I have taken to thinking of Summer 2020 as the summer of death with the Grim Reaper taking 200,000 Americans via COVID-19, along with the shuttering of thousands of restaurants, bars and retail stores because of the virus. I lost a good friend, my husband lost his shop in Downtown Portland, my neighbor lost his bar.
In 2014 I came within a breath of being dead. The doctor and nurses and technicians were moving around the hospital room with urgency and I was looking down on them from the ceiling. I was afflicted with not just Stage-4 Lymphoma, but also: Thrush, Staphylococcus, Shingles, unending diarrhea, and a 104 temperature. I had no red cells and so negligible a white cell count, that I was given a transfusion of four units of blood and just as much platelet transfusions. After seven months of intensive chemotherapy, I was left with so dreadful an immune system that I was kept in isolation (I had a half a wing on the Oncology floor to myself) for fear of catching anything else. Doctors, nurses, technicians and spouses were required to wear a hazmat suit to enter my room.
Everyone was concerned especially for the progression of the Shingles which had migrated to within a centimeter of the port in my chest.
I moved in and out of consciousness, coming to the surface only enough to have heard my Oncologist discuss the very real option of a bone marrow transplant.
I am not certain how my friends who have had a near-death experience would describe it, but my mine was a cliché: I heard voices from my past, their breaths on my ear; traveling through a long spiral, my life flashed across what was left of my consciousness, alternating between moments embarrassing, regretful, joyful and blissful; moving towards a warm ivory light, glowing invitingly. Out of the darkness, I moved towards the bright end of the journey. I heard Cole Porter music. Moving swiftly, carrying no weight, the light and music surrounding me brought me equal measures of contentment and divine dizziness.
For those who do not believe in the afterlife, I can assure you that as I felt myself slipping away from this world, there to greet me on the other side was an exquisite celestial-being reaching out her hand to me. As her fingertip touched my soul, I was filled with wonder and devotion. In that instant I was happy beyond all measure! It was Ethel Merman!
I opened my eyes and my favorite Oncology nurse met my gaze and said: “We thought we had lost you there for a moment…”
In the Late Middle Ages, there were illustrated books called Danse Macabre which were used to focus the mind on life’s short stretch. These books were heavily illustrated with pictures of Death as a skeleton fresh from the grave coming to claim both rich and the poor. The peasant and the King were equal before Death, neither could escape its cold bony grasp. No one was spared. Understandable when the average life expectancy was between 30 and 40-years-old in the 1500s. The rich and privileged may have lived slightly longer but the most humans died before 40.
The earliest recorded example of a Danse Macabre was the now lost mural on the south wall of the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris, which was painted around 1424.
In the 1500s, during a time of another plague, woodcuts were published as cards that were distributed throughout Europe, bringing the Dance of Death to a mass audience.
Wilhelm Werner von Zimmer (1485-1575) was a German collector of curiosities, an historian and a lawyer, who wrote and illustrated his own books. His The Book of Transience contained contemplations on the meaning of life along with his pen and wash illustrations of Death leading people in his dance. Von Zimmer’s drawings of Death have a nimbleness and joyfulness bigger than the poor souls that are being dragged off to their Eternal Rest.