Preparing for death is one of the most important things we can do for the loved ones we leave behind. When Elaine Walton’s 17-year-old daughter discussed her desire to be an organ donor, she never expected it to become a reality so soon. Her daughter died unexpectedly, but her wishes helped save the lives of others. “She saved the life of another 17-year-old boy, a 52-year-old man, and two other people can see because of her corneas. It was such an important healing thing for me to do, to know that she lives on,” said Elaine. I was very touched to find out the Before I Die project inspired Elaine to organize a two-day art event to facilitate discussion around death. “I just wanted to encourage other people to open their hearts and their minds to what happens when they die, what happens to the people around them, and encourage people to have a plan with their loved ones about their final wishes.” Read more about her story on The Citizens’ Voice and see more about her event Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life and Cultures.
After a young man died before his eyes, Noël Gaskin created a wall in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was there for his last moments. Here’s his story:
On May 1st, a young man known in our Prospect Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood as a nice kid was gunned down on the block where we grew up, outside of a barbershop he frequented on Washington Avenue and St John’s Place. He was shot in the head and torso at 763 Washington Avenue, near St. John’s Place, about 9:51 p.m. He was taken to Methodist Hospital and pronounced dead.
I was in the barbershop on that night of the shooting. The barber gave me a shave while the young man swept and took the day’s trash out. Moments later, three gun shots rang out from behind the door. Frozen in my seat, I sat and turned slowly, recognizing the young man gunned down, lying across the threshold of the door he just crossed over. I managed to get up, to kneel at his head before his last moments. I said, “Take it easy, brother . . . don’t struggle . . . they will be here soon, just don’t struggle.” I didn’t know this young man personally, and in his fatal moment I didn’t realize I was inferring to his angels.
I grew up in Prospect Heights, before this neighborhood was dubbed its present name. I have been equal to challenges and learned how to live here, as well as prospered from obstacles I have overcome. I needed to engage members of my community to think about what they want in this life, what they were up to, and what was important to each of them, and to all of us. Using the build-your-own-wall guide provided by Candy Chang, I was inspired to remix it and construct my own stencil titled Before I Die I Will.
My father would have turned sixty-eight yesterday. I do not know how to celebrate him now that he is gone, although I know he would smack me if he saw me brooding. But I cannot help replaying his birthday last year when we sat in a Wisconsin steakhouse one month after his lung transplant. After ten months spent waiting for the phone to ring and remaining within a thirty-minute radius of a hospital in an unfamiliar city, we had completed our mission: he had a new lung. I remember how proud he was to be in public without his hoses, cables, and oxygen tank. How the doctors said he would live for a very long time. Three months later he died of septic shock. I’ve been replaying many things this year: His last hours. The touch of his hand as the machine flatlined. The things I should have said and done (although I’m told it’s more constructive to say wish instead of should). The dark questions of mortality and meaning in an irrational universe. And I still have not accepted the death of my mother, who died seven years ago.
But what does it mean to accept death? Is such a thing possible? Perhaps there is a problem with our language, particularly for the agnostic and the atheist. The rupture of tradition and the break from ritual has been patched with bloodless words like acceptance and mindfulness, with clinical approaches like Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, and prescriptive notions of “moving forward” and “pushing through” — as if there is someplace to go. Instead I retreat into philosophy, seeking consolation in widescreen meditations on the nature of souls and the mind, such as Will Durant’s channeling of Spinoza: “Our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light.”