Death And The Alexander Technique
Death Warmed Over
When we’re born, we’re soft and supple.
In youth, we’re firm and strong.
We lose some flexibility. We lose some strength.
When we’re very old, we get creaky and stiff.
The moment before we die,
We become, again, profoundly soft and supple.
No more holding on. No more pain.
Soon after, our body becomes rigid and dry.
Immediately it starts to decompose.
Life is movement and death is movement.
A tree dies.
It remains standing for a long time.
Branches break. Roots wither.
Its core begins to rot.
The trees becoming softer, weaker, more space than substance.
Woodpeckers arrive, find insects to eat, make shelter in its empty trunk,
Where they raise their hatchlings.
Death supports Life.
Life is soft and death is soft.
…No more holding on.
Living Until You Die
I didn’t know her. One of my students, Saundra, asked me if I would work with her friend who was dying and without thinking I said, Sure, sure I’ll work with her.
Driving over to her house, to Sharon’s house, that familiar feeling descended upon me, enveloping me like some thick fog in the night, this feeling of being lost, of wondering what I was going to do when I met Sharon, of not knowing how I could possibly help her.
It took Sharon a long time to get to the front door. She managed a small, heartfelt smile, and invited me in. There was a massage table set up in the living room. Sharon said that Saundra thought I might need it. How about we get started I said. Just take off your shoes and lie down on the table, on your back. This too took a long time. I watched. Sharon was 40 but she moved as if she were 90. Why was no one with her? Why was she alone?
I helped Sharon to sit on the table, then cradled her in my arms, lowering her gently down into a semi-supine position. I pulled up a dining room chair and placed it at one end of the table, by her head. I sat down. Sharon, I’m just going to sit here for a while and be with you, and look at you. Is that okay? She nodded.
As if I were standing on top of a mesa gazing down at a vast landscape, my eyes began surveying her thin, scared body. I wasn’t looking for anything. I was just looking. Nothing was presenting itself. A wave of self doubt washed over me, and then all at once, as though my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, I could see. I could see her.
Her right hand, almost in a fist, her wrist curled inward. Her left arm pulled against her side. Shoulder blades drawn up toward her head, head pressed down into her neck, chest caved in, pelvis tucked under, like a dog with its tail between its legs. Thighs tight, and pressed together. Brow knitted, eyes pressed shut, jaw clenched.
What was that pattern? Then it hit me. Sharon was bracing for impact, as if she was about to be in a head on collision.
Okay Sharon, I’m seeing you. Tell me, what do you want? I want to die she says. I’m trying to die.
No one had ever said that to me. Silence. Okay I said. I can see how you are holding on, how you are bracing. Maybe you want to die, and your body doesn’t. Maybe your body’s scared of dying.
That’s it, Sharon says. Can you help me, Sharon asks? I can teach you how to let go of your body. That’s good for people when they are alive, and you are still alive. It might help you live until you die. Okay, she says.
Something tells me to begin with the large flexor muscles in Sharon’s body, her quadriceps and her biceps. With the lightest touch a lot of tension immediately falls away. Her pelvis releases. Her right fist un-clutches. Her lungs fill with air. You okay Sharon? Sharon nods and I notice that her knitted brow has begun to relax.
Her feet. Her right foot is sickled inward, much the way her right hand was. I return to my chair and look again. Her body is rising and falling. She’s moving. I place my hands around her head. Sharon, imagine your head is a large ostrich egg and my hands a nest. Immediately, I sense her neck muscles let go. I see her foot un-sickle, her arms relax away from her sides. Her chest is no longer caved in, but filled out and moving. Her jaw has unclenched and her lips are now ever so slightly parted, like a baby.
I spend the next half hour finding soothing images Sharon can connect with that help her to let go whenever her body begins to tighten up on her…the scapulae as rafts gently drifting apart on the surface of a quiet lake, the sun setting between her eyes, the body as nothing but empty sky.
It’s time to go. Sharon gives me a hug by the door. Her body feels soft, unafraid. We say our goodbyes.
Five days later Sharon died.
…Death Supports Life.
A Crash Course In Love
Why was it good that my dad died when, and how, he did?
Given his dismal prognosis, it very likely spared my father from a final year of prolonged misery.
It gave Eva the chance to hold her grandfather’s right hand, and Noah his left hand, his wedding ring still there as always, the ring my Dad had bequeathed to Noah. It gave Rob, the brother I always wanted, the chance to hold my father’s feet, keeping them warm. It gave Norma time to moisten his lips, Martha and I time to cradle our father’s head and to feel, under our hands, his faintly beating heart. We held him in this way, continually, for two hours before he died.
The weaker my father became, the stronger we became. The less my father ate, the more we were fed. The more he withdrew, the closer we became.
Clearly, death supports life.
It may have looked to others that I was caring for my father, but actually, he was caring for me. My father parented me until the last moment of his life. He was teaching me, and I was learning. In three weeks, he taught me more about selflessness and gratitude than I had learned in my entire life. I studied with him morning till night – a crash course in love. The more I gave myself over to my father, and to his needs, the more my needs were met. Silently, without asking, my children began supporting me as I supported my father.
As my father’s heart weakened, mine grew stronger. When my father’s eyes closed, mine opened. They opened to the world as it is, to just as it is.