Image: “Rick,” by Mark Wilson, canvas, spray paint, acrylic paint, paint marker, 30×36 in.
Death is an Outer Body Experience
By Rémy Ngamije
Do not confuse death and dying.
Dying is internal. Morphine in the arteries. The heart’s countdown. Organs shutting down one at a time. The laboured breathing. A last flicker of the eyes.
And then, what?
I do not know. The dead are not talking.
The living, though—those who remain behind, holding the deceased’s hand, each other, the bills, those condemned to remember—will tell you death is an outer body experience.
While the dying body speeds towards its private stillness, everything outside gathers momentum. After the passing of a life, the externalities begin.
The hospital waiting rooms ring with quietus, a terrible noise from an unseen source which floods the ears, echoing like a seashell. The ruffling of magazines. Children shushed quickly. Whispers. The television in the corner plays a BBC documentary. Here, the variety of birds of paradise is astounding—and each tiny dancer has a unique costume. Hospital staff shuffling in and out of corridors. Machines beep. Long distance calls to disconnected family and arguments about who said what in the past. There is blame. I should’ve been around more. Promises are made to do and be better. Let me know if there’s anything you need. Preparations are made. Negotiations with custom, culture, religion, and funeral homes commence—in death, as in life, bargains and compromises have to be made.
Death pulls you from yourself. It dumps your shriveling, cowering self in front of you and others. It hammers at you and shucks you out of your shell. It stretches you. The plastic deformation caused by loss makes it hard to go back to the person you once were. It renders language glib, and makes any attempt at linguistic comfort seem careless, even downright cruel.
—It will all be okay.
Will it now?
—In the end, everything will work out.
—And this too shall pass…
Now is not the time.
Death renders routines useless. It makes food bland. It disturbs sleep. New pains spring up behind the eyeballs. There is an unfamiliar weight on the neck. Legs respond too slowly to their synaptic commands.
If you are lucky your weaknesses will be shared with the darkness of your room, your bed or blanket, or the graffiti in a toilet cubicle. Or your steering wheel in the parking lot. If you are not, the performance of your sorrow will be on display in the hospital room where you breakdown; in front of your high school students when, in English literature, Banquo’s ghost appears at Macbeth’s feast; or in front of your friends and family whenever the temperature changes, when the wind shifts, and a memory sneaks up on you.
Because death embarrasses you so thoroughly by revealing who you are when you are not hidden by life—its motions and necessary pretensions—it gives you grief, one of the few permissible shames. It gives you a cloak for your nakedness while you learn to adjust to a life outside your body.
While my mother was alive, everything was about me, me, and me. The sun was hot—it beat down on me. When it rained, the water soaked me. The empty fridge made me hungry.
When I think of my childhood, all I can remember is me trying to make everything about me in some way. When I grew older, I tried to add more to my body; I wanted the physical presence of my vessel to take up more space in the world. I always knew there were other people around me. But that is all they were: others—beings different from me, separated from me by thin margins of skin and larger divisions of life experience: class, race, sex and gender, politics, or our opinions about which Tarantino film was the best. Life, through its fortuitous generosity, had granted me an inability to inhabit other people’s thoughts, wants, needs, anxieties, or fears. There was a selfishness to my living.
When I was six-ish, my older sister who was responsible for bringing my younger brother and me home from primary school, lost my brother. She arrived home in tears, completely distraught. I was not. My brother, to me, was like a lost toy. He would turn up eventually. If he did not, then, oh well, I had another spare brother. I did not have the mental faculties to process that a whole human being who mattered to my family, beyond his ability to be a willing prop in my games, was missing. My mother was frantic. My father came home early from work. A desperate search party consisting of our neighbours was convened and dispatched. My brother was not at school nor any of the surrounding houses. He was not anywhere a reasonable five-year-old ought to get himself lost.
We found him, quite fortuitously, in a storm drain. My father, holding me by the hand, was retracing my sister’s steps, calling out my brother’s name. He heard a tiny response beneath the pavement. The concrete slabs beneath his feet were separated by small gaps which slitted into the darkness. My father called again. My brother answered. My father dropped to this knees and shouted.
It took two men to lift one of the slabs up. My brother was hauled to safety.
To this day, nobody knows how the heck he got there, neither does he. He says he might’ve been exploring and decided to crawl into an empty manhole. Given this took place in Kigali, in tropical and rainy season Rwanda, a storm drain was the worst place for a frail five-year-old to catch the Marco Polo bug. A few millimetres of rain would have turned the narrow passage into a deluge. He would have been swept away, drowned, with us none the wiser.
But we found him. My parents were relieved. My sister cried for the longest time.
I was indifferent about the whole thing—he had turned up. Just like a lost toy.
