We all have tombs from which we travel. To reach mine I have to get a lift with some strangers to a place in the Catalan Coastal Range. I’ll be spending the weekend taking part in a workshop called ‘Live your Death’. The main challenge of this adventure will be to relate my death in the first person, without really dying, I hope. In the brochure they talk about us facing things very similar to NDEs (near death experiences), watching the film of our lives, glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel, having out-of-body experiences and seeing languid and distant little men calling us affectionately from the threshold where it all ends. It’s also possible, I think, that I’ll be put on a plane and taken to an island where weird things happen. In the meantime I’m getting to know some of my fellow passengers.
‘Did we meet at “Recycling Ourselves”?’ asks the man.
No, it was at “My Place in the Universe”,’ she replies.
‘Oh yeah… and have you found it?’
‘After all these workshops you still haven’t found it?’
‘I’m working on it.’
‘What you need is a clear objective,’ says the man, who despite all the money he’s spent on self-help workshops seems not to have grasped certain basic principles. For example, that you don’t greet a woman by asking her if she’s figured out what to do with her shitty life yet. I can think of various things to say to them both to solve their problems and earn myself some cash: that he try closing his mouth every now and again and that she tell guys who reckon they know more about her than she does where to go.
‘Well, girls, are you ready?’ This is the man’s second time at the death workshop and he claims to know what he’s talking about.
‘You have to take your clothes off, yeah? Get naked, yes siree.’
The woman and I look at each other. The man turns around and just speaks to me this time:
‘You must have good lungs because you’re from over there, down south, people have good lungs there. You’re going to need them. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re going to grab you by the hair and drown you a bit…’
Even though it’s clear he’s having us on, the woman, who says her brother persuaded her to come – ‘after one of these workshops he left his difficult girlfriend and his horrible job at the bank and became a better person’ – is shocked and throws me another pleasantly questioning look.
‘Heey, girl, uncross your legs, you’ll stop the energy flowing!’ says the man.
I do what he says. We’re almost there.
The workshop centre is a big house in the hills. It’s surrounded by trees and has views of the Mediterranean. The huge swimming pool is empty. There are different existential workshops with other groups and topics running at the same time. Emotional education is a luxury item, but some of us can afford it. At reception, next to the herb tea table, I pay the bill and feel a bit dirty, like when you pay for drugs, which is something I don’t like doing either. Or when you transfer money to your psychoanalyst.
Paying for spiritual well-being doesn’t seem normal to me. Nor does paying for a lung operation, but that’s the way things are.
I settle into the small room I’ll be sharing with two other people. I put my four changes of comfortable clothes in the wardrobe, my wash bag in the bathroom and, what the hell, I go out to socialise. Apparently one of the aims of the workshop is to find oneself fully with other human beings, something normal people only do after four drinks. A girl sits down next to me.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘You…?’
‘I’m in “Death” too. The word already seems a bit less scary, right?’
‘Uh… I guess so.’ I ask her who the women dressed in white are.
‘They’re from “Apologise to your Mother”. Is it your first time?’
‘Lucky you! It’s going to be one of the most important experiences of your life. This is my fourth time.’
People reoffend, and this, depending on how you look at it, could either be a very good or very bad sign. A bell rings and we go into the main room, which has huge windows looking out over the sea. There are more than thirty of us in ‘Live your Death’ and none of us are wearing shoes. The workshop leader asks us to introduce ourselves and say why we’ve come. He looks at me and says ‘You start’, so I have no other choice:
‘My name’s Gabriela. I’m Peruvian, but I’ve been living in Barcelona for eight years. I’ve come because… I’m afraid of death, more so recently, and because I feel disconnected…’
I say all this because it’s the truth. There are other truths, but we’ve been asked to keep it brief.
Before coming, all the participants signed a document in which we promised not to disclose anything that happens here. That’s why I’ve deliberately changed the name of the workshop and I won’t use any proper names, not even the workshop leader’s, a famous intellectual in Catalonia. I also had to complete a psychological test, one of the ones used to detect your weaknesses. You have to put a series of ideas in order from 1 to 18 and from best to worst. For example, I gave slavery a 15; blowing up an aeroplane 51 full of passengers, a 16; burning a heretic alive, a 17; and torturing someone, an 18.
