Polly Greeks: On life, death and everything in-between

Polly shines her light on the cycle of life.

Words: Polly Greeks

We were late planting the garlic this year. It still got sown before the shortest day, but only by a whisker; ideally, it should have been bedded in May. Then, however, gardening was far from our minds. James’ father was dying.

“Dying-dying, or living-dying?” The children wanted to know. With their grandfather seriously unwell for months, there had been several occasions when we’d braced for the worst before marveling as the tough old battler clawed his way back from the brink.

But as James and his siblings again gathered by their father’s hospital bed, the goodbyes were final this time. Although beyond speech, Wah delivered a clear, courageous message by yanking out his life-support tubes. He was choosing death over living-dying.

By evening, once everyone in attendance had made their farewells, James and his brother sat on each side of the sick bed and clasped their father’s hands.

“It’s time, Dad,” James whispered. His fingers received a comprehending squeeze. A concentrated quietness filled the room as life condensed to the rise and fall of an old man’s chest.

Slowly, peacefully, the gap lengthened between his in- and out-going breaths. And then, as imperceptibly as an unhurried tide, Wah gently departed; his broken body now just an empty shell.

“This means you’ll never see him again.” Tearful 10-year-old Vita stressed each word emphatically to her brother once James phoned through the news. But it’s hard comprehending such finality when you’re seven, and Zen remained inappropriately unemotional, in his sister’s opinion.

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She continued searching for effect. “No more $50 notes for birthdays or Christmas.”

“Not ever?” Suddenly, Zen was suitably aghast, and bitter tears followed.

Rounding up candles, the children spontaneously assembled an altar and sat in its island of light, shining as they shared their memories of him. The ache caused by merging sadness and love made life seem almost unbearably exquisite.

If death is a rite of passage — a transition between different states — how blessed Wah was to accept the journey’s calling amid heartfelt goodbyes. Ultimately, we might all die alone but riding out on a wave of love surely propels one in the right direction for whatever comes next. Surrounded by family during his last hours must have confirmed to Wah that he loved and was loved. Isn’t that the ultimate currency in which to deal?

During the hours spent in cardiac and stroke wards preceding his father’s death, James was saddened by the number of patients lying in unvisited solitude, tended only by over-run orderlies servicing physical needs. Who knew the circumstances of each? But thank goodness for wilfully blind medical staff who understood the illogicality of banning family from a dying man’s side due to Covid-19, and let us all in.

Contrary to the hesitant children’s misguided beliefs, the wake that followed was not a final, awful ceremony where we sat around the body in silence, ghoulishly watching for any last signs of twitching aliveness.

“That was the best party ever,” Zen crowed the morning after, completely forgetting its focus. Wah, the absent centre of proceedings, would have loved the large, noisy celebration of his life. Like an invisible thread, he stitched the crowd into interconnectedness.

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Winter had kicked in by the time we returned home from it all. With the earth bruised into welts of mud and the watery sun as ineffective as weak café coffee, the season looked like a long, joyless tunnel of half light. Weighted by flu, we seemed to stumble about in death’s dreary shadow, but planting garlic was a great affirmation of life’s steady cycling.

In a way, it was the wake that the children had feared. Keeping an eye on the apparently lifeless soil, we waited for signs of aliveness.

The vibrant spring fingers of garlic pushing through the dirt speak as eloquently and exuberantly as anything else about transitions, passages, endings, beginnings, and a time for all things.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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