Friday, February 06, 2009

Matters of Life and Death

I hadn't seen my dad, Veikko Talvi, in almost two years. Although I was aware of many close calls with death, I was still rather shocked to see him so fragile and at times in such great discomfort. The leg that was operated on some months ago no longer can be straightened. The physiotherapist doesn't even want to try, saying that such an attempt might break a bone or tear a muscle; probably true. I knew Dad wouldn't really recognize me, as he lives in the past and I would be many decades older than the young violinist son he might remember from back then. Yet my father tried to tell me that he knew who I was and perhaps at some level he did. But what might have been in the memory one minute soon disappeared as does everything. Luckily for me, the last of the four visits was the best. I was able to help him enjoy his coffee from a baby mug and feed him little pieces of pulla, braided Finnish cardamom bread that he has always treasured. I had to cut it into tiny pieces and soak in coffee, in order for it to be soft enough for him to handle. Like much of any tissue in an old person's body his gums have shrunk and the dentist had recommended that the dentures be left out as they were making the mouth bleed. It felt like I was feeding a baby and in a way that best describes it. However, that was the one time when my dad was paying close attention to me and my presence. It was a fitting end to my visit. I knew it probably would be the last time I'd see him alive but my mind was at ease. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. Surely one is missed (hopefully) but death is a part of life for all of us.

On a cold but sunny day I went to visit the old Kouvola cemetery where much of my family is resting. There was plenty of snow and the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, literally. I had just bought real winter boots and they were much needed as only the main walkways were plowed open. Right by the main gate are the graves of my dad's first in-laws and behind them his first wife, my brother's mother who died when he was just six days old. I have seen the graves numerous times, of course, but reaching the stone behind the others almost shocked me because I was staring at my own name. Her married name was HILKKA TALVI, but snow made the first letter almost disappear. It was as if I was looking into my own future. I always wondered why I was given an almost identical name to my dad's first spouse. Perhaps my parents had discussed it at length and my mother found it fitting. In Finland people celebrate name days and according the old calendar I was born on my own mother's special day, October 22. Three years later the date for all of Finland's Irjas was changed to the end of January, something she always had a hard time accepting.

From there I went to my mother's gravesite and admired the beautiful stone I had helped my father to choose ten years ago. From there it was quite a distance to my paternal grandparents' resting place where also my aunt, their daughter and my father's younger sister is. Another long loop and I passed the graves of my dad's uncle and aunt and their two children, both of whom died too young and before my birth. The sun was setting and it was getting cold so it was time for me to leave and return to the world of the living.

I have a hard time understanding that we value human life, no matter how dismal and hopeless, that we do just about anything to keep people alive. Yes, life is precious, all life (I still won't kill anything other than a mosquito but that's self defense and I always make sure that they are female and thus the biting kind), but keeping a beloved pet alive while they are suffering is considered cruel. The ultimate act of love with an animal is to free them from pain and misery. Yet fortunes are spent keeping dying people alive for another two weeks or even for just days. Why is it so difficult to let people leave this world with dignity? I would never want to be like my mother towards the end with her Alzheimer's, or my father now. Knowing myself I'll probably take care of not becoming a burden to anyone when the time comes. It won't be a selfish act but out of love for those who care about me.

That said, life is beautiful, although not always happy. There just are too many of us. As I probably have written before, I strongly believe in a soul returning, in reincarnation. But there simply aren't enough old souls to go around and many humans end up with a spirit of a not-so-evolved life form. I could name a few rodents, or even insects. I have an easier time with a snake than some people. Nature has a way of limiting the growth of any species that has become too successful and numerous. In spite of huge families, the earth's population remained around one billion and now we have surpassed six. Something will have to happen to drop the numbers back down: maybe we will do it to ourselves (our world is getting quite mad these days) or new deadly diseases will surface. Then there might be a balance of human souls again.

But until then: to life, l'chaim! And I love you, Dad. I'm happy I could come and visit you. You have been in my mind constantly during this long day of flying, even now when we are just leaving the coast of Greenland and flying over the Davis Strait heading towards Northern Canada. Another five hours for more memories.

In Nokia N96 photos by Ilkka Talvi:
Kouvola Old Cemetery, Veikko Talvi