These are honest answers. I suppose I am a good person, after all.
One by one the others share their reasons, all of which have to do with finding themselves.
The workshop leader explains that this is not therapy. He says it’s a time within time. Four days in which we’ll experience more than in four months. An experience of dissolving the ego which is, in the end, what death is. A rite of initiation and catharsis to kill the selfish child we all still carry inside, to find our place in a cosmic, social and familial framework. The fear of death is a fear of life.
All that said there’s little more to add, except that the workshop entails confronting something as terrifying as ‘impermanence’. The idea is that we’re going to lovingly discover the greatness of dying and help someone to die, because we’ll be expected to play both roles.
In this context, those of us taking part have to find the problems that limit our lives. The technique to achieve this: a kind of consciousness-altering rhythmic breathing in time with music and sounds, all of which will help us to reach a psychic representation of death, heal wounds, and find the cause of our blockages.
Symptoms that indicate the proximity of death and which we’ll experience during the workshop while either dying or assisting: dry mouth; dehydration of the skin; use of strange language; the need to return home and reconcile oneself with someone or something; weight loss; feebleness; fragile bones; vomiting; the desire to defecate and expel everything alien to us; death rattles; involuntary movements; glassy eyes.
The workshop is to death what a simulation is to an earthquake. Except, perhaps, for the minor detail that no one will escape death.
Before going to bed we have another task: to draw a self-portrait at tables covered with coloured pencils; I scribble a monstrosity a la Frida Kahlo with a spiny heart and a computer mouse chained to my wrist. Inside my stomach I’ve drawn a Gabriela with two heads: one is smiling and the other is crying. A typical drawing to impress a psychologist, I think. When I get into bed I start to feel the first effects of the workshop: I can’t help remembering the fucking awful bedsores on my grandmother Victoria’s body. Bedsores are dead skin, the war wounds of sick people: lying in bed for a decade can be more damaging than battle. Unable to communicate, unable to recognise us, I find it hard to believe she was able to say goodbye or see any kind of beautiful light before she went. I think, too, about the last time I saw my grandmother Elena alive; she had been blind from diabetes for several years, and was on a trolley in the corridor of a public hospital waiting for a bed. She asked me for water, she was really thirsty, so I gave her a sip from a plastic cup. She said: ‘I’m going to die, love, take me home, I don’t want to die here.’ I lied to her: ‘You’re not going to die, Granny.’ I kissed her on the forehead and left. She died an hour later in that same corridor.
I haven’t been to the doctor for five years. Not even for a miserable check-up. Ever since I gave birth I’ve felt immortal, or I’ve forced myself to feel immortal. I try only to get ill with things I can cure with a simple visit to the pharmacy. That said, I’ve been feeling strange for a while now. I don’t know how to explain it, I just don’t feel well. One day I finally decide to make an appointment with my GP, who in turn books me in with the nurse for a general check-up. He also orders a blood test to see what’s going on. I have to wait two weeks for the results. The nurse weighs and measures me and takes my blood pressure. There’s nothing wrong with me, of course, doctors have always thought I’m a shambles. It’s ridiculous, but every time I leave a consulting room I’m sort of disappointed that I’m not really ill. I don’t want to be ill, of course, but for some reason my ego can’t handle being so insignificant in any context, even in a hospital. So, when the nurse takes my blood pressure and says ‘It’s really high,’ someone inside me smiles. The devil, perhaps. It’s an impulsive, unhealthy delight, revenge for all these years of perfect health. ‘150/109,’ says the nurse. 139/89 is normal.
I’m 35 years old. I’m a woman. In other words, I’m young and up to my eyeballs in progesterone. These two factors are arguably better than a life insurance policy worth a million euros. That’s two weighty reasons, I tell myself. 2-0. I win. But it turns out I don’t. I haven’t got a simple increase in blood pressure because for the whole of the next week I don’t eat salt and stuff myself with vegetables and go back to see the nurse and it’s 158/110. She takes my blood pressure in my right arm and my left, three times in each. Finally his scientific eminence – my condition merits the presence of the doctor himself – comes out and starts whispering with the nurses.
