impactful, both as a Catholic and as a Scientist. Rituals are the bomb!!! And Fr. Tom was brilliant. He reminded us that our experience of Les continues to happen, regardless of whether or not his body is there. Everything that is associated with Les is still associated with Les which is both the bitter and the sweet part of losing a loved one.

If you subscribe to the notion, as I do, that the brain generates EVERYTHING, then your experience of another person resides solely within your skull. Add to that another thought experiment, think of someone you love, or someone you hate... if you really inspect it, you love not them, but who you are and how you feel when you are with them.

While listening to Fr. Tom speak, I intentionally started to remember the things I loved about Les, like when he first met me and told me that he was a contact. Yes, by aliens. Our mutual love of science and space was one of the things that has him continue to be present for me.

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