Friday, 18 August 2017

When Odin Recruits: On Becoming a Pagan Widow

Detail from The Death of Messalina by Rochegrosse (1916)
Note: this is a cathartic narration of my experience.

Earlier this year my husband (W) died suddenly from pulmonary embolism. He was in his early 40s. We first met at school, when he was 16 and I was 14. We hooked up two years later. For almost the entirety of my adult life we were together and for most of that time we were totally into each other (although we did have problems, and break ups, here and there). I adored him, he was my universe. Although I’m not sure I knew quite how much I adored him until he died. He treated me (mostly) very well. He had a traditional approach to our marriage; he was protective and loyal. He would not have left me for a younger woman when I got into my 40s (like my sister’s husband did). He was not emotionally abusive or violent (like my father). He was honourable and true. He didn’t care for religion but, even so, he had personal values that he upheld and believed in – he had integrity.

It happened as follows.

The night it happened
I came home from work around 6pm on a Monday and everything was very normal except that he had had the day off work because he didn’t feel right. He had been taking a prescribed medication that he thought was causing intermittent “shortness of breath” as a side effect. Even though he was fairly sure the medication was the cause of his unwellness, he had booked a doctor’s appointment for the morning of the following day, and he emailed the specialist who prescribed him the drug (which was for dizzy migraine).

When I came home he mentioned that he had a pain in his leg but said nothing more about it. We had dinner and did normal stuff. Around 9pm we started watching Netflix in bed and he paused the TV, asking me if there was any nice food in the kitchen. I told him there were some mince pies left over from Christmas and they should be nice because they were Mr Kipling (which I got wrong, they were actually a cheaper brand). He went out and then came back in the bedroom holding the packet of mince pies. I think he may have intended to point out they were not Mr Kipling, but before he could he sort of fell onto the bed and started breathing extremely loudly and rapidly, like really bad snoring but sped up. For a moment it was comical and I thought he was joking, but I realised quickly that this was f—ked up. I called an ambulance. The woman on the phone seemed like a bitch and told me I was being hysterical. I was yelling at him, trying to get him to lie on his side, because that is what she told me I needed to get him to do. His face went a terrifyingly deep purple for a few seconds. This was getting horribly and unbelievably serious; I’m panicking. Then he became totally normal again for perhaps a minute or two. He told me off for making a fuss over nothing when he realised I had called an ambulance. He clearly didn’t have any consciousness of what had just happened. Then he passed out again and the hideously strained breathing began once more. The ambulance came, I let them in. He was normal once again. He was calm. They asked him if he had any pain and he mentioned his leg. They said something about aspirin. Then it got blurry for me as the gravity of the situation steamrolled on. They called a second ambulance and told me to wait with my pre-teen son in his room with the door shut. I called a friend to come and pick him up, to get him away from this increasingly distressing situation. I called my parents-in-law and told them they might want to drive down and meet me at the hospital. A paramedic came in the room and told me W had gone into cardiac arrest. Stupidly, I didn’t really know what that meant. W’s mother told me it was bad. I think I was in a daze. I rode in the ambulance to the hospital but not in the back, they wouldn’t let me see him. Then I was at the hospital on my own, it was 10.30ish, then 11ish. His parents live over an hour away. I tried to call his older brother, but he wouldn’t pick up. Someone from the hospital came in and asked me if I wanted to see how hard they were trying to keep him alive, which sounded bad. There was a weird conversation which had something to do with whether or not he would want to be kept alive. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was totally calm, everything felt ghastly and unreal. I didn’t know what to say except that he was a very nice person and that dignity was important. A nurse was sitting next to me, telling me she thought I might be in shock. I don’t remember anyone telling me he had died. They asked if I wanted to be with him. I said yes. They took me into a room. He was lying on a bed with a large plastic tube in his mouth and no blanket on him, just his pyjama-shorts on. I sat next to him, staring at him. His eyes were so beautiful and blue. I thought he was alive for some reason. Minutes went by and then I realised his chest wasn’t moving. I felt nauseous and sort of blank. The door opened and his parents came in. One of them made a brief, shocked sound I will never forget and then I knew for sure W was dead. We sat in that room for what felt like hours. The whole time I thought I might throw up. I remember saying we needed to take his family signet ring off, for our son when he was older. W’s father took it off. I couldn’t bear to touch W, I didn’t want him to feel cold. Slowly his colour changed a little, he started to go a slightly purple around the neck and look less alive. At some point a doctor came in and told us what he thought had happened (a massive blood clot in his leg had travelled to his lungs and caused his heart to stop and they were unable to restart it – the shortness of breath W had experienced over the previous weeks may have been caused by small bits of the clot breaking off and reaching his lungs). His parents and I were each given a moment to be alone with him separately before leaving the hospital. I told him I would cry a thousand tears for him but my eyes were dry, as they had been the whole time. Then his parents and I took a desolate walk back to their car in the dark and we drove back to my place.