During these minutes of uncertainty, my blood pressure goes through the roof, 159/115. The doctor says it’s not a one-off increase. Nor is it stress, even if I sometimes feel as if I’m going to explode in the middle of everything like a bomb planted by a terrorist who’s got the wrong target.
My father found out he had high blood pressure at 35, my current age, and he’s taken medication every day since. My grandfather died of a heart attack aged 60; my grandmother Victoria, from a brain haemorrhage. I can’t win anymore. The game’s turned against me. 3-2. I’m hypertensive. I suffer from stage 1 arterial hypertension. That’s all. But hang on a moment, is there any chance the high blood pressure could be a symptom of something worse? How much worse? Something horrible, probably, because the doctor looks at the tip of his shoe. ‘The test will tell us,’ he concludes. Although we still have to wait for that. Suspense.
Chronic arterial hypertension is called ‘the silent plague of the West’ and is the principal cause of death in the world, ahead of hunger and cancer and AIDS. It’s called this because it acts silently, affecting the blood flow, and is a risk factor for cardiovascular or renal diseases. The cause is unknown in 90 per cent of cases, but almost always has to do with genetics and poor habits. Bingo!
No one would say I’m a fat person, but equally no one would say I’m a healthy person. And this is a condition I have borne with pride all this time, which makes me feel alive and lively, the complete opposite of being dead: I drink, I smoke, I go out, I get drunk once a week and once a week I die of a hangover, sometimes I take drugs, I eat junk food, I hate most vegetables, I’m a mother, I’m not baptised, I work in an office, I hate the human race, I’m someone’s wife, I stream TV series until three in the morning, I don’t exercise, I don’t have domestic help, I spend 10 hours a day in front of a screen and the only part of my body that gets any exercise are my fingers hitting the keyboard, like now. It’s a miracle my arse isn’t the size of Brazil.
I’m a journalist who specialises in putting herself in extreme situations and writing in the first person about those experiences. Oh, and I’m almost forgetting the most important thing: I love salt. Coarse-grain salt especially, those tiny diamonds on a good piece of steak, and dips and sauces so salty my eyes roll with excitement. When I was a girl, I remember now, my toxic DNA drove me to sneak surreptitiously into the kitchen when my grandmother Victoria stepped away from the stove and sink my index finger into the red salt pot. Once I’d pulled it off, I’d run with my white, shining finger back to the telly. For a long time, sucking my salty finger while I watched my favourite cartoons was a version of happiness.
Things were beautiful, once. Seriously, they were. Hangovers were generally manageable. And devouring hamburgers and fried chicken had no consequence other than pleasure. I can’t say exactly when this impunity ended. It was probably when I turned 30. But I didn’t take the hint, I decided to carry on being young and foolish, which goes with the territory of being young, and I kept on living in the only way I knew how, that is: believing I was immortal, never reading the labels on products and publicly declaring myself enemy of the fitness world and its devotees. Only every now and again a glitch in the matrix made me think that something might not be right, a slight acceleration in my pulse rate, for example, as if a savage with a drum had snuck into the magnificent chamber orchestra of my chest.
I touch my face and establish that my spots are still there. I run my hand over my stomach, too, and verify that it’s still round, like a four-month pregnancy bump I’ve grown accustomed to. I stopped worrying about my reflection in shop windows some time ago. I stroke my neck and feel my growing double chin. I think about all this, about the poor fit between my body and the mental image I have of it (in which I prefer the real image not to intervene). It’s been a long time I stopped thinking about it, or perhaps I never did.
Back at home, the days following the bad news about my blood pressure are strange. It’s no wonder, because I have to start a strict diet in order to become the kind of person I wouldn’t bother talking to even if we were stuck in a lift together. I’m not allowed to drink alcohol, maybe a glass of wine or two, but I can’t conceive of going to a bar without getting drunk so I stop going out. My girlfriends promise they’ll give up lines and gin-and-tonics for me, that they’ll switch to spliffs and white wine, but can tell they’re lying. I start to consider a change of friends. Food without salt, on the other hand, is like not eating at all.
