In junior high school and high school, I had what I would consider a healthy fear of dying, but what most rational adults might have called oversized. My fear manifested itself in staying up way too late, mostly out of fear of not waking in the morning. Which meant, unsurprising to none, I was constantly tired from a lack of sleep. Even as a kid, I knew that my fear of dying was a result of not having lived, what with my being a fearful child and all, but that knowledge did not lessen my fear.
Some time during those fearful teen years, I visited Nina, a friend of my dad's and a woman I bonded fiercely to. I can't recall if this particular visit was before I left Indiana, or during one of my visits back to the state, but I believe it was before I left. I recall the house Nina lived in, recall the dining area we sat in during this visit. I suspect if I asked her, she could narrow down when this visit was.
During this particular visit, in our normal chatting, I confessed I was sleeping poorly, because I was afraid of dying. She paused our conversation and said, "Death isn't anything to be afraid of. It doesn't hurt, and all your pains, even the ones you didn't know you had, go away."
She then began telling me a part of her story I hadn't heard before. She explained to me how she knew what she had just told me. Her tale was tragic, heart-breaking, inspiring, and memorable. It is also her story to tell, not mine.
At the time, I heard her words, but I didn't understand them. How could I? How could a healthy, active, sheltered, white, mid-teen girl whose worst pain was infrequent migraines and a one-sided, make-believe heartache understand the release of dying? I lacked the world experience, the living, necessary to fully grasp what Nina was saying about the pain.
Because at fifteen, you cannot understand that the pain an adult tells you will go away at death is not the physical pain of the body, but the torturous pain of the soul.
It is the pain of true heartbreak, the torment of breaking the one you love, the loss of safety, the fading of friendships, the sorrow of failing, the agony of your loved ones dying before you as the world keeps going, the hurt of your best friend mocking you, the weight of expectations denied, the loss of dreams left forever unfulfilled, the shame of betrayal, the hurtful words you can't take back, and the non-stop influx of society telling you, "You aren't good enough, fast enough, pretty enough, rich enough, powerful enough, smart enough, strong enough, you are never enough and you never will be." It is the memories that come, unbidden, in the darkest of night, haunting you years, decades later, with their embarrassing moments, their echoing shames, their haunting words, and their unrelenting clarity.
You can't know these at a sheltered fifteen. You don't have perspective.
When do you have perspective?
I don't know when the perspective happens. Live long enough and it does.
The weight of those pains, the words, the memories, they build up, become overwhelming, and crush you if you don't have a coping mechanism. Sometimes even when you do.
These days, I think of Nina's words and believe I understand. I believe I understand why my grandfather removed the oxygen tubes from his face. I believe I understand the sound of a different final sigh. I believe what Nina said those many years ago, and I believe that my final thoughts will carry less fear than I had thought they would, and more joy instead.
I believe my thoughts will carry the infinite release of those pains of the soul, and maybe, also, her words.