The next day
The sun rose the next day, which seemed almost incredible, or wrong. Our son returned home and W’s mother explained what had happened. Sometimes suffering has a beauty about it but this was nothing other than nightmarish – there are no words. I honestly do not think I could convey what this was like. In any case I don’t want to intrude on my son’s privacy or the privacy of other family members, so I will minimise my comments on the experience and actions of them.

W’s parents left for home by midday. Once they were gone I dismantled my Roman oriented household shrine, which I had maintained and affectionately added to for years. First, I picked up the statue of Venus and threw it in the bin with enough force to break it. Then I dispersed all the other items. The statues of Vesta and Mercury were hidden away in a cupboard. I had always had a particular affection for the statue of Mercury, but now its reassuring smile looked like a smirk. I thought I could make a pretty shrine and nicely scented offerings and the Gods would give me what I wanted. It was an intensely bitter way to realise the falsehood of my approach. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the Roman Gods now, it was more that I felt mocked by them.

Night came and at last I was alone (my son now being asleep). I lay down on the living-room floor where the paramedics had carried W so they could work on him (the bedroom had been too cramped by our absurdly oversized king sized bed). This was probably the real place of his death, not the hospital, for his heart stopped at least half an hour before we got there. The tears finally came. I was like a wounded animal, crawling around on the floor on all four limbs, half whispering, half screaming “no” again and again. I was still so disbelieving of what had happened. At 11pm the living-room light went out by itself, because W had programmed it to. I lay on the floor in the way I imagined he had laid on the floor when the paramedics worked on him, and he felt close. In the weeks that followed lying on the living-room floor at 11pm when the light went out became a ritual. I tried to figure out where he was, and what he was doing.

Preparing for the funeral
Viking age axe, Bayeux Tapestry
It was weeks before we managed to sort out funeral arrangements. His body had automatically gone to the Coroner’s Court, as he was relatively young and his death was so fast and unexpected. I was trying to block an autopsy because I couldn’t bear to think of some medical ghoul opening his body up (in the end I agreed to a moderate autopsy because it was clear I had no other choice). In the meantime I had to get my head around how to send him off. His parents are non-religious, which meant they were very flexible and agreed to everything I requested. I wanted him to be cremated. It was agreed that I could place a number of items with him in the coffin to burn with him. I placed over $1000 worth of my jewellery in a tin for him to use as currency (to trade) in the afterlife. I bought him two reproduction Viking axes shaped like that on his signet ring. Our son chose a lethal looking WW2 (reproduction) dagger for him.  We also chose a WW1 replica water bottle. I think both of us had in our minds that perhaps the afterlife was like a medieval inspired video game. We wanted him to have good weapons, a health flask and of course gold and items to trade. I also bought him a card, and wrote a message for him in the hope that he might remember something of his old life and embrace the new without misgivings. 

