TEXT BY MIDGE K. MANLAPIG
When I was fifteen, a classmate of mine shot himself in the temple and died about a week before his sixteenth birthday. For most people, this was a horrible thing: a taboo was broken, a young life wasted; so much potential gone down the mortuary drain.
For a clinically depressed teenager who had begun to display suicidal tendencies of her own, however, it was a source of horror, grief, and a strange fascination with the end of life. It made me wonder why someone who was on top of the world – big man on campus, honor student; universally admired on and off school grounds – would suddenly decide to put a bullet through his skull and end it all. When I graduated from high school some months later, we still had no clear answers as to why. Nevertheless, it left me with a lingering fascination with death.
Why is humanity so afraid of death? Some say that it is concurrent with our lingering abhorrence of old age: the body is no longer in its prime, the mind falters and memory gets all patchy; our senses take leave of us (as opposed to the other way around), identity is forgotten to a certain degree, and we – alas – lose control. For the bulk of mankind who believe in outward appearances and glorify the human body, death marks the ultimate loss of control over our individual destinies. For these people, death is an enemy; it is a force to fight with, contend with. It is one that man has tried to conquer for centuries on end … alas, to no avail.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who embrace death as little more but a stepping-stone towards the attainment of karmic perfection. For cultures wherein reincarnation is one of the cornerstones of a practiced faith, death is simply a refining process that grinds off the dross from a person and slowly – over several lifetimes or life cycles – transmutes that person’s character until it is pure and golden and worthy of a truly blessed afterlife.
For the most part, however, death is something that causes great consternation – not so much on the part of the deceased for whom life has ended and who is off to some Great Hereafter depending on his or her denomination, but for those left behind.
There’s all the paperwork to deal with. There is a body to dispose of. Sometimes, as harrowing as it sounds to the family left behind, an autopsy may be called for in the event that things other than natural causes came into play. Indeed, there is a great deal to do with the concept of disposal: how to dispose of the deceased’s possessions, how to dispose of any bad karma related to the dead, how to dispose of debts and related expenses, and – of course – how to dispose of the deceased.
Death is more a trauma for the living, really. I can speak from experience on this. I was at my paternal grandfather’s bedside when he passed away after a lingering illness; I will never forget the stench of death, the sudden cold that came into the room. Nor will I forget the way that life – identity, memory, being – seemed to seep out of his face as he breathed his last; vital signs waning, heart finally slowing to a stop, face going slack as if death finally gave him respite from whatever burdens he carried in his aged heart. In cases like these, for those passing on at the end of a long life, death comes as a merciful friend who takes them to a well-earned rest. Still, the sight will haunt me till my own demise: watching a loved one be taken from you is a heart-wrenching experience. My only comfort is that he was asleep when death came crawling in.
In the case of a sudden death, on the other hand, things are completely different – and are far more painful. I was 23 when the best friend of my childhood died quite suddenly while on holiday in Switzerland. We’d just seen each other two weeks before, just days before she and her younger sister were set to go on tour. “She was fine when I saw her last,” I remember crying to my father when I received that phone call that my friend had a heart attack while seeing the Swiss Alps. “She looked healthy enough. Why? I don’t understand…. I don’t understand!”
I would repeat that lament several times over the next decade and a half: a schoolmate would be shot at a popular nightclub; a younger colleague would succumb to an undiagnosed ailment; a foreign consultant would be murdered by her own husband; and, most recently, my oldest friend died of an aneurysm just last year. For all of these people, none of them even forty at the time of their demise, I found myself asking the inevitable Whys: Why them? Why not someone else? Why now? Why not later on in life Just plain why?
I still ask myself these questions whenever I am posed with either the imminent death of an older relative or the sudden death of someone much younger. It is not a good thing to dwell on, given my own fragile state of mind, but I have learned to see death not as an end, but an opportunity to be reborn, to start over; to be renewed in one form or another depending on what merit one has earned over a lifetime.
The person whom I consider my best friend and the current love of my life once wrote a song that pretty much sums up how we should look at death. Its final lyrics is a lesson that should resonate with us throughout life:
No tunnel o’ light,
No dead loved ones;
Maybe I need to teach someone:
That we don’t realize what we have
Till we lose them.
Indeed, death’s final lesson is to value what – and who – we have while we can.
Note: Midge K. Manlapig is the author behind The Darker Side of Me at http://malishvish.wordpress.com, and her work has been published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, MEGA Magazine, and Woman Today – GLITTER. She currently works as an advertising creative in the Philippines. She will be releasing A Jar of Starlight, an anthology of poems, as an ebook in September 2015. Her novel, Café Anacardi, goes on sale online by the end of 2015.