The Speed of Death

Actually, my subject today is the speed at which we hear about the death of someone. I am fascinated by Jane Austen’s life and in the great movie “Becoming Jane” we are there when Jane’s sister Cassandra learns that her fiance has died. Because he was in South America and the trip took three months or more, he’d been dead a while before she learned about it. How awful to think that all that time, you didn’t know something so important. Or maybe because of the world at the time, it seemed normal.

When soldiers in the Roman army knew they were to be posted to the Outer Hebrides, about as far away from home as one could travel then, the soldiers were expected to stay single and bid their families goodbye, possibly not expecting to see them again in this lifetime. And that was simply the way of the world.

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In December, my niece passed away unexpectedly and we learned about it on Facebook within 24 hours. Last month we learned that my husband’s uncle had gone into hospice care and then had a call about the memorial arrangements. All within a week.

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Currently, I am re-reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi for my book club. I’m at the scene at the beginning where John Perry, our main character, is saying goodbye to everyone he knows before he enlists in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). He imagines it’s something like the early days of travel by ship across crazy oceans. You know the person isn’t dead, they are alive somewhere across the world, and you wish them well then go back to living your life. Someday in the future, this could be normal. We’ll send people off in colony ships and know they have a life ahead of them full of adventure and purpose. Just don’t read Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three and all will be well.

Sometimes a person can be dying and no one wants to say that this is what is happening. Elderly people facing certain crises like cancer or congestive heart failure are often ready to let go of this life. It’s the family and loved ones who are not ready to hear the news. The Speed of Death in these cases is much too swift.

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Culturally, death is seen in the United States as either a religious rite of passage that brings much comfort to those who grieve or an end of a life with nothing going on after that. And no one wants to talk about the inevitability of death. Because we don’t know and can’t prove our beliefs, we simply ignore it all and go on with our lives.

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In the last year and more, I have lost a handful of beloved people to death, some at a time of life the event would be expected and more much too early. In any event, observing how the people in my life have reacted to the loss and coped with it has been an opportunity to make character sketches and learn how to bring the reality of death into the stories I write.

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday.

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