The weeks that followed – atheists everywhere
As news of W’s death travelled far and wide I was inundated with phone calls, texts and emails (including from people who I didn’t know very well) that kept me strangely busy. Through these communications I became dismayed at how prevalent atheism obviously is. The stereotype of the well meaning but misguided Christian blathering on about heaven would have been a welcome intermission (that never came) from the almost universal chorus of horrible sentiments like “he will always live on in your heart”. No, f—k you, he lives, he just doesn’t live here with me. Well this is what I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t. I was far too polite. At one point, just a few days after W died, in a desperate moment I rang up a local Buddhist temple, thinking they might say something about rebirth at least, but no, the guy on the phone was basically just an atheist too (ie, when you die, that’s pretty much it). At one point I was speaking to a Buddhist friend about my conviction in the reality of the afterlife (which is consistent with traditional Buddhism) and she said something like “I’m glad this gives you comfort” – in other words, you’re a delusional fool. This is the age we live in. Even religious people, and good people, and smart people, are unable to believe in anything other than physical matter and the theorems of scientists … no matter that their hypotheses are prone to changing every few decades, and only a 100 years ago race and eugenics (which are now almost wholly discredited) belonged to mainstream scientific thought.

The funeral and after the funeral
W was an intensely private person and all who knew him well knew that he would absolutely loathe having people spilling their private moments with him onto a disparate crowd, so we dispensed with that style of funeral. We had a family only viewing of his body, then a family only lunch when we collected his ashes. A few days later there was a mass gathering at a pub. One person after another sat by me and offered their condolences to me in person. It was actually rather lovely. But I was careful not to drink much alcohol, I felt that if I did it might unleash some unbearable and perhaps dangerous emotional state. For the next few months I avoided both alcohol and music almost completely – just to stay sane and keep a stiff upper lip, because the alternative was unthinkable. Months later, I do listen to music but for some reason the only music I want to listen to is apparently called melodic death metal (which I never listened to before), especially Swallow the Sun; their music is the soundtrack to my grief. I’m still pretty much keeping away from alcohol, but I can only handle so much dourness … I wear mostly only black. My life-state is winter.

How I make sense of W’s death – Odin’s intervention
After W was cremated the line “he walks on green pastures” kept coming to me, again and again, almost like a mantra. I imagined him waking up by a forest stream with all the things we burnt him with. I imagined him reading the card and seeing the photos, that were burnt with him, in a state of some bewilderment. Did the stream have waters like Lethe, causing him to forget those in his past life? I could see his massive frame moving through the forest with the axes, the dagger, the water flask, and the gold, silver and amber jewellery in his pocket. Finally he would see a door and knock on it. A demand of payment or proof of wealth might be made. He would show the jewellery and perhaps some animal skins he’d collected along the way. He’d be invited in. He had always liked hanging out in pubs and bars, drinking heavily with a motley crew – he’d have a great time.

One of his best friends had made a reference to W being in Asgard and honestly this is what I believe. All the skeptics and rationalists can go hang, they don’t know sh-t, they don’t know what I do, they haven’t had my experiences (and I am not sharing all of them here). My man is in paradise. Twice I read the runes and asked Odin and twice He assured me that it was so.  W is happy up there, and I am … searching and still so dazed down here.

Australian Raven Pair by ravenari.deviantart.com
One of the reasons I am sure that W feasts in Odin’s hall is because something very unusual, and very Odinic, happened about two weeks before he died. It was a hot summer’s day in Sydney, and W was sitting in bed with his laptop resting on his legs. Our bedroom is on an upper floor and looks on to the branches of two large trees. I walked in and saw two Australian ravens in the branches, I think they may have been eating a catch. They were literally around two metres away from where W was sitting, with a window between them. In the nearly nine years that I have lived here I have seen ravens in these trees only twice, and this was the second time (the first was within weeks of first moving in, which I took as a positive omen). There are other Odinic associations too – he died fearlessly; he died while still of military age; he died, ultimately, due to constriction of breath. Traditionally, it is recorded that Odin took his sacrifices via deaths which involved asphyxiation, which is what happened to W when the blood clot flooded his lungs, inducing cardiac arrest. He is a fine entrant for Valhalla. A noble man. His death had the feel of fate about it. Looking back there were a number of times it could have been prevented – apparently blood clots are perfectly treatable if they are caught in time. Why did he even have a blood clot? He hadn’t done anything that would normally be associated with DVT – no recent air travel, nothing like that.

W never had much interest in religion of any kind, but I have felt drawn to Odin since my 20s, so much so that my nickname for a time was Freki. Odin was the first (Pagan) God I believed in and has always been the one I have believed in the most. Am I some sort of dazed and confused Valkyrie who unwittingly groomed my husband for Valhalla? Is that my purpose? To serve Odin for the fight at Ragnarök? There is poetry in this thought but truthfully Valhalla feels far away, and if I am a Valkyrie I am well and truly stranded.

