Something about paths is so poignant to me. Naturally occurring paths, those that happen just because others have taken that way before: they are invitations. A dirt path worn across a vacant lot or cutting a corner, through the woods or meandering along the shore of a river—each tells us that this is a way worth going.
The special thing about paths is that not only do they offer a way, they make that way a little easier. Before the path, there was just that first person wanting to get from one place to another, and choosing the way to get there. Usually, the path is the most direct way with the fewest obstacles. Sometimes it’s the way with the gentlest sunshine or welcome shade, a spectacular view or secret delights. The path begins with that first person’s steps, but so faintly it’s almost imperceptible. Only as others follow the same way does the path become clear. Eventually, the way is defined, with each who takes it making it easier for those who follow. It’s like each person who takes the path is reaching back and extending a hand, saying come this way, I’ll help you.
The creatures too have their paths. In the country, in meadows and woods, I often find deer paths and follow those. The way of the deer is narrow and different from ours, but still, they find the easiest way, and sometimes make it easier for even me to follow. Sometimes I find the path of a smaller creature in the underbrush or leading to the most accessible place to drink at a brook. Even in the air there can be paths. Late this winter hundreds of crows roosted one night in trees near my home, and in the morning they all followed the same path, flying low right over my house, heading west to wherever it was they had to go.
Recently, in trying to explain to someone in French that I was terminally ill, I said I was on “un chemin vers la mort.” A road towards death. A path. We both immediately acknowledged that, indeed, we are all on that path. It’s just that for some of us the road is short. Or maybe what’s left of it is short. Most of us have no idea how long it will be, but regardless of its length and how much adventure we might have wanted along the way, we want that last bit to be as easy and comfortable as possible.
I am fifty and, in amazing good fortune, have never lost anyone close to me. However, that means I have no clear path to follow in my own dying, nor can I guide my loved ones on their paths of grief. We’re all having to figure this out as we go. But perhaps that is a good thing, since so many of the paths towards death that I have heard of or seen from a distance have looked so hard, even miserable. Nobody would choose to follow them. Indeed, this is probably why we do everything in our power to avoid death.
Of the friends I have lost, none has taken a path I would willingly follow. One was so depressed at his terminal sarcoma diagnosis that he wouldn’t see anyone in the last months. Another was in absolute denial of his impending death so never said goodbye to his wife or children, never even wrote a will. Another dear but long-estranged friend died alone and wasn’t found for many days. I have also seen and read countless imagined deaths in literature and film, but these always emphasize the tragic or dramatic. They make good stories, but they’re not what we want to actually experience. We need better pathways. Perhaps then we would have less fear of death.
Years ago I read an account of a death that described it in terms of quiet, spiritual beauty, likening it to a birth. That opened my mind to an alternative to the usual narrative. The idea that it was possible to have a peaceful, even joyous death has led me to envision the path I am on now. I want to make a path that is easy for you to bravely follow when your time comes, one that leads to courage and faith rather than dread and fear. I have already discovered that this path can be one of the most beautiful of our lifetime. While it inevitably brings great sadness and pain, it can also lead us to the most intense love and joy, to gratitude and serenity, and to the sweetest connections to others, to nature, and to all the mysteries of this vast and wondrous universe. We all know that we will reach death one day, but we have some choice in how we get there. I offer you this path to follow, in good time.