REFLECTION: Lying With Death

My Writing

Lying With Death by Julia Marks

When my children were small, we had a general yearly plan for them.  School, friends, choir, soccer, and all things that belonged to these kind of activities were done there at home in Maryland. Free time was in Maine. Except for a while, my family came down on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was, for a while, “home base” for those kind of formal occasions.

But anytime there was a week here or there, and most especially when summertime came, then we shot home to Maine to relax and be foolish.  Not competent.  Not studious.  Just time walking dogs, picking through rocks on the different shores, eating ice cream, and watching old, stupid movies.

It became a real quandary for me, though, when I realized that spring vacation in Maine was more a punishment than a treat.  Maine has an official term for that time of year: mud season.  In fact, it’s considered a real season.  Spring is usually relegated to Memorial Day Weekend.  After which came summer.  Which could be a time of still wearing footed pajamas and sitting in front of the fire.

It might be more fun to stay in Maryland during that time and see flowers blooming, etc., but how does one stop being fully active and actually relax in your own home?


One year I had a series of visions.  My grandmother, they showed me, would not be alive the following summer.  The time when most other family members congregated there.  For the lobster, the sea air, and, well, the great expanse of non-productive time that Maine offers.   She might not even be alive at the time of spring break.

The visions came and came and came.  I lived quite in the mystical closet at the time, but I decided to brave it, and I alerted my family members, warning them to make time in their schedules to get to Maine before the spring and say good-bye to the woman who had always insisted, most aggravatingly, on keeping her fingers in everyone else’s business.

Oh, pshaw, they responded.  Don’t be stupid.  Or melodramatic.  Or whatever.

I shrugged.  I felt my visions, so consistent, so insistent, could be trusted.  So I arranged my children’s schedule so that we could go to Maine for the Christmas holiday and stay perhaps a few more weeks.

Changing things around officially, me calling off hosting Christmas, caused much consternation.  But I didn’t care.  I was committed to going and seeing and serving my grandmother as a way of saying farewell.

So we went.  My children and I.  And we stayed.

And what I saw there shocked me.  It still shocks me, although recently I have come to understand what I saw better.

Death was already there.  Ahead of me.

I whispered my plans and why I made them to my mother.  She did not slap me down.  Instead, one day, she pointed out the back window, to the picnic table on the back porch.  On it there was a mound of snow.  My mother said, Look, a coffin.

And that’s exactly what it looked like.  Sitting there.  Serene.  Solid.  Confident.

But it was my grandmother’s behavior that revealed to us all what was happening.

Her personality had completely changed.  Instead of a somewhat easygoing (if a British matriarch can ever be considered easygoing) personality, trying to please people while controlling their every breath, there was an enraged woman.  She had been a lifelong vegetarian, but this was the only time no one could cook any meat in her kitchen.  And I was going through a period of extreme anemia at the time, a condition that wasn’t responding to anything other than eating meat.  Three times a day.

Didn’t matter.  If I wanted to eat meat, I had to find it elsewhere.  So out we went to forage the Maine woods for sustenance.  (Which just meant driving down the road to Moody’s Diner.)

And she argued with death.  In her sleep.  From her bedroom, she was so loud, we could hear throughout the house.  And the nights that, exhausted by her anger and frustration, she fell asleep on the couch, we could even hear exactly what she was saying.

It was no calm chess match.  It was a screaming fight to the finish.

My grandmother was a woman who didn’t believe in illness.  When I vomited from eating shellfish as a child, I didn’t do it because I was allergic to shellfish, I did it to get attention.

My grandmother believed firmly that if she wasn’t ill, then no one else was ill.  Illness was an illusion.

And here she was, at 93, with a body that was doing things she couldn’t control.  She couldn’t even explain.

Death had come.  Death had sat down next to her and touched her hand.  Death had stirred her body to respond to it.

Death was calling her.

And my grandmother was having none of it.

What shocked me was the level of rage she communicated.  Every day.  Every night.

No walking gentle into that good night.

And, as the visions had shown me, she did die.  Before spring vacation.  Before summer.

Before anyone else in the family could say, We will miss you.

She died.

So when the doctors in 2012 told me I only had a few months to live, not really thinking of my grandmother’s response, not comparing myself to her, I thought myself quite spiritually superior when I calmly accepted the death sentence.  I was happy about it, in fact.  My life had been what my life had been.  My children were grown.  There was nothing here to keep me, really.  I had time to make sure all my library books had been returned, and my affairs were in order.

I could see myself just lying down and dying.  I was anxious, even, for it to happen.

As the months rolled by and my death sentence was lifted, I was still being treated.  And one night, having reacted horrifically to the medicine I had been taking all day, I lay down so weak and worn out I really did think I was going to die that night.  And it felt sweet and peaceful.

