When I was a kid, we used to love playing Gauntlet Legends at the arcade. It was my first game, and myself and one of my friends got fairly good at the first few levels. We were, however, always hounded by Death.
For those unfamiliar with the old version of Gauntlet Legends (think arcades and the N64), there was only one way to dispatch of Death, and that was a potion. He would follow you around until he killed you, and it’s awfully hard to complete levels and get keys when Death is your personal shadow. Then, like in the real world, when Death caught you, that was the end. Insert token to continue in 10, 9….
There were few things that freaked me out more than being chased in a video game by the ghostly shadow of Death. That, and ghosts. Any spirit of death, the dead, or dying, I was scared of it. Even if it was just pixels.
I have a weird relationship with the concept of Death. While I am still superstitious about spirits and spectres, I’m also fascinated by it. In high school, I spent a lot of time reading and dissecting Dante’s Inferno. I loved the ninth circle in particular – wood of suicides. Morbid, but not surprising from a sixteen-year-old, right? I still enjoy the haunted hollows of Inferno and reread it every few years. My favorite handle is “morteana” which is a super rough Latin conglomerate, translating to “gracious death”.
I like to think about the vast finality and breadth of death before it freaks me out and I tuck it into the back of my mind.
I like to learn how different cultures honor their ancestors.
I love to while away time in graveyards.
And yet, despite all my superstition and morbid fancy, I don’t really know what to do with Death. The entity, the event, any of it. Most the time, my reaction is the sort that would mortify people – “so now they’re gone, and that happened, and I wonder what I should eat for lunch today”. I am trés blasé and it upsets people. It’s not because I’m cold and heartless – trust me, when the vastness and futility of it whacks me over the head, I do cry – but for the most part, there’s just nothing I can say. Or do. It happened.
My best friend lost his mother last week. I mentioned, vaguely, in my Weekly Tea Time that she was suffering, but by the time he reached the house, she was gone. He’s struggling with a deep depression right now, and from previous experience, I know that it’s only his tremendous strength of character that is keeping him from disappearing. He and I handle death very, very differently. I pick up the pieces and struggle through, taking comfort in the normality of the daily grind. After my miscarriage, just about the only time I was 99% okay was when I was at work, with no time to let my mind wander.
He’s very different. I check in with him every morning. I ask him how (and if) he slept. I remind him that he needs to eat. I try to give him a place to discuss his mother, and his memories of her, or of funeral plans. I try to distract him and make him smile when we’re visiting them. I want to forget the thing happened, he needs to bury himself in the grief. I try to pretend Death is just another thing… but for him… it has completely derailed his life.
There is a loss and unknowing to Death that unsettles people. There’s an aspect of theft when you lose the one you love. We use that term a lot in the discussion of Death – “loss”. We haven’t misplaced something, and we won’t find it again, but we feel that heavy burden of emptiness, of something we cherished that is now gone. The weight of the questions – “why?” and “what next?”. The betrayal of disappearance and consuming nature of grief changes from person to person. Sometimes, it’s easier to see it with open eyes, and sometimes it’s easy to say riddikulus! and turn the boggart into something a little easier to swallow.
Terry Prachett illustrates Death best, I believe, because other than the fact he speaks in all caps, he’s very well personified. He has a daughter. He has friends (sort of… I’m thinking of Death of Rats here). He has to punch the clock and occasionally save Christmas. He has a few good, witty lines, but he takes his job very seriously. He is tangible, and something tangible is easier accept.
When my time comes, I certainly hope that Prachett’s Death is something like the truth. And I hope that my time isn’t any time soon.