Toronto
3 min

Ruminations on death, dying and living fully

I am taking a pause today to think about life and death and the space in between.

We lost Andrea’s Nana this week at the age of 85. I’ve written about her before — she’s the one who thought I was wearing a turban when I met her. I knew her as an interesting, sometimes sharp-tongued woman who liked to read novels and eat chocolate and who always had something to say about the haircuts I give Andrea and myself (and now Gracie, too). She hated asymmetry, loved her two queer granddaughters and their families, which included me, and made me wonder what I did to deserve so many branches of attachment in this world.

I met a man yesterday who never had any grandparents. I had four: two of my own and two of Andrea’s, one of whom is still here to delight in his great granddaughter as she continues to add life to a world that can feel full of dying sometimes — especially if CNN is on at your house a lot, especially if your grandma is in the hospital for a long, long time. There are more than 200 deaths per minute worldwide, but there are more than 350 births. We are much more living than dying, really.

I saw the new Shrek. They could add Queer As Folk tales to all the clever taglines advertising the movie right now. Highlights include the appearance of a very funny gay chef with garlic in his goatee, a kick-ass Fiona as a kind ofXena: Warrior Princess, chaps on the gingerbread man as a continuation of Pinocchio in women’s underwear, and other queer glimpses in the previous Shrek movies. Pretty great.

Anyway, the endearingly cheesy new story is all about gratitude, recognizing what you have before it’s gone, living each day to the fullest. We all know this story. I get glimpses of it on a daily basis — when I just miss a car door on my bike, watch an ambulance go by, cross the Bloor Viaduct, read the front-page news, watchBoys Don’t Cry, snatch up Gracie as she turns to walk into a moving swing at the playground.

I spent some time at the AIDS memorial in Cawthra Square Park. It is amazing to think of each of those people, tied to other people, tied to other people, tied to other people. We are all losing someone every day through very slim degrees of separation. Death is so damn natural, but we are picky about how it happens, and when it happens. We are less picky in some ways, on most days, about how life happens, if every minute is meaningful or peaceful, or worthy of remembrance.

I have to go get read-referral notes from a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook. Some days that kind of thing is depressing. Today it is stressing me out because I am looking for life insurance, and I keep coming across this question: “Have you ever been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or other mental illness?” It usually comes right after the question about long-term critical illness and right before the question about HIV. Life insurance is an interesting thing, in that it attempts to put a dollar value on your life, and it determines on paper how likely it is that your life will end sooner rather than later. Life insurance is an even more interesting thing, in that my family would be financially much better off if I were dead.

Interestingly enough, thinking about dying makes me think about living. I have been saying lately that I feel old — that my body took a turn at 30, that my back hurts more days than not, that my pop-culture references are starting to fall embarrassingly flat in youth-centred spaces where I used to be so at home. But I’d rather be at home with a crying baby who sometimes sounds like an ogre, in a messy house, with my beautiful, tired partner, trying to get dinner on the table and laundry in the machine, than anywhere else in the world. I may have accumulated some labels that make me worth less on paper, and more likely to die sooner, but look at what all this time has brought me — I have everything I need.

We can actually do good service by separating the world into wants and needs. Stephen Harper doesn’t want to fund abortions, but no one needs to not have an abortion — unless it’s being forced on them. There are people who need abortions. The need should override the want.

All I really need, according to popular notions, is love, a room with a view, ignorance and confidence, a song in my heart, to remember what I learned in kindergarten and from Mr Rogers, to pay taxes and die. Not necessarily in that order. Our lives can be assessed simply, satisfyingly, on some very basic terms, long before we’re dead.

Shrek is told like a fairy tale, with a moral and a hero and an ending you expect. In fairy tales, the good characters stay good and the bad characters stay bad, and they either die or live happily ever after. We have the chance to be good, and bad, to learn lessons, or not, to be heroes, or not, to live happily as well as to die. Nana spent months dying, which was painful to watch, but she spent 85 years living — much more living than dying, really.

We all have much more living than dying to do, today.

Street Smarts appears in every second issue of Xtra.