The trigger of death, in all cases, is a lack of oxygen.
The cold is here. I can feel it, five or ten or twenty or one hundred feet from the ground. I can look down on these funny looking creatures beneath me, once covered in skin and now covered in wool, all of them ready to disappear into their homes. I am less frequently bothered by the squirrels that jump between each of my limbs, sometimes shaking my body until I fall and flutter to the ground.
I am a leaf, and before I let my home suck away my chlorophyll, before I plummet from the sky and become buried in the frozen water from the clouds, I will give my final tribute. I will burn yellow, orange, red and everything in between. I will stay here, as a rainbow with my family, and draw the stares of all those hooded creatures that roam below me. I will offer my leaves to the acorn hunting critters as warmth for the coming winter. I will give myself to the pile of fun for the child on the corner. My 8-month long life span will come to an end, and I will drop, slowly, quietly, peacefully, to a place I have never been: the floor of this planet.
A supernova is both a beginning and an end. In its explosion, the original will turn into many neutron stars, an extremely dense star made of the remains of the compressed core.
I am made of all the same elements that you are; yet I have lived for millions and billions of years. I sit thousands, millions, billions and sometimes trillions of miles away from you, in a place you will never approach. You can see me but I cannot see you. I am twice the size of that measly burning giant you rely on so fiercely, and when my life comes to an end, you will know.
I am a star, and I am ready to face death. But when I do it, I will not “flutter to the ground,” and I certainly won’t do it in my sleep. No, when I face death, death will have to do battle. I will streak across the sky at 25,000 miles per second, faster than anything you know. I will double, triple or quadruple in size. I will revolt, refuse, rebel, and it will look nothing like a picket line or a march. No, it will be a war so fierce that the skies will be scarred for eternity. The damage I do in this brawl will be seen for as long as your planet rotates around that sun. In many cases, this bang, this struggle will be so traumatic, so violent, that I will cut a hole in space. I will fall into nothingness, a place unknown and undiscoverable, and you will be able to see this place, but you will never be able to come near it. I am a star, and this is how I face death.
In 1907, Dr. Duncan “Om” MacDougall conducted six experiments where he measured the weight of dying bodies. He concluded that an average weight loss of 21 grams occurred in the moment of death, a number some have linked to the weight of the “soul.”
In my death, things will happen that I cannot explain. I may hallucinate. I may see God. I may gift a loved one with a dying word. I may apologize. I may forgive. I may look through glassy eyes at my past and smile, knowing I have done everything in my life with a strong spirit and a good heart. I may look through glassy eyes at my past and clench my jaw, with a stern face, and wonder, “what could have been?” Death is the second of two certainties in my life, and first is birth. I do not know what happened before and I have no way of knowing what will happen after.
It is estimated that 110 billion people have died since the beginning of time.
I often wonder what it was like for the first person or animal who understood death. What happened when the caveman saw his brother’s body go lifeless, not knowing or expecting a day when they would no longer be able to interact or hunt or fight together? Did he immediately wonder about his own peril? Did he ask questions, crouch down at his brother’s side and cry? Perhaps he saw it as an unavoidable cycle of life, understanding it from the animals he hunted and the seasons he saw change. Perhaps he stripped his brother of his clothing, kept them for himself and fed his body to an animal or his family or even his own mouth.
Since that moment, humans have been trying to understand the experience of death. We have written text after text on it. We have game planned for the flash, prepared for our exit. We have shed tears of confusion at the loss of those around us; we have shaken with fear at the absoluteness of our own conclusion. We have lived to die, instead of living in spite of death. But like the great names of literature and spirituality, the stars of our solar system and those beyond, and even the leaves of the trees outside your window at this very moment, we can give during our exit. We can see each day as a change of color, our bodies going green to yellow to red to orange. Instead of expanding until we pop, feeling ourselves exhaust with each day, we can feel ourselves collecting energy in preparation, gaining momentum for our supernova. We can experience this world as a place to project that beauty, a place where we can search for our sky to scar or our sidewalk to fall on.