The scenario wouldn’t be complete without its dose of pharmaceuticals. Every day, for three months to start with, I have to take two five-milligram tablets of Enalapril. The box of sixty costs a disconcerting twenty cents, and the list of possible side effects takes up half the leaflet. Am I supposed to fill my body with these cheap pills for the rest of my life? One day I meet a friend who tells me he has the same condition, that he spends his days eating garlic and doesn’t take blood pressure tablets because ‘they kill your sex drive’. Hearing this, another close friend says I’d better top myself. Add to this the harassment and takedowns I’ve been subjected to now that everyone has something to say about my health, especially my family, who once again take the liberty of overprotecting me. I suffer various episodes of anxiety thinking I could have a heart attack at any moment and, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m getting my blood pressure measured so often that I’ve become really popular in the local pharmacies. One night, like every night, I take off my clothes in front of the mirror and see a slight red mark on my right breast, just beside my nipple. I touch it. It’s a lump. Something hard. It wasn’t there before, I’m sure of that. Then I scream.
LIVE YOUR DEATH DIARY
The first part of this piece is written with the ironic distance I almost always assume because I believe I write better from there. Except now I don’t want to do that. It wouldn’t be fair to the experience or the workshop leaders or the people who were there giving everything and opening themselves up to others. Nor would it be fair to readers or to myself. I’m going to copy an extract from the diary I wrote that weekend so whoever reads this can see me warts and all:
They’ve taken our mobiles away, so I don’t know what time it is. I’m dead tired. We have to go back in an hour. Today we’re breathing. The morning was fun. We danced for two hours, electronica, salsa and a ridiculous song called ‘My Tantric Boyfriend’. After that we did contact exercises with partners: looking each other in the eye without talking, touching each other, hitting each other. I was with a really hot, muscly guy, his caresses made me tremble. I liked the exercise where you had ton talk non-stop while the other person listened without saying a word. I talked about my family, about Jaime and Lena. My partner, a young girl this time, was really sad. She said it made her happy to know I was happy. It made me feel good about my life. She cried and I couldn’t say anything to her because I wasn’t allowed to. This is part of the double experience: repressing the desire to help the other person because in reality, when the moment comes, no one can help you. We live together, but die alone.
We spent a long time letting ourselves fall backwards onto a mattress, losing our fear and, as they say, ‘letting ourselves go’.
What I liked most was the blind person and guide exercise. I was a terrible guide, I almost killed my partner, who was an older man this time. I made him run and bump into things so much that he had to sit down and couldn’t carry on. When it was my turn to be blind, my partner was incredibly loving, he took me outside, made me smell and touch the grass, splash myself with water from the fountain, feel the breeze and the warmth of the sun. The workshop’s probably having an effect, touching my most sensitive fibres. Every time we do an exercise, somebody cries. After we ate I saw a boy who lives here playing with two dogs. I remembered that the director told us to want something badly. That’s what I want, more moments in the sun, a huge garden and dogs that Lena can play with. Strength and patience to bring her up happily. Are my eyes shining like everyone else’s? Have I got a pious smile and a desire to hug everyone yet? No, I can’t be at peace with myself, it doesn’t fit my personality. My position in this workshop isn’t the easiest: on the one hand, I feel I’ve got to be conscious enough to write this story when I get back, a story about whether it’s possible to try out death, with at least some critical perspective. Because, let’s accept it: you can’t try out death, death is a show that goes out live and direct, pure improvisation. And what does it matter, getting closer to it isn’t going to immunise us against our fear of the void. On the other hand I feel as if thinking like that, with so little faith, stops me committing to anything, not just to this. I want to try it, I really want to do it. This workshop is full of dysfunctional, lonely, sad people who feel pain and don’t know where it comes from. Am I superior to them because I don’t take myself seriously or am I the absolute opposite precisely because of that? Am I superior because I think of myself as happy? I can’t carry on kidding myself that other people are the crazy and dysfunctional ones so as to keep firing witty phrases into the sky.
