Memento Mori by Melissa Knox

To be no more; sad cure; for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion?

John Milton, Paradise Lost


In the middle of the night, my husband sat up; he’d been coughing too much and I’d been lying awake listening to his rasping breathing. His doctors understand as much as anyone about his little-known lung disease, but that’s not saying much. They’d ordered an oxygen tank which hadn’t arrived. He had an oximeter, a gadget he put on the end of his finger to measure the oxygen in his blood. At bedtime, the device measured eighty per cent, a cutoff point. Normal is anything over ninety-five percent.

“Let’s measure it again,” I said.

“I’m fine. Just let me sleep!” He started to lie down, and I put the oximeter on his finger. Seventy-seven.

“That’s okay. I just need to lie in bed and drink fruit tea,” he said. The next day was his birthday, he knew I’d been baking, and we’d been looking forward to the coffee table all nicely decorated downstairs, the strawberry tart and cream, the presents: a family celebration with our children.

But his fingernails were grayish.

“Let’s make a deal,” I said, “If your oxygen levels are below eighty by morning, we’ll go to the hospital.”

My husband didn’t answer. I knew he was angry. I went upstairs to our study, Googled gray fingernails and came back downstairs, less able to sleep than ever. At six that morning the oximeter revealed blood gasses below eighty. This time I didn’t ask.

“We need to go to the hospital,” I said.

He insisted on driving, contending, all the way, he would have been better off resting in bed.

When his doctor came toward him, my husband said, “My wife insisted I come, but I just have a cold.” I drew the doctor’s attention to my husband’s fingernails.

“Your lips are gray, too,” said the doctor. I glanced at them. I hadn’t noticed. They’d blended into his face and disappeared. Absence began to terrify me. I’d been looking with panic at his still very blue eyes, fighting off the fear that I might not get to look into them much longer. He has always been a happy man, but for months, his eyes have shown suffering. The dread of losing him was momentarily lost in relief. I’d managed to get him to the hospital; I hadn’t been overly fussy after all; he needed the chair the nurse was pushing him into and the oxygen tank she was rolling up to him.

I had so wanted to be wrong, to be found to have been overcautious. I’d imagined wending our way home in the car through the rolling hills and farmland, my husband saying, “See? I’m fine. The tart will still be fresh, too.”

“You have an infection,” the doctor said to my husband. “You have to stay.”

When we’d been married a few weeks and I was pregnant with our first child, my husband had to go to the funeral of a very old person whom he hadn’t known well. I knew about the lung problem then, but never worried. The disease had been stable for years—remained stable for the next fifteen, too. He seemed hale and hearty. I stayed home unpacking the boxes I hadn’t gotten to and rearranging old photo albums, looking forward to one of our champagne-swilling newlywed dinners. The funeral was a duty call; he was eager to return.

He arrived home almost tearful, and I asked him what the matter was. He sighed.

“I don’t want to think of the day when one of us will be without the other.”

A chill went through me, but by the end of the evening I’d forgotten the conversation—one which has returned to haunt me in recent months. I just spent a year with breast cancer, but got to keep my breast, and took that as a sign that I’m going to be fine forever, which, of course, it isn’t. The pills I take every evening to keep cancer at bay leech estrogen from my body; I call them my “miracle aging meds.” I was almost glad for the distraction of breast cancer, because until I came down with it, I spent many waking hours worrying I’d be widowed and alone in our huge bed. I can’t sleep well without the soft sound of him breathing; I’d miss even his snores. And we’d have no “golden” time together, after eighteen years of hectic-child-raising and too many nights of what one wag called “the love that is too tired to speak its name.” I’d be taking care of the teenagers who were still at home on my own.

I’ve never been religious but my husband is a devout Catholic, and in recent months, he’s taken to visiting churches (some too cold for his lungs) and shrines that have healing waters. He rubs it on and drinks it while I worry about how much bacteria it might contain, and how our breath frosts in the frigid monastic air. Churches, especially in Bavaria, where we tend to visit them, are filled with life-sized stone effigies atop the tombs of numerous bishops, plus the garishly decorated bones of martyrs. You can’t walk into one of those places without seeing a skeleton reclining on its side, nattily decked out in crucifixes and embroidered bishop’s robes. Even a skull in a golden crown and robe. While my husband prayed and my feet froze, I looked at the well-dressed sets of bones, thinking, “I’d kill for that outfit,” and inventing a name to blot out the gruesomeness of that jewels-in-the-charnel house atmosphere.

“Hello, Mr. Pearls-that-were-his-eyes,” I whispered. The old-ivory femurs of a mitered bishop in a gold-limned case stayed, of course, still as death. The air around me got even colder.

On one of our trips, the battery in the gadget my husband had been using to distill oxygen failed, and he spent half an hour claiming that he just had to walk slowly; he was fine. His lips turned blue, and by the time he got to the restaurant where we were meeting friends, he agreed to let our boys go get the contraption because we could plug it in right by our table. He’s taken to praying more; I’ve taken to wondering if there’s anything out there for atheists like me.