The gravity of my brother’s miraculous rescue eluded me but not my parents, and to a lesser extent, my sister, who had experience with death. I was too young, too full of life, barrelling from one adventure to another. All I thought about was how my brother’s retrieval gave me three playmates as opposed to two.
There were many other times death came close to our family—it is an occupational hazard when you are Rwandan—and many other times I was spared the need to confront the things that happened beyond my growing bones, my teenage sprouting, and my deepening voice. My parents did a great job of shielding their children from the yawning precipices just a few feet away from the cliff-hugging paths of our lives. The traumas, upheavals, and disappointments of our lives were always diluted by my parents’ unwavering presence, and their willingness to shield us from each and every hardship. As parents they spent more time living outside of their own dreams and desires for the sake of our childish pursuits. They were determined to give us childhoods, to let us enjoy the carelessness of being in seven, nine, ten, and thirteen-year-old bodies.
Perhaps we should have been forewarned about their fading powers when my uncle, my father’s younger brother, passed on in my early twenties. Death was asserting its presence in my life by proxy, snatching things connected to me, but not striking at me directly. My uncle and I were never really close so I never thought too deeply of the loss; I was saddened by it because our diasporic family was dwindling.
The death affected my parents differently. It was the first time I saw either of them cry. It was also the first time all of us as a family ever experienced each other in any other state besides the normal day-to-day dysfunction of boisterous quarrelling.
We cried in front of each other for the first time.
This had never happened before. I felt like we were all naked in front of each other.
It was uncomfortable.
Perchance it should have served as a practice run for what was to come.
This is what my body recalls of the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing: the nurses saying that we, my siblings and I, had to be strong for my father and then scurrying around because they had other responsibilities to attend to—at the time I thought all of that activity was quite rude; the doctor moving away and shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders; the family five beds down who peaked behind their curtains, looking at as we crumpled against each other in misery; the coroner from the state mortuary handing me a clipboard—I remember seeing myself fill it, though I do not know the particular details it asked for; the carefully wrapped mass that was my mother being wheeled away to the van; and the coroner tapping twice on the van door, saying “All aboard” to the driver who nodded at me before they drove off; the first ring of the doorbell as the first mourners arrived at my parents’ house (I still do not know whether to call it that or my father’s house) to pay their respects; the handshakes from adopted cousins, uncles, and aunts with their hugs and touching of cheeks; the lounge, filled with sad guests; the hushed conversations, lapsing into silence; the messages of condolences flooding in from my friends which, to me, sounded generic; the trays of food, the cartons of juice, the bottles of water that collected in the cramped kitchen; the chipped plates my mother had planned to replace; the cheeriness of the blue she had chosen to paint the house’s interior; and how hot it was that day.
I also remember this, standing outside my body: my family’s loss—individualised, resonant, and amplified by our proximity, as well as its collective and leaden weight—and the realisation that at that precise moment there was someone else in the world experiencing a similar loss.
I did not see dead people.
I felt living ones robbed of someone they loved.
How many others were there?
My mother died on a normal day.
A sunny Saturday—a simple descriptor for a simple day. A child’s day.
At home, ushering and serving the procession of mourners at my parents’ house, all I could think about were all the normal people who died on normal days. On Monday mornings or Thursday evenings. On pedestrian Tuesdays in which Olga from accounting sent snarky emails to Sharon in HR.
That Saturday the weather was fine: an azure blue, with clouds fattening with moisture. It had rained the previous day. My mother was a pluvial soul; she had gone to bed pleased with the water her rain drums had collected. She had made a long list of things to do in her garden the next day.
She did not make it to the following sunny Saturday.
The world should have been snapped into oblivion but it carried on.
Lunchtime came. And then the evening. Then night.
And then the next day. The sun shone like normal—maybe hotter.
A sunnier Sunday.
I had hoped something elemental would be ripped from the universe. Like gravity. Or manganese. Something that would forever mark my mother’s passage from this world, a phenomenon worthy of lifelong scholarship and research, maybe Nobel Prize or two. As a bare minimum, a minor biblical plague would have sufficed.
Anything but a sunny-fucking-Saturday.
These were the early hopes of the selfish me—the me inside me, the person who had yet to realise there were many normal people dying on normal days. It was a hard admission to make: my mother was not a special person. You could have walked past her on the street and thought, hmm, another short black woman. She did not take up too much space, my mom, and this made me wonder why she had been taken in the first place. I could have compiled a list of preferential candidates to send to Hades—a couple of dictators and warlords; Apartheid apologists and an assortment of racists; people who talk too loudly in cinemas; and the borrowers of unreturned books. I wanted to know why they were not taken. I had no use for such people.
But my mom fulfilled a special purpose: she was my family’s origin story.
She was my mother.