LIVE YOUR DEATH DIARY
The session finished at almost two in the morning. Today half of us breathed and tomorrow the other half will have a go. It’s my turn tomorrow, so today I was a carer. The brief is not to intervene in the other person’s experience even if we see them suffering. We can only act if they ask us to. My dying person was a woman of around 40. You have to be patient and humble to be a carer. I spent long hours by her side wetting her lips, holding a plastic bag to collect her sick. The person doing the breathing lies down, their eyes covered. The person caring watches over their deathbed.
We’re in a circle, like in a ritual. In fact, the workshop itself is inspired by shamanic sessions with ayahuasca, the famous entheogenic plant. When we were all in position, the music started. The workshop leader guided the session, encouraging us, asking them to be brave to go into the beyond and sometimes playing a drum. The music is key because it makes you travel through different emotional states, from the most violent to the most peaceful. So, in a way, the workshop leader is also a kind of DJ. There was everything from insufferable mystical songs to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. It touched me to hear Mercedes Sosa singing ‘I’m bread, I’m peace, I’m more: come on, tell me, tell me all that’s happening to you now / because otherwise your soul weeps when it’s alone. / We have to get everything out, like in spring. / Look each other in the eye as we speak, get out what we can / so that inside new things grow, grow / grooooow.’ The breathing is similar to breathing while in labour: short, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. Some people breathed sitting down, or even standing until, finally, they reached catharsis. When someone complained about the pain, you could ask the workshop leader to come over and move them. He would press some muscle or other which made the person feel a sharp pain and cry out with relief. I saw people laughing and crying, writhing in pain, shouting as if something had shattered into a thousand pieces inside them, and it’s impossible for that not to shake something up inside you. When my dying woman seemed to be at peace, I covered her with a sheet. She had gone.
I’ve rarely been close to death. Perhaps that’s why I’m so afraid of it. For people who see it every day, like funeral directors, death is something ordinary, like sleeping and waking up. My parents always tell the story of when, as a very little girl, I learned that people die. From that day on, whenever they mentioned someone to me, I would ask: ‘And have they died yet?’ Cue laughter.
Children see death as something strange and fascinating. I don’t know at what point death stops being a word in a fairy story and becomes a real circumstance. We spend a large part of our lives thinking of death as something remote and, above all, alien, something that happens to other unfortunate people, until this misleading idea gives way to the painfully physical perception that one day we too will expire irredeemably. Adult life means continually prodding at Nothingness with the fingers of our imagination. This is the bad thing about having precarious beliefs, being pessimistic and vaguely intelligent. More than the instant of death itself, which is already scary enough, humans fear the anonymity of disappearing. Philip Larkin puts it best: ‘No rational being / Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing / That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round.’
My first dead person was my grandfather Carlos, the one who had the heart attack. I was 9 years old and my parents told me two days after the funeral. I didn’t even see his coffin. I’ve never gone up to see the body at a requiem mass. I didn’t see the bodies of my dogs. I only dared to peek briefly into the room at the funeral parlour where my mother was dressing my grandmother Elena and I saw her foot, dropping to one side in the same comfortable position it used to be in when she was listening to the radio in bed. It was like seeing her alive. I didn’t see the body of my grandmother Victoria either because when she finally died I was already in Spain. The only coffin I dared snoop in was my grandfather Maximo’s, and only because I hardly knew him.
I’ve never seen the dead face of anyone I love. This is something else that ranks highly in my list of terrifying things.
I’ve been scared I’ll die countless times, especially on aeroplanes, but only once did I say goodbye to everyone, to my family. A furious wave from the Pacific Ocean tumbled me over on the shore and amidst this whirlpool of foam, with my eyes open, I thought I was going to die, but I came to the surface. During the civil war years in Peru I was more afraid of death than ever. I thought that at any moment a car bomb would blow up in my face or that terrorists and the army would come to our house and cut off our heads. My father’s a journalist and I clearly remember the night someone woke him up to tell him eight colleagues had been murdered in a village called Uchuraccay, in Ayacucho. He immediately travelled there and I saw him on TV surrounded by the black bags containing the bodies. I went to the huge funeral procession in Lima and shouted ‘justice’. I was 6 years old and that year in Peru was the most violent in its history. Ever since I’ve had a daughter I’m afraid I’ll die of almost anything. In fact I’m so afraid that I don’t walk under scaffolding on buildings or cranes lifting cement and I don’t cross on red lights. I try to make sure there’s not a psychopath behind me on the metro who might want to push me. If a neo-Nazi insults me, I no longer say anything back.