Photo of water in foreground, mountain in background
Narnia by Dimitry S ( license.

By the time I read the fifth Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I’d long been hooked on the complete escape the series offered: magic, mythical creatures, woods, witches and a lion who was scary but would never try to scare me. His name, Aslan, seemed mysterious and noble until I learned, years later, it was the Turkish word for “lion,” a choice that now seems curious, since Turkey is at least 98% Muslim, and Aslan’s Christian features stick out all over him: he’s the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea, he gets ritually lynched to save a young sinner and he springs back to life after his body has lain on the cold ground for hours as tiny mice chew through the ropes that bound him during his torture and death. As a child raised in a religion-free home, I had no idea that Aslan’s death and resurrection was a re-writing of the crucifixion. The scene seemed thrillingly original.

I still love the part where Aslan bounds through the woods, happy to be alive again. If C.S. Lewis imagined this, I reasoned at age ten, then such lives, such worlds must be possible. Yes, anything that could be imagined must be real. I, too, could have the power not just to create ideas but to enter them—literally. Just like a god, though the comparison would have eluded me.

Aslan’s name is generic and there’s something generic about him: he’s the good father who’s always there but can be too strict—stereotypically patriarchal—punishing or killing the evil and lecturing the good when they’re lazy. He never backs down; he always gets the last word before disappearing. That power to vanish and reappear whenever and wherever he wants seems his most appealing trait. I wanted to be like that too! Still do. But at ten, I was resigned to the explanation offered namely, that Aslan has “other countries to attend to,” says Mr. Beaver in the series’ best-known book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It never occurred to me to question the notion that the lion had an exclusive right to his powers.

Aslan has something I want more as I get older: some reassurance that like him I’ll never die, because after my death I’ll get a new life. How could atheist me possibly believe this? Longing. Longing not to be extinguished. A wish masquerading as reality. The desire never to be what we all become: as if we had never existed, with none to remember us.

When the Dawn Treader glides into a dark, misty harbor in the fifth Narnia book, a desperate man comes swimming out, begging to be taken aboard. He’s trying to escape the island “where dreams come true.” The travelers, until that moment speeding toward the island, eager to see long-lost mothers, eat favorite foods, kiss girlfriends, understand they’re heading not toward daydreams but instead their worst nightmares. Setting their sails for the opposite direction as fast as they can, they nonetheless fail to move away. Some part of them lingers in the horror, listening to sounds and scenes they want to forget: when they row, no matter how hard, they can’t move forward.

At this point, divine intervention seems the only answer. Lucy, the heroine, who has the deepest connection to Aslan, whispers that she wants his help, and a ray of light appears. An albatross flaps across the horizon in a ray of light, and says to her in Aslan’s voice, “Courage!” Message? That a god is the only one who can help you escape your dreams? That your nightmares can feel just as seductive as your dearest wishes? That you’ll never find the good dreams unembraced by the nightmares? Those travelers breathe a sigh of relief when they’re away from the awful possibility of all dreams coming true. And the man whom the travelers rescue? He’s put into a dreamless sleep—suspended animation, if not death. Without dreams, you’re dead. No chance of resurrections, literally, of wake-up calls. Take your dream with a slab of nightmare or don’t take it at all. Go big or go home.

Perhaps it was the episode of the island where dreams come true that led me to the notion that whatever I could dream up had to exist somewhere. Why not, I reasoned, at age ten: if the universe is infinite, then it contains whatever I dream up, like another version of me, with nicer parents on some distant planet. This other Melissa had never done this, or got a chance to do that. Or somewhere, I’d find a me with green skin and purple hair.

Increasingly, as I age, I imagine getting a complete do-over.

When I die, I want a re-insertion into life. One body wears out and dies, because the powers that be (Gods? Aliens?) haven’t figured out that part, so there’s this soul left, consisting in your wishes. Maybe you just get thrown into another body—that’s the assertion of a Glasgow boy who, as a young child, appeared to have remembered details of a previous life on the Isle of Barra, where he’d never been.

Or maybe things get more complicated. In my mind’s eye, I see a market between the worlds—even that idea emerged from Narnia. In the very first book, The Magician’s Nephew, two children get thrust into a place called “The Wood Between the Worlds,” where they’re surrounded by pools, each one of which takes you to a new world.

But the way I imagine it, you’re stuck in a marketplace—the locale looks suspiciously like something out of the Star Wars series. In other words, I actually haven’t invented a single one of these scenes.

In moments when I look out, as I am now, at the bare tips of branches at the top of trees in a blustering gale, I think how cold the weather and how nice to be inside, but I imagine the very tips of those trees whispering that things aren’t so bad—when I’m dead I get to sit up there in the freezing rain and watch things below, but I’ll be even more comfortable than I am inside.