You can only begin to deal with the cruelty of death when you are outside your body, away from your own wants, desires, longings, and personal losses—when you leave behind the arrogance which makes you think you are a special sufferer. I thought, for a selfish instant, I would walk into rooms and be marked as The Guy Who Had Lost His Mother On That Sunny Saturday, that everyone would act accordingly (how, I never quite figured out, but I assumed there would be some prostration and sacrificing of sacred bulls) and treat me with more kindness, respect, or deference.
My mother was not special. Nor is your father, that brother, this sister, or those cousins as far as death is concerned. While dying is an intensely private affair, death casts you to the masses. It lets you know it can take what it wants from you at any time. All you have for comfort is the knowledge you were not picked on, and that you can always find comfort amongst the others—people like you who know what it is like to lose, people who do not offer badly screen-grabbed Pinterest wisdoms for inexplicable devastations, people who have been taken out of their bodies, too, and made aware there are other people in this world.
Dying is your business.
But death is for other people.
In the months after her death, I became obsessed with trying to figure out who had experienced loss around me and how they were covering it up. Walking in the street I would look at strangers and wonder who had been taken from them. A grandfather? An aunt? A favourite dog? I tried out that deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes is famous for:
Crease of the mouth; furrow of the brow; haunted look in the left eye—diagnosis: child, dead in a car accident.
Untucked polyester shirt; brown shoes with a splutter of mud; twitchy hands, small finger partially amputated—diagnosis: brother dead from cancer.
Voice, elevated pitch; aggressive response to remark about the literary merit of Jodi Piccoult novels—diagnosis: husband, killed by a heart attack.
This was stupid, of course.
Death marks everyone differently, and everyone suffers differently, and for different durations. The suffering are not always visibly marked—it is not easy to find the others. They could be paying mortgages while burying parents or entering the limelight of their careers as their loved ones exit stage left. Since death’s victims are not special, neither are its living sufferers. In some ways I think the egalitarian nature of death should make us kinder to one another because there is no telling who has lost and who has not. We should all seek comfort and shelter in the pack, look after the slow and the weak. The others.
There is only one wolf.
And it is coming for all of us.
We did not bury my mother.
We did not want a monument or a permanent reminder capable of drawing us to geographic remembrance. We cremated her and scattered her ashes at sea.
Sometimes, I wonder if this was a good idea.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Maybe we broke the code; maybe we should have given the earth its due and rendered unto it that which came from it. Everyone knows wind is capricious; it blows where it is wont. Maybe if we had buried her we would find some comfort knowing she was interred in one place, and that that one place would serve as a communication portal with her. Instead, we know not where her ashes have been borne. Perhaps she is in Argentina now. Or in Sri Lanka. Maybe she is still floating around. Sometimes I cannot help but feel like she is.
What I know is that when we chose cremation over burial we did it as a family, with consultation, without selfishness.
There was no me, or you, or him, or her.
There was only us.
Us without our mother.
My mother was the last person in my family to die a Rwandan.
The rest of us were awarded our Namibian citizenship a week after her passing.
We had spent the longest time fighting for nationalisation in the country of our longest settlement. Our applications had been a mixture of incomplete and lost; complete but lost; complete, in progress, and then lost; or in plain limbo for years. In the latter part of my mother’s life, the process seemed like it would yield some success. The necessary documentation had been signed and stamped. There was only one more procedure to go through before we became Namibians.
It was during this middle ground in which we were neither Rwandan nor Namibian that my mother died.
She did not live to see us become this thing we had spent the longest time trying to be.
At the last minute I considered keeping my Rwandan citizenship even with its administrative shortcomings—I would have to continuously apply for various permits and visas in Southern Africa; I would have to keep police-certified duplicates of everything; and I would always have to stand in the line at the Department of Home Affairs that was for Aliens and Other Foreign Nationals. (I never understood the reasoning behind the phrasing—it was not as though Clark Kent or the Martian Manhunter were going to declare themselves there.)
The timing of our citizenship, and the easement of our administrative burdens, to me, was off. We had to apply for our Namibian identification cards and passports—get our fingerprints, height, and general descriptors taken—at the same place where, one week prior, I had queued with my younger brother—the storm drain explorer—for my mother’s official death certificate. We had sat in a queue of similarly affected individuals who needed officially certified proof that death had befallen them. Everyone was silent, observing a solemn communion of grief. Someone cried once, and everyone in the queue leaned ever so slightly in their direction, like sunflowers towards a despondent sun, offering her their presence, their understanding witness.
We are all others here.
There was another reason I nearly renounced my Namibian citizenship.
I feared in the afterlife there would be some queue in which my family would stand before we could be judged and sent to Heaven (or Hell or Purgatory) and due to my mother’s different nationality, she would be separated from us. She would have to get a stamp from St. Augustine, fill in a form from St. Mark, wait for St. Joseph to clock back from his lunch break to give her another questionnaire, pay the applicable fee at St. Thomas’s, and only then go to St. Peter who, as luck would have it, would be closed for the day. She would have to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and only during business hours. I was afraid she would be left behind.