Dinner at our friends’ house. Her father is dying of cancer. ‘It’s hard to be next to someone who’s dying, they go from one terrible mood to another in a matter of minutes,’ she says. A few days later a friend’s mother dies. Another aggressive cancer. My father and his brother, my uncle, both overcame bowel cancer a few years ago. In other words, my genes don’t just have the T in hypertension, but also the C for cancer. Not forgetting the D for diabetes. I have the sneaking suspicion that a crow has landed on my tree. ‘The white girl,’ as they call her in Mexico, must have lost something around here. It’s no coincidence that I just killed my sister in a story. And I haven’t made a will, I don’t have a dying wish and I can’t imagine how my life will be without me.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m not externalising my frenzied consumption of five seasons of Six Feet Under. I haven’t watched anything else in the last two months and I feel alienated, as if I’ve put myself in the series or I’m going to die tomorrow. Someone dies at the beginning of every episode; in other words, over the course of five seasons we see some sixty ways to die: from an accident, disease, murder or old age; peacefully, prematurely, violently… In the final episode, flashforwards show us how each of the characters will die in scenes that only last a few seconds and end with their names and dates of death. It’s the first time I’ve thought about the date of the year I’ll die. If I live out my whole life and die naturally at an average age, I could die in the year 2050. My grandfather is 93 years old and in perfect health, so if I’ve been lucky enough to inherit his genes I might stretch it out until 2060. But no longer. I won’t see 2070, or 2100. According to the website thedayofyourdeath.com I’ll die aged 62. ‘You have 9,907 days, 00 hours, 14 minutes and 56 seconds left,’ it warns me. Yourfears.com says I’ll commit suicide on 30 December 2040 after losing everything. On mydeath.com, it says I’ll die in 2024 in a paragliding accident. According to beingdead.com, my husband will beat me to death within two years. There are lots of videos on the internet of people talking to themselves and saying how they think they’ll die. They’re fun. I watch a 20-year-old girl say she’s going to die of breast cancer aged 30, and that she’s known this since she was a girl, although for the moment she’s completely healthy. Death is more here than there.
In Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff writes about the illness and death of his mother, Susan Sontag, and about her deep fear of death after suffering cancer three times throughout her life. He quotes a phrase from her diary: ‘Death is unbearable unless you can get beyond the I.’ Rieff assures us that, unlike other people, Sontag didn’t manage that, partly due to the ‘poisoned chalice of hope’. For example, the last poems Bertolt Brecht wrote from his deathbed, says Rieff, discuss the artist’s reconciliation with the fact of death, like in the poem where he sees a bird sitting in a tree, whose beautiful song he thinks is even more beautiful knowing that when he dies the bird will still be singing. ‘Now I managed to enjoy the song of every blackbird after me too,’ he wrote.
Sontag, meanwhile, wounded by mortality, left us this phrase: ‘In the valley of sorrow, spread your wings.’
My scream startles my husband. Jaime runs to the bedroom and finds me crying with anxiety, clutching my breast.
‘It’s massive! Why didn’t you notice it before?’
‘Why didn’t you notice it before? It’s red, can you see?’
‘Yes, it’s red.’
First thing tomorrow we’ll go to the hospital. I look at myself in the mirror again and again. I’m scared to touch it. It wasn’t there a few days ago, I would have noticed it. Jaime tells me that if it is a tumour, and we’re not sure it is, it’ll be treatable. I remember the scene in Rieff’s book when he describes how they remove Sontag’s breast, an incredibly violent operation which, to get rid of all the diseased cells, has to gouge out a large part of her chest muscle.
