Yammer of Thor: On Death

"There is a kind of wisdom one only gains through pain or loss."

My mom was born Norma Ruth Ormand on November 4, 1927 in Electra, Texas. She was the kindest person I have ever met. She was an angel to many animals and kids. She was a public school teacher, which is the most important job in the world. She died last week on September 13, 2017.

As heartbreaking as this is, she lived a long life, and this is the best-case scenario. I never wanted her to have pain. (There wasn’t muchsome discomfort in the final weeks, but as little as one could hope for.) I used to fear death, and particularly my mother’s, with all of my guts. I could not accept the idea that I or anyone I loved would just stop existing. Did all of the dreading I did prepare me to finally accept her death? I knew I would someday face a world without her, and here I am. The thing I thought would kill me has left me alive.

I have had an uneasy relationship with death since 1975, the year my father died. He was 47. He and Norma were madly in love. They both died of cancer, but she outlived him by 42 years. As we stood in the cemetery last week, I remembered standing there as a confused 10-year-old as my grandmother wailed in agony. Many people did—he was beloved—but I had no language for the loss I felt. I still don’t, but it’s likely that you, too, have felt such loss. I thought it would only be a matter of time until everyone I love would be mercilessly torn from me. This has turned out to be true.

What I didn’t know, though, was that there would also be ways in which I’ll always carry my loved ones with me, in everything I do, and in so much of who I am. My dad was a seeker throughout his life. He was way smarter than me, but passed on his inquisitive nature. Mom passed on her depression and a few other unsavory genes—and her good ones, too. I have a huge bleeding heart, just like Mom. (It sucks.) Mom was an animal lover. We rescued 100 feral cats and kittens during my childhood. I have rescued dozens more. She thought the racism all around her in the Jim Crow South was atrocious. I took her to a protest against George W.’s Iraq war in 2003. (She was right about that one, eh?) I was proud of her.

I often told my mom that she was my hero and thanked her for her grace and kindness. Do all of her acts of kindness echo in those of us she graced? I think so. My mom did not make enemies. She wanted everyone to feel OK. Mom was skeptical of people and their bullshit, but did not want to just write anyone off. I inherited this: It is nearly impossible for me to be mean to someone’s face. I can say harsh things about groups of people, but one-on-one, I never met a man or woman I just did not like. (There are degrees, of course.)

Mom was always rooting for everyone, including me. Because she grew up in the Great Depression, she would rather I was a doctor or lawyer, but she came to dozens of my concerts over the decades and accepted that I had made up my mind and done with my life what I loved: music. I could never thank her enough for this acceptance. When I am kind, I feel her in me—so I try to be kind all the time.

Does everyone have a desire to go back to a day in their childhood when their family was all there, and everyone seemed happy? Maybe that is just a longing for lost innocence—for a time before you knew grief. The first time I saw snow, I was six years old, with my family at my grandmother’s house in Wichita Falls. The snow is melted, and the child is grown, but, like my parents, I carry this with me every day.

Surely the way forward is to find joy and peace in the present. Beauty is always around us, yet we accumulate these veils of torment. I think the practice of meditation helps dissolve that veil. I used to pray. Now I meditate, which is very similar, and allows me to focus on the present moment. When we’re young, we feel like we should and will last forever. As we get older, we let our hearts and minds become more expansive about death. We learn to accept and even embrace the finite nature of life. Holding death right in front of you, you remember to embrace life that much more completely. Is that how so many people who have known sorrow seem the most alive? I once read the words of a monk who said that he wanted his heart to be completely broken so that he would feel compassion for everyone. There is a kind of wisdom one only gains through pain or loss.

I don’t believe in heaven or any kind of conscious afterlife. I’m kind of science-minded about death: I think our energy and molecules get reshuffled into new things. About the most I hope for is becoming a nice fertilizer. A gradual change has taken place in me without my knowledge or permission: As I inch closer to death, I am less afraid of it. My mom was not afraid of it. I will miss her every day that I have left on this merciless, yet beautiful ball.

The sun has the audacity to still rise even though this angel on earth is gone. If you really are not up to being slowly torn apart, well, this life ain’t for you. A few months ago, Norma said, in her strong Texan accent, “Now, Mike, I don’t want you to be sad when I die, because I’ve had a long, wonderful life.” So this is me, being not sad. Call your mom.

I, Thor Harris, am not an activist. This is no time for any of us to wait and see what happens. I am a percussionist and multi-instrumentalist. I play with Thor & Friends, Swans, Ben Frost, Bill Callahan, Adam Torres, Shearwater, Amanda Palmer, and others. I write bossy lists such as “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever” and “How to Live Like a King on Very Little.” I also talk openly about depression. I’m pretty good at Twitter.