I don’t like death, and 2020 has brought plenty of it.
I used to not mind it. At age two, I faced a life-or-death surgery because I had seven spleens fused together that didn’t allow my blood to coagulate. My earliest memory was of the surgeon lowering the big white light over my head and asking if I could count numbers yet. “Yes!” I said indignantly. “I bet you can’t count backward from ten?” I rose to the challenge: “10…9…8…7…6…” I was out. The life-or-death surgery did not freak me out because what else did I know about life? This is just what two-year olds did.
I also wasn’t terribly concerned when my dad had a heart attack at age forty and we visited him in the hospital. At age four, I just thought that is what dads did. They had heart attacks. He survived for another forty years.
I grew more concerned when my older brother died when I was seven. My mom woke me up a six a.m. to say that he had died the night before in a car accident. I was wondering why my parents were throwing a party so early as friends and family had already arrived with tuna casseroles. I turned away with tears in my eyes and asked, “But who will teach me to ride my bike now?” This was the first moment that I understood death as loss.
My Mama Betty said “Bye, doll,” the last time I saw her in the hospital. She was serene and welcoming death. We gathered around my mom’s bed at home as she battled cancer and watched as the oxygen mask fogged just before midnight. That was the first time I saw death up close. I yelped as the coroner’s assistants carried the body away.
In my professional life, I have had to confront the worst of humanity. At Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, we represented the family of a soldier slain by two fellow soldiers because he was thought to be gay. At Human Rights First, we tried to impose rule of law on a U.S. government that tortured to death terrorism suspects (frequently mistaken) and killed civilians (mistakenly) by armed drones. At the Center for Justice and Accountability, we sought redress for survivors of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and the Syrian massacre. I saw the worst of humanity in these crimes.
Since my brother’s death, I have puzzled over the question that has challenged poets and prophets alike. What is death? Is there more? Do I live on after this body ends?
The global pandemic of 2020 has forced many of us to grapple with those questions as we sit in isolation saying goodbye to loved ones on video chats. This year alone, I have lost nine friends and colleagues, some to COVID, others not. Death is making me mad, and I need to regain a sense of hope. Here is where I am on that journey.
The conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed but simply changes form. Ice, water, gas are the same, but in different forms. Our bodies are particles of energy. The earth, oceans, forest and us are all particles of energy. When we die, our energy does not die; it changes form.
We know that our bones will disintegrate or be turned into ash when we die and we will join with the earth. Our lives, if we have kids, we will live on through our DNA. I am intrigued by the idea that the DNA we inherit includes memories from prior generations. What if those memories are more than just traumatic experience, but all knowledge? Knowledge is stored not just in brick or digital libraries but encoded in us. How curious it would be to decode those memory engrams and play a new kind of family home movie.
Melting into the earth or passing down genes, however, does not answer the theological question. Is there more?
What if the soul is also an energy and that the soul of all things is connected? Perhaps our bundle of energy is like one molecule in an ocean and the collective is what we call God? A purpose of life is to tap into that greater ocean.
Epiphanies, intuition, insight are all expressions of that divination. I always trust my husband’s intuition when he avoids a street as we head home because it doesn’t feel right. My sister called me from the U.K. the moment I was spreading our mother’s ashes in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We have all had moments like those and wondered at the coincidence, but perhaps it is connection, not coincidence.
Does our molecule of energy have an id? Does a Dixon soul live on after the Dixon body ceases? On the one hand, it seems perverse for us to have corporeal lives and sentience, and our singular experience does not transfer. On the other hand, perhaps part of our theological inquiry is to see beyond what we observe; flesh and blood need not repeat in the same form. Or perhaps it is both. I’m inclined to think it is the latter and that gives me hope at all of the endless possibilities.
When my mom died, I had a series of profound experiences. One night as I was walking home from the gym, feeling sad, I felt this palpable rush of presence run through my body and I understood that it was my mom offering comfort. Seconds later, my husband called out from behind me, “I love you.” I asked him why he had said that — he not being one to be overly emotive. He said, “It wasn’t me. It was your mom.” She made herself known four times in the six weeks after her death. The last time on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, she sent the message that this would be her last visit. Away from our guests in the downstairs bathroom, we cried in each other’s arms. I have not sensed that profound outreach from her since.
The lesson I draw from that experience is that my mom, defined as my mom, lived on as energy. There was something next for her as part of the vast ocean, both as a distinct and collective entity. There are many religions and philosophies that offer thoughts on life after death, and this rumination is not intended to supplant anyone’s faith. This is simply my journey thus far. I have confidence that as the bright light descends upon me, as it did when I was two, I will beam back.