It is 6:45a.m. and I am up to my elbows in soapsuds when I hear the tolling begin. The church bell (acetylene tank) is struck briskly for meetings, slowly for deaths, one strike for each year of the life ended.
One. Two. Three. A long pause. Four. Five. Each time it pauses out of sequence I draw a sigh of relief that it's primary school age. Not one of my students, please God, not another one from the secondary school.
Thirteen. Long pause. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Long pause, dragging and dragging, until I accept that it's not going to be struck again. I drop everything and trot out of the house, up the hill to the sisters, heart in my mouth. Let it not be a student, please, let it not be. The sisters will know, they always know every bit of news.
And of course they do know- they found him. Little old Bernard, alone in his house, dying of fever and old age and his hourglass simply running out. Sister Goretti saw him the night before, and when two of them drop in in the morning to see how he is doing, they find him cold. No-one knows his exact age, so they strike just long enough to announce an adult death.
Mainly I feel relief. How good that he had company on his last evening. What a blessing that he was found quickly, early the next morning, before the predators could take over. How GLAD I am that it was no sixteen year old. But I also feel stretched, tugged somehow. The deaths I have encountered over the last two years- my father, Michael Hinds with his bike accident in March, B's mum Sue, and then Jude's suicide in May- have all been tragedies. Too early, too mysterious, too agonising. No-one is traumatised by Bernard's death. There is no-one to mourn him. Is that a good thing? Is death's rightness imaginable? I'm so used to the raging against the dying of the light, or the indignant sanctimony over an unmourned grandparent (as if the acceptance of death is an outrage), that I do not know how to appreciate this Wapishana pragmatism.
I think none (or very few) of us comprehend that we do not really believe we are going to die until someone close to us does, or we receive news of our own potential death. Maybe the memento mori isn't morbid at all. Perhaps when we accept the rightness of death we can say "In the midst of death, we are alive".