And, yet, when I awoke the next morning, the sweetness of seeing the sunlight and hearing the birds thrilled me.  It was like life kissed me that morning, and I responded with joy.

But then came now.

As my doctor stood over me and declared me to be on death’s doorstep.  Again.

I knew this time he was completely wrong.  I was fine.  I knew that I was fine.  There was nothing unfine about me.

But he was the doctor.  And I thought I should at least find out what was what.

But, see, I really was allergic to seafood as a child.  I did vomit it up when I ate it.  I was told by a doctor when I was a young woman that it was a potentially fatal poisoning, and I had to stop sneaking marinated mussels and waiting for the nausea to go away.

This is to say, I am someone with a very serious allergy to seafood, and yet I ate it all the time I was growing up.

It’s an accumulative poisoning.  Enough of the poison and I’m dead.

Well, in 2012, to track exactly how and why I was dying I was forced to take a test.

That pumped me full of the kind of iodine that occurs in shellfish.

The shock and fear of taking this test I felt was overwhelming all on its own.  But having to physically suffer from being poisoned was a lot to bear.  Even then.

So here I was.  Being told I had to do it all over again.

Surrender to the poisoning.

This time, though, they were ready for me.

I was told that I was a unique case.  That not many people with serious allergies actually grow up eating the food that poisons them.

They took it quite seriously.

But I lay down on the table.

I had survived the first time.  I would survive this time.

The difference was, because I was told I was in the throes of death last time, I had carved out a time of peace and solitude for myself.  I wasn’t expected anywhere.  To do anything.

This time, I am older.  I am much more active.  I am expecting a lot from myself these days.

So first, the steroids I was given to block any immediate reaction wore off, leaving my body to fight the toxins surging through my body.

My heart beat so much that my bed reacted to it, as though a cat were walking up and down on it.  Gently came the response of the mattress to my heart’s beating.  But it was there.

I spent my days in unconsciousness, and my nights sitting on the toilet.  Praying for something to happen.  But my body had stopped working.  Stopped flowing.  I was a breathing stone.

I could barely eat.  Barely stand up straight.

So when I was conscious I read.  I read mysteries about a young widow in Scotland solving mysteries around great estates filled with ladies and gentlemen who rode horses in the morning and sipped tea in the afternoon.  I can remember the detail about the women’s clothing.  Men were described as being “in kit” in the evening, and being decked out in riding clothes during the day.

When the time of semi-consciousness passed it was time for the toxins to come out of my body.

I felt like I literally had a lightening storm going on inside my own body.  Blood flowed out of me.  And not from the expected place.

I wondered, again and again, if I should turn myself over to the hospital.

But I couldn’t even organize that.  I couldn’t even ask for help.

And it was then that I saw it.

The rage.

The all-consuming fury that burned my body even worse than the toxins did.

I remembered my grandmother.

But I wasn’t fighting with death.

All the tests, even the potentially lethal one, showed that I was right.

I was not dying.

And that was one part of my rage.

I had to endure this for nothing.

Because a doctor, yet again, would not listen to me.  Not hear that my body does do its own thing.  Always has.  You can’t judge what my body does by what your books tell you.  By your assumptions.

But that wasn’t the only source of my anger.

I don’t know why but this time around, this time of my being held in the arms of death, waltzing around my life, I saw no one around me.

No one and nothing.

There were people asking me how I was doing, if they could anything for me, I know.  I remember.

But in my swirling around, holding my ballroom skirt up so I wouldn’t trip on the hem, I saw that my ballroom was empty.

There was no one there save death and I.

Perhaps this perspective has to do with the gap I’ve felt between myself and others since my first vision.

Perhaps I had always allowed my closeness with God to take the place of really feeling aligned with others.

Whatever it was that caused this view of life, it angered me more than I could express.

But then it settled into something: into an awareness that my “new” assignment from God has made me feel alone.  Cut off from the rest of the world.

Abandoned and lost in the wilderness.

And this experience with death was my portal into this new reality of mine.

I have to find my way now.

And I don’t know where to start.

Perhaps I should go back and do foolish things.  Walk.  Pick up stones.  Eat ice cream.

I don’t really know what else to do.

All I know is that God is expecting me to do something.




2 Comments on REFLECTION: Lying With Death

  1. You are connecting with more people than you know by your writings and your sharing. Thank you for this.


  2. Hello! I am an occasional reader of your blog, and I am saddened to read that your situation has worsened. I hope that everything turns out well for you.

    I am expecting a death in my own family, although it is occurring much more peacefully than in your own situation. I am not sure what advice to give you, or if it’s even in my place to give you advice. I will pray for you. It’s all I can do.

    In Christ,
    -The Hesychast


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