How my approach to Paganism  has changed
I cannot shake the feeling that I f—ked up in my approach to the Roman Gods. It was naïve of me to think I could somehow ingratiate myself with them by maintaining a household shrine, making regular offerings, writing about them in this blog. I do still believe in them, but I condemn my former approach for being too domestic, too bookish and somewhat sanitised … and I may have committed hubris. I never thought the Germanic Gods were overwhelmingly benevolent, but I convinced myself that the Roman Gods were, and this was my folly. I suspect my Christian heritage encouraged my unconscious search for benevolent beings in which I could believe in, just as my devoutly Lutheran grandmother believed in Jesus and angels and all the rest. I am so disappointed with myself in this respect that I doubt I will ever embrace Roman Paganism again in the way that I did. And, child of the Germanic tribes that I am,* I think it is time for me to stop averting my gaze from the terrible greatness of Odin – the High One, the One most deserving of reverence. 

All that said, my statue of Mercury has come out again. It sits in an honoured spot in my living room, but I make no offerings there. And I still light a candle several times a week at a household shrine, but this time the shrine is to W, at the place where his ashes rest. It is not an elaborate ritual. I only wish for him, if he can see me, to know that I light a candle for him, because I love him and I’m thinking of him. I never understood ancestor worship before, but now I do. When you strongly love the person you lose there is nothing more natural than setting up a shrine of some kind to them.

Why I wrote all of this
The highly personal and self-centred nature of his post means that few people will have got this far in the reading of it, which is understandable. I wrote it because I feel unable to share my experience fully with anyone at all (that I know in the flesh). They would be incredulous if I said too much, so I say very little. As well as the need for a cathartic break from my usual British reserve I do feel the need to explain why I have posted so little this year, why all of those posts have been about death, and why the emphasis on this blog must inevitably change course. It’s not that I will never write a Roman oriented post again, or that I disavow everything I wrote before, but I do want to be honest about my experience, and I don’t want to mislead people by conveying the impression that I’ve got cosmic truth and human happiness nailed, because I don’t. I’m still a seeker, which I guess befits a sectary of the wandering God.

---------

* According to the Genographic Project I am 80% Scandinavian and 16% British. My father is of British descent and my mother of Swedish. My mtDNA Haplogroup is HV0a1(a maternal lineage most commonly associated with NW Europe, the HV0 lineage is theorised to have most likely originated in SE Europe around 20,000-25,000 years ago, and was certainly present in Hungary by circa 5000 BCE, and Scandinavia by circa 2500 BCE: eupedia.com).


APPENDIX

Why I am still a Buddhist too

I have been a Buddhist off and on for most of my life – in my bookishness and love of history and research I quickly realised the fundamentally polytheistic nature of traditional Buddhism and for me that became a bridge to Western Paganism (most eastern Gods don’t resonate for me). Unfortunately, the majority of Western Buddhists seem to care only for Buddhist literature written by contemporary thinkers. They think it’s a philosophy, or a branch of psychology, and happily reject even quite core elements of Buddhism, like rebirth and inherited karma that transcends this bodily form, and polytheism. I find this immensely frustrating, but Buddhism offers a flesh and blood community that I greatly appreciate. Most of my closest friends are Buddhists, as am I. I wasn’t really practicing Buddhism so much when W died, so I can’t be disillusioned with it; it didn’t let me down. So I continue on with it, I believe in it (mostly) and I think it has helped to keep me sane. Without it I don’t think I’d have coped with W’s death as well as I have so far. Just as I have friends who embrace secular Buddhism, I embrace polytheistic Buddhism – we agree to disagree and respect each other’s point of view … well try to anyway. We may not share identical beliefs but we share the practice – chanting, meditation, mutual encouragement and so on. Honestly, I’d be lost without it. Every time I chant at my Buddhist shrine I include a prayer for W and I hope he hears the bell (which he bought me) when I strike it in his honour.


Written by M. Sentia Figula (aka Freki). Find me at neo polytheist and on Facebook 

1 comment: