Smiley Wolf Eel, Puget Sound, BC. Photo by Bev Dults

The Death Card
By Kathy Garner

THERE IS A wonderful story by Charles Baxter called "Gryphon." In the story an unusual substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi gives a fourth grade class an alternate view of everything they’ve been taught. At one point in the story she reads the students’ Tarot cards. The death card shows up in one boy’s reading:

"That one? That one means you will die soon, my dear,’ She gathered up the cards. We were all looking at Wayne. ‘But do not fear,’ she said. ‘It’s not really death, so much as change" She put the cards on Mr. Hibler’s desk. ‘And now, let’s do some arithmetic.’"

Now, keep in mind that this was a reading done for a 9-year-old. When I first started teaching I was told to teach third, not fourth grade, because fourth graders "turn the corner." It is an age of changing. 8 and 9 year olds become more abstract in their thinking. They are able to do more complex tasks. They grow in independence and become more peer orientated. It is a time of change—the baby self dies to make room for something deeper and wiser.

The Death card’s symbols: The grim reaper is there to take away what is no longer needed—if what is no longer needed is not released willingly, the reaper takes that which is no longer useful by force. There is a white rose—a sign of purity—a sign of the availability of higher forces in place to ease a transition. A rainbow on the horizon symbolizes transformation

One of the things I felt before I was dealt the Death card was an urge to clean house—to toss out all sorts of old clutter that I’d gathered over the years. This feeling is part of the Death experience. Death of a part of ourselves or a chapter in our lives is an opportunity to wipe things clean and start over. The presence of the Death card in a reading signifies a time to get rid of the persistant, nagging thoughts or actions that keep one in a rut. It is, paradoxically, a card of movement.

Death helps us see an alternate viewpoint we can use to deal with change in our lives. The fear of death is the fear that we will lose ourselves—but we only lose what is not really us. When the death card comes it is time for release—(hence the movement towards spirit). "The more we focus inward to our heart and soul, the less violent Death seems and the more it reflects the truth of our being. Life is eternal when we are willing to grow, but when we get stuck in meaningless tradition or old habits, we end up dying because we cease. Change can occur gracefully and gradually, like the slow growth of new plants in spring. It's not change, but the resistance to change that brings pain. Praying for or seeking "the willingness to be willing" can dissolve huge amounts of resistance."

The first time I remember seeing the Death card in one of my readings was the year my mother died. She’d always been ill or complaining of illness. In my life, she’d always been medicated for psychiatric disturbances—valium was the drug she ate during my youth. After a psychotic break, the year after I’d married, she was prescribed thorizine and she functioned better—but the woman I’d grown up with, the mother I loved dearly, even though her words were often cruel and lacked encouragement, died. She left this earth a good ten years later, but to me, she died when she became "normal."

The year her body died was the year I pulled the Death Card. My mother died of a heart attack at the end of 1997 in the hallway of her apartment building. My aunt, who was fighting ovarian cancer was walking Mom to the car because my mom had all sorts of bloating and cramping—symptoms also of ovarian cancer.

I was thankful that she died of the heart attack. Her body was riddled with tumors. I thought it’d have been nearly impossible to care for her through chemo—a treatment that was working for my aunt. (My aunt is in complete remission!) I donated the parts of her body that were useful to science (I gave her brain to the neuropsychiatric institute at UCLA because I thought it’d help them learn more about mental illness.) And I feel into overwhelming fear. I woke up. Ovarian cancer is not uncommon in Ashkenazi Jews. My mom’s mom died of "stomach" cancer—probably ovarian cancer and my aunt had it. I went into therapy—I didn’t know what to do. My mom died at 63. I’d never given a thought to my life ending before that event. I did the math—my kids would only be in their twenties if I died in my sixties. I have too much curiosity about this world to leave that early. And there were so many things, I realized from her death, so many things I’d not yet done.

I had gene testing—my aunt got tested and we learned she carried a common genetic marker for ovarian cancer. I pondered getting an overectamy—a procedure to remove my ovaries and womb. But the test came out in my favor—no unusual markers that make me any more susceptible to ovarian cancer than anyone else. But my life changed drastically.

There is saying, I think its Whitman: When the large tree falls, the little shoots thrive and grow unobstructed. A parent’s death is a huge transition. Within two years I was separated and had moved back to live when I was drawn as opposed to living where my spouse chose. I began to discover myself. Death brings new life.

In looking for information about the death card my internet searches lead to many articles on the sniper attacks in D.C. Our homemade terrorists—left the Death card and death in their wake. They were caught and locked up. But what type of renewal did they bring? Do those in Baltimore and D.C., now being told to tape up their doors and window after this stress feel a need to truly live their lives to the fullest? When my mom first died and I had to contemplate giving up the parts of my body that make me a woman—I didn’t feel more alive. I felt attacked and doomed to make decisions resulting from circumstances that were not from my actions. I was alone in my pain and confusion and fortunately had a good, calm therapist to talk with. And I was lucky that my fear of death was alleviated for the moment. While in the grip of fear, however, all I felt was frightened of what I might lose. I’d never thought about what I’d gain. As soon as I moved through the fear and examined the other implications of my situation--It is up to me to choose and think about how will I choose to LIVE a life—I began an adventure. The adventure continues and I am grateful for the opportunity to live an examined life!++



Geraldine Amaral author of Tarot Celebrations: Honoring the Inner Voice,

(see Jennifer Elizabeth Moore at Healing Tarot)

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