I see myself through the looking glass and close my eyes.
I’m tired. It’s exhausting being an adult, having to take care of everything and, for that reason, I’ve often wanted to get ill so people will look after me and I won’t have to do anything. I’d be so happy if I could stay in bed watching TV series all the time and sucking liquid food through a straw! I’ve repeated this dangerous mantra so many times that I ask myself if this unmentionable desire has anything to do with my recent find in the mirror.
That night, unlike others, Jaime and I won’t play with the idea of dying, we won’t talk about who’ll die first, in which ocean we’ll scatter the other’s ashes and who we’d choose to remarry in case of being widowed. It’s not funny anymore. We say nothing and wait for dawn.
Gynaecological emergencies share a waiting room with the labour ward. I watch the husbands pacing and the doctors busy bringing life into the world. At last it’s my turn. The nurse asks me to go in alone. I hear a baby cry. The doctor examines me.
She feels my breasts: ‘I can see it,’ she says, ‘I can feel it.’ I nearly faint.
While she touches my boob I try to cling to something. Something that isn’t the word I don’t want to pronounce and which, nevertheless, is in the head of every woman having a breast lump checked by a gynaecologist. All I can think about is another book I’m reading at the time, ironically: Other Lives but Mine by Emmanuel Carrere, a true story of two events that shocked the author in a few months: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a woman for her children and husband. There I find a reference to the spectacular book Mars by Fritz Zorn, a bestseller that the Swiss writer delivered in extremis to his publishers days before dying. In the book he sticks a finger in the wound of the relationship between an insipid life and cancer. The book’s opening pulls no punches: ‘I’m young and rich and educated, and I’m unhappy, neurotic and alone. I come from one of the best families on the east shore of Lake Zurich, the shore that people call the Gold Coast. My upbringing has been middle-class, and I have been a model of good behaviour all my life… And of course I have cancer. That follows logically enough from what I have just said about myself… [Cancer] is a psychic disorder and I can only regard its onset in an acute physical form as a great stroke of luck.’
Jaime is waiting for me outside. I go out and smile at him. He smiles back. I sit on his knee. I hug him. He hugs me back. We stay like that for a few long minutes.
I’ve only got non-puerperal mastitis (one that doesn’t occur when breastfeeding), an inflammatory lesion of the breast.
My tomb is this mattress on which I’m going to travel. My eyes are covered. My carer promises she’ll be watching. I breathe deeply, I breathe and I breathe and I breathe, but all I can think about is being there, about the faces of the others. I don’t think they like me. Is it possible that I feel like I’m a really nice person but nobody in this workshop realises? The ideas that pop into my head make me think I’m lightyears away from being reconciled with myself. Or maybe it’s a survival instinct, which won’t let me go over to the other side. But I carry on, I try, I breathe increasingly rhythmically. This is hard, when it would be so easy to take LSD or drink a bit of ayahuasca and save ourselves a whole lot of work. The Star Wars theme tune helps me concentrate. It’s ridiculous, I know, but it reminds me of Jaime and Lena. I picture them. I hear some of the others shouting, having started their journeys. I feel almost cathartic now. My back starts hurting and I ask the workshop leader to manipulate me. He comes and twists my shoulder blade. The pain is intense. He says in my ear: ‘Shout, Gabriela, shout, what would you say to your mother?’ I don’t know where he got that about my mother, maybe from my drawing or the values test. The only thing I know is that it works. I cry like a little girl, like I did on nights that were too dark, a scream that comes from being alone and afraid: ‘Mum, mum, muuuum!’ I cry like a wretch. I cry like I haven’t done for years. I cry in stereo. I cry so much that I think I’ve come here to get depressed. I cry and go through all my sad topics. I cry and ask myself if one day I’ll be able to stop crying like a little girl. I cry and remember that I’m not the little girl any more, there’s another little girl now and I have to look after her. I cry because I’m everyone’s daughter: my mother’s, my husband’s, my daughter’s. I cry because I’m scared I’ll fail as a mother. I say sorry to my little one for being the infantile person I am. I promise I’ll be solid, patient and happy for her. Then I give myself over to the most absolute darkness, I allow it to come, to wrap me as if I’m being embraced by an enormous animal that swallows me and spits out my bones. Now I’m part of its shining pelt. The darkness is warm for the first time, like a black sun; my mind expands inside it. Crying is a way to empty out my contents. I’m empty now, as usual I’ve cried more than I should have, but I’m not sad because I haven’t lost anything. I’m going with everything I am. In the final judgement – this experience tells me – the judge and the accused are the same person. And now I see the beautiful landscape and the blessed light at the end of the tunnel – the cultural fantasy of resurrection and the intuition of mystery – the path to the suspension of all pain, of all fear. I smile to myself. If this is what death is like I don’t mind dying tomorrow. I feel someone covering me with a sheet. I’ve gone.
