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Death by Turnip

Contemplating Unusual Ways to Die, So I Can Stay Positive During Lock-Down

While New Zealand is in a state of pandemic hysteria and shut in their homes until the plague passes, I have entered a period of Creative Seclusion.

The autumn days are full of golden light. Maple leaves strung along almost bare branches are illuminated into glowing red stars. Tiny globes of dew sit jewel-like on the morning grass. A deep sigh of pleasure escapes me as I contemplate the rare chance to turn inward for 40 days and leave the world to itself.

Like a Surgeon

Masked up and gasping for air, socially distanced shoppers glance at each other with measuring eyes. Nerves at full stretch, heads whiplash toward anyone who so much as clears their throat. Like a surgeon in a haze of hand-sanitizer, I study a plump tomato in my rubber gloved hand.

It really is a beauty. But is it good enough for my mother? Price, ripeness, flavour? I am on the phone being directed around the supermarket as her nominated shopper. She seems to be walking around the aisles in her own mind and trying to steer me accordingly. Confusion and stress are causing me to angry-whisper to her, ‘if you just tell me what you need, I will find it’. People are glancing at me assessing whether I am receiving bad news; in case it’s catching they extend the distance around me from 2 to 4 metres.

In a moment of clarity I realise she thinks I am at her local Pak'n Save when in fact I am at my local New World. A gasp of horror escapes her when I reveal this fact. ‘New World is way too expensive! I don’t want tomatoes from there!’ I remind her that I'm paying for the groceries, and I'm not queuing at two different supermarkets. I continue towards the pumpkins, my phone bristling with silent indignation.

My sabbatical stretches before me like a vast blank canvas full of magical possibilities. Never have I had so much uninterrupted creative time.

Strange Ways To Die

An idea begins to haunt me; an illustrated postcard series based on sudden and strange ways people have died. Sleuthing around the internet I discover a treasure trove of unusual deaths, many of these cautionary tales dating back centuries. The first one that captures my imagination is an historic death by tortoise.

Aeschylus is a still famous Greek playwright who died at age 67 around 455 BC. He was killed when a tortoise was dropped on his head by an eagle on purpose. The eagle had mistaken his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering the tortoise’s shell. It is reported that Aeschylus had been staying outdoors to avert a prophecy predicting he would be killed by a falling object.

Blood-curdling screams emit from the TV in the living room; my peaceful breakfast routine is shattered with what sounds like a full on military assault. My euphoria at being alive fades into dismay as I remember that I am secluded with Other People. At first whisper of lock-down, many blokes hooked on trailers and screeched into Bunnings and Resene, emerging like hunters with armloads of paint, tools and plants. Overnight, homeowners who just last week were planning to jet away to sunny Pacific Islands for some work-life balance, are now frothing to get stuck into long awaited renovations and garden makeovers; the ideal projects to Add Value during the incarceration. It’s day 8 and my man is still in the thrall of a Netflix marathon. I glance nervously into the not so distant future and feel faint at this sudden and unwelcome glimpse of retirement.

My office is my sanctuary. I light a small stick of incense and amongst the subtle wafts that conjure temples and prayerful invocations, I return to my rainbow of watercolour pencils. Selecting a cheerful mauve I begin colouring a shapely turnip.

Death By Turnip

On the 19th of December 1881, Sir William Payne-Gallwey, a former British MP was out shooting in the parish of Bagby. While crossing a field he tripped and fell, landing with quite a crunch on a turnip. Likely it was his ribs that gave way as the vegetable remained intact. Poor Sir William sustained severe internal injuries and died soon after.

Death it seems is a tricky character, striking unannounced in surprising ways. I am reeling in shock that I’ve been spared so long. There is no telling what strange confluence of events could conspire to move me from this world to the next! I am filled with a sudden and urgent appreciation for this moment, this coffee, my mother even. I take to my windows with a blue chalk marker covering the glass in mantras and favourite quotes to remind me to carpe diem!

Sometimes we are in just the right place at the right time: on August 22nd, 1888, a shower of meteorites fell ‘like rain’ on a village in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. A man was killed instantly when he was hit by one of the flying space rocks. Other times there have been some very near misses. One of he most recent and well-known accounts occurred in Chelyabinsk, Russia, when in 2013 a house-sized asteroid exploded over the city and injured more than 1,200 people (but killing not one).

Setting down a sunflower yellow pencil, I check the time and open my laptop. Death Café has moved with the times and gone virtual. With the possibility of Death by Flu on everyone’s minds, there has been a stampede of interest in talking about mortality matters in the Death Café. It’s not long before 20+ stamp-sized faces from around NZ are blinking out from my screen.

I am alarmed at how dishevelled some people look; the bad lighting, exaggerated shadows and strange assortment of leisure-wear remind me of the changing rooms after an aerobics class.

Most of us have leapt to the challenge of video-conferencing, Zoom being the app-du-jour. Yet to master the fake background to hide our clutter we are gazing into each others’ private spaces. People are talking while muted, leaving the mic on while yelling off camera at children and dogs and some are close up to the camera using the screen as a mirror for personal grooming.

Eventually the technological mountain is summited and we settle into a robust and thought-provoking conversation on euthanasia (or to be more correct assisted dying), wondering if, given a law change and easy access, the older versions of us might feel obliged to shuffle off at 75 or so, and stop wasting our children’s inheritances and the country’s resources.

Death comes for all of us in the end, though it can come where, when and how we least expect it. In recent years, at least 259 people (mainly tourists and Gen Zs) have died while taking photos of themselves on high mountains, tall buildings and with dangerous animals.

Death by Beaver

In 2013, a 60 year old Belarusian fisherman who should have known better (since he was neither tourist, nor youthful GenZ) bled to death after being bitten by a beaver. He was trying to take a photo of himself with the wild animal. When he approached the beaver it bit him on the thigh, severing an artery. Beavers can, of course, bite through trees.

Shaking my head, I sigh at how easily, in the absence of immediate threat to life, we seem to take our continued existence for granted. Each of my unusual deaths has become a trumpet call to live my life with more passion and appreciation, knowing it could end at any moment. I resolve to treat my body with more care and head down to the kitchen to make a liver-cleansing tea.

A horrible smell pervades the air. I am walking along the hallway and notice a usually-closed-door is open. I glance in and recoil in shock. Clothes, odd shoes and cables litter the floor. Mugs and plates totter atop piles of books. The laundry basket is overflowing and two damp towels are melding into the carpet. My bubble of creativity further deflates as I approach the kitchen, the bench now strewn with blender pieces and small deposits of protein powder. I am reminded there is a teenager trapped somewhere in the house.

My annoyance fades as I drift back to my most recent 'strange death discovery', and how a sudden fit of fury led to an untimely death. On April 15th 1982, 26 year old Michael Scaglione

was playing golf with friends at a golf course in New Orleans. After making a bad shot on the 13th hole he was furious with himself and smashed his club against their golf cart. The club snapped in half, the club-head ricocheting and stabbing him in the throat, severing his jugular vein. Mr. Scaglione staggered back and yanked the piece of metal from his neck. Unfortunately that was what sealed his fate and he bled to death on the green.

Memento Vivere!

The idea if not the reality of death is never far from my thoughts. I resolve to use it much like the Roman stoics of old who contemplated their mortality with various memento mori-style death objects to remind themselves that death is always coming. Remember death and in doing so, memento vivere! (Remember to live!)

Order your own set of 4 Memento Vivere postcards - as described above


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