I do not think that is how it works in the afterlife. I am also sure the bouncers at the Pearly Gates would unfold their arms in disbelief when I trotted up, heavy with sin and certainly not on any tithe-paying VIP list.
But this is the kind of weird shit you think about when you realise the many inconveniences people suffer when someone dies. Death catches everyone unawares, between things, on holidays or honeymoons, mid-birth, on the up and up at work, or late at night when they are sleeping next to their girlfriends.
It finds you mid-manuscript, on a roll, with your mother laughing at the chapters she has read thus far.
My mother did not get a tombstone.
So I gave her the dedication page in my debut novel.
5 November 2016—the day my mother passed.
Remember, remember, the fifth of November…
A year later, on the same day, I would start dating my future wife.
I did not plan it that way. When I met my wife, I was still in mourning for my mother. It was strange to find love then since I was not actively looking for it. But I knew I had to hold on to it when it made itself known in her. I was going to ask her out later in the week, but on that sunny Sunday—amazing things happen on normal days too—I could not wait.
I told her not to get into the relationship if it was not for the long haul. I had spent the majority of the past year outside of myself, in too many warm bodies. I was tired. I was ready to get back into my skin. I felt I had changed enough to warrant the risk.
Eight months later we were engaged.
In 2019 we said our vows and were married.
Until death do us part.
I wonder if my parents knew what they were signing up for when they said the same thing in 1987. The terrible consequences of those vows: to promise to be together regardless of life’s uncertainties; to work everything out—for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health—knowing full well it could go tits up and belly down at any moment. Before the priest asked me to repeat my vows after him I briefly thought about my mother’s aliveness one day, her deadness the next, and where it had left my father. But, again, like our dating anniversary, I was too in love. Too optimistic. I was happy to follow my mother on this journey she had undertaken years ago.
Until death do us part.
(I know this is selfish, but I hope I go first. I really, really do not want to be left behind. My wife is stronger than me. I think she would endure my absence with more grace. I would nuke the planet.)
The 5th of November is split in two: part celebration, in my body, in love with my wife; and part mourning, outside it, thinking about all the normal people dying on normal days. My wife kindly shares this day with this other woman she’s never met.
I think about death a lot. Funeral and life insurance policies. Last wills and testaments. Eulogies. Memory. That kind of thing. I think about how people pay monthly premiums so their loved ones can be taken care of after they leave. I wonder how people decide who shall get what after they pass on. Or what people decide to say about the dead. Or how long and strongly they think about someone who is no longer around. Is it like thinking about an ex? Or is it more like tasting the flavour of something you ate once, long ago? Is it like the trauma of war, distant, but always yesterday to the shell shocked? Or the memory of a good day, you know, just another good day amongst many good days? Even as life continues to show me its strange generosities, even as I tick off my personal successes, I think about death.
Why even try?
I do not know. The living are not good at telling.
I walk through the world differently now. It is not all about me—well, most of the time.
I wonder, all the time, about other people’s losses, the voids in their lives, their private ghosts.
I think about people being pulled out of their bodies all the time. What they see, what they feel, what they learn about themselves and the world. I think about death because it’s the only thing that can end my marriage. Not disagreement. Not failure. Not boredom. Only death. So I think about it when I realise I am married to someone who insists on wiping the table in circles. (Every reasonable person knows you use window-wiper strokes.)
I would rather acknowledge the existence of death and loss instead of pretending as I write this, as you read this, that someone, somewhere is not dying, and that the people around them are about to be plunged into a depthless misery. I think about death because I feel as though I have successfully survived the hardest parts of my grief without calcifying into cynicism.
I am still hopeful about this life thing.
I think mindfulness merchants and prosperity coaches are frauds—counting rice grains one white fluff at a time to know the minuteness of life is stupid; and manifesting abundance into the cold physics of the universe is bullshit. I am mindful of others and their losses. I manifest their pain and suffering in an indifferent world—quite frankly, I think everyone could do with some time living outside of their skin. We spend entirely too much time in our bodies.
Here is the thing about being pulled outside your body by death: you realise it is not the only way to achieve connection with other people.
Love does the same thing without forcibly dragging you out of your being. It offers you a choice: to leave your carapace and be with it or to stay sealed away forever.
When I met my wife it was an easy choice to make.
I like to think when my parents met, when they decided to conceive children, they found their choices as easy, too. I like to think they made their choices knowing sooner or later death would come for them, together or apart, and that their answer was: “Yes, but still…”
I no longer confuse death and dying.
Dying was my mother’s business.
Death was mine.