Do I really believe the tops of the trees and I are communicating? I’ve written poems in which, while standing at my husband’s parents’ grave as he is praying, I imagine they are smiling and singing, happy at a long table, raising their beers and wishing he’d relax. I do occasionally imagine I’m conversing with persons who aren’t there, and this pleasant feeling assures me, for the moment, that I cannot be lost, even if I try. Resurrection stories are wishes on steroids, but they’re so pleasant they might as well be true.


Photo of person by grave marked with rocks and teddy bear
Grave of the unknown child by Hartwig HKD ( license.

Halfway through the first grin of the “spiritual welfare” counselor the hospital sent, I knew I’d made a mistake. I’d already made it clear I didn’t want spiritual, but practical advice. I wanted the equivalent of the candy-striper who could tell you when and how to contact the social worker. But I was in a German hospital, and didn’t know the right word for “social worker.” The nurse sent the Seele Sorge man.

I was in my hospital bed, my recently operated-on leg elevated. My breast cancer had metastasized. The surgically-removed cancerous tumor in my leg was, we both knew, still growing. He sat in a chair with a face that bespoke a rigid neutrality.

I started in. “I’m concerned that my husband, who is seriously ill with a lung disease, is now overdoing it—he’s taken on my household chores, and the children are young teenagers—”

“Do you realize that your husband is a grown man?” His eyebrows went up, head tilting as the edge of his mouth rose. I so wanted to believe in the help I was sure I was getting that I barreled on: “My husband, even with his oxygen tank, has been cleaning the guinea pig cage, something I normally do, and doing the laundry—”

“Have you spoken with your husband about this? Have you been arguing with him?”

No, I hadn’t argued with him, I explained. We had talked and he’d agreed to have the cleaning lady come for a few extra hours, but—

“Did you notice—” the grin had fully flowered—“that whenever I speak, you begin speaking?” He nodded. Was that where he winked? He nodded again, his desire to show he was handing over the precious gift of his insight disturbingly plain. His voice slowed to near standstill.

It took him too long to ask, “What specific worry do you have about your children in school?” My eyes started to spout. I was having a hard time admitting to myself how immune this guy was to pointlessness.

He spread his hands. Didn’t I see the kids faced no immediate dangers? They had sports after school too, probably? If I wasn’t there to talk to them, to whom did they talk? Each other, I said. He seemed pleased. He raised a finger and an eyebrow. Eagerly.

He pointed out that teenagers might even be glad when Mom was away, but of course I must be worried about my own illness, my own diagnosis. Again the grin. I thought of memento mori, the skulls kept on the desks of learned Renaissance poets to remind them of the inevitable. In several Georges de la Tours paintings, a pensive Mary Magdalene is depicted hypnotizing herself with a candle flame, while her long, pretty fingers sink themselves suggestively in the eye sockets of a skull. I always read the pose as evidence of a divided mood; she knows she ought to contemplate death, since that’s the spiritual thing to do, but she’d rather think about a certain kind of flame instead, about “la petit mort,” about the more fun experience, the one only seeming like death, the one, in fact, only seeming like death for a few moments. Until you wake from your pleasant, satisfied swoon.

In a way, the spiritual welfare guy and I stayed in synch. He wanted to communicate the notion that I was displacing my fear of death on useless worries about my husband—“you are banging your head against a wall if you want him to change, does that make sense?”—so I agreed, because nothing but agreement could have gotten this guy out of my hospital room. But even after I agreed, he didn’t stand up and go right away. Now, he said, finger pointing upward, I should just take care of myself. He heaved a huge, embarrassing, orgasm-sized sigh and gestured to me. Oh. Now I got it. I was supposed to show good faith. I was supposed to follow his lead. I, too, must sigh. Just like that. In front of such a man, too. It was necessary, reader, it was necessary. Like a neophyte at an Esalen session, I heaved that sigh. How approving he looked as he hoofed it out of my room, the cleft in his hoof not even showing.

I’m not supposed to figure out how to persuade my husband to accept help? I’m not supposed to think how to help my kids through this awful time? I’m instead supposed to let them all work it out the best they can while I sit heaving those deep sighs the spiritual welfare dude recommends? Not a chance, not a chance. As his jaw moved, I remembered a woman I’d consulted earlier, not a psychologist but someone who councils people for a nominal fee, and with eminent common sense. I took heart, shook hands with the devil and of course, told him what he wanted to hear, namely, yes, you’re right, and what you say makes sense.

Which, naturally, it doesn’t. You can’t make sense of the best way to help my husband and my kids—especially knowing little about them—any more than you can make sense of death. But here was this guy—why is it usually a guy?—insisting that he knew how to do both. I’m sure he’s written up his report detailing he did just what he thinks he knows how to do. And he’s right, in a way. I wrote this, didn’t I? Here is my memento mori, my spiritual engagement with death.

Melissa Knox
Melissa Knox’s book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Cynren Press (January, 2019). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, The Offbeat, and The Other magazine. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart prize by Concho River Review for her essay A Whale of a Gift. She writes a blog titled The Critical Mom.

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