The good news is that you do come round from this anaesthesia. The following day, in the final meeting where we describe our experiences, the workshop leader suggests an exercise for me: I should go into a corner and write a list of the things that do me good and another of the things that do me harm.
Things that do me harm: being connected to the Internet all day, checking Facebook, bills, KFC, alcohol, drugs, not being with my daughter, my infantilism, the literary world, the pressure of having to write, people’s contempt, frivolity, injustice, not being in Lima, salt, not doing exercise, judging others, judging myself.
Things that do me good: sex, Lena’s love, Jaime’s love, giving love, being loved, cooking, writing, sleeping, going out and seeing the sun, watching TV series with Jaime, laughing, doing absolutely nothing, doing something well, tenderness, not being in Lima, crying, eating healthily without salt.
The survival instinct is moralistic.
It’s time to leave the workshop and apply its teachings in daily life. The participants are best friends all of a sudden, they exchange emails, make plans, tell each other about new workshops where they can meet again and carry on trying to find their place in the universe.
It hasn’t been one of the most important experiences of my life, as that girl promised, but I feel good, in harmony, so much so that I carry on letting go and head out to walk alone and fulfilled in the countryside; I follow a path that goes into the woods, I walk and walk without looking back, I go a long way without realising and, all of a sudden, I stop still and, looking around me, in the midst of that natural solitude, I become myself again: in other words, I’m afraid an animal will come out and eat me, I remember that I have to go home, to the only place where I feel safe.
I’m getting rid of Lena’s nits while she watches TV with her friend Gael. She caught nits at school again. I drag one out with the comb and kill it. Lena is watching Asha’s Incredible Adventure. Asha’s fish dies in this episode. A friend explains to her that after death there are three possible paths: you disappear, you go to heaven or you’re reincarnated.
‘What would you come back as?’ I ask Lena, but she doesn’t answer.
‘What would you come back as, Gael? I’d come back as a tree, for example…’
‘I’d be a lion.’
‘And what about you, Lena?’ I press her. ‘Go on, say what you’d come back as. A flower? A butterfly? A princess?’
‘As me, end of.’
The blood tests showed no problem with cholesterol, kidney function or blood sugar. I’m absolutely fine except for my blood pressure. My diet is pretty boring and I’ve managed to lose plenty of weight. They’ll check my blood pressure again in three months, and if it carries on like it is now, they’ll probably increase my dose of Enalapril and I’ll keep taking it for life. Beyond that, everything is unpredictable.
I don’t know yet where I want my ashes to be scattered. A good place would be in the Nanay river, which goes past Manacamiri, a small village near Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, where Jaime and I were really happy. Or perhaps, so as to not suffer from exoticism, in the Mar de Grau, in Lima, where I hope to return one day, or in the Mediterranean, if I don’t go back. In the years I’ve got left, which I hope will be many, I can’t write it off, I might find another significant place to spread my wings in this valley of sadness and joy.
On my imaginary headstone, death is still a blank space to be filled. And rain makes the weeds grow.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Lucy Greaves translates from Spanish, Portuguese and French. She won the 2013 Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize and in 2014 was Translator in Residence at the Free Word Centre in London. Her work has appeared in Granta and the Guardian, among others, and she is currently translating Maria Angelica Bosco's La muerte baja en el ascensor which will be published by Pushkin Press. She lives in Bristol.