If I Die Sooner Rather than Later…

This is a poem/reflection on the strange times we are in.

If I die sooner rather than later…

I want to thank the eggs and the hens who laid them; eggs which have been adored in the palm of my hand; eggs which this morning sang their oval song to me, as I opened the kitchen door in the low light of 6.30am.

I want to thank the daffodils I picked yesterday for sitting with their yellowness, letting the sun burst inside their hearts over and over.

I want the laying of the fire in my writing room (AKA ‘Nun’s Palace’) to fail again, for me to have the chance, before I die, to feel the crumpling of newspaper in my hands, the careful laying on of wood, the striking of the match and then the sitting back to watch and wait. I want, when the fire fails to take, to have to remove the charred kindling, crumple more paper and begin again. I like beginning again. Everyone knows that every day is a beginning again, or perhaps every moment. Yes, every moment. I want to remember the pause between the fire failing and the motion of the body to re-light it, to try again. Inside that pause, every imaginable being is somehow aligned.

I want my dog and cat to know that I adore them; that there have been so many times in my life that their presence has taught me to forget about myself in a way that is deeply healing. I want someone who survives, to love them as much as I have. I want it to be someone who knows how to walk in the woods at daybreak or to run in the park like some daft, mad-happy child, someone who knows how to see the world and forget about it at the same time.

I want to thank the wood-pigeons and the doves for their ceaseless calling of the world into its roundness. I want them to know that their soft, pastel grey bodies have brought me joy; that their shape and their song are inimitable, and that this truth has taught me how to be human.

I want to praise humans, all of us, no matter what. I want the lion to lie down with the lamb, no matter how irrational or naïve that is. I want it now more than ever, now that the world is sick, lost, harrowed, broken, toxic, violent, and full of shame. And I won’t ever stop wanting it, even after I die. I want to remember that what we pray for is what defines our lives. And so, if what I offer the world is irrationality and naivety, then so be it – at least it can counter the curve of ‘knowing it all’ and ‘lording it over’.

I still want to praise humans. Even though I prefer trees and animals to humans, I want all the humans I’ve met to know that I’m grateful that our paths have crossed. I want, of course, all those who are close to me to know how much I love and respect them. But they know that already. I want the people who don’t know me to step forward and be praised:

I want the Hermes man who delivers my parcels to know that I always appreciate his warmth and friendliness; the way he looks me in the eye when he brings my parcel to the door; how he makes time to say a few words, even if it’s only phatic communion (something I used to be so scornful of!).

I want the men in prison, where I work, to know that they have changed my life. Will someone please tell them, if I die sooner rather than later? Seven years as a tutor in prison, and I never dreamt they would teach me so much: how to kneel before my own judgement and preconception, my own righteous notions of ‘what it means to be human’. I want someone to go into prison and tell them that they are just as important in the world as anyone else; that beneath the shame and the violent covering up of shame, they are shining beings, just like the rest of us. Can someone please tell them that? Can that someone be a man or a woman who has never stepped foot in a prison before (the same as me, seven years ago)?

I want to thank the people I’ve clashed with; the people I’ve loved beyond reason; the people I’ve hated; the people I’ve idolised and the people I’ve been afraid of. I want them to know that meeting them has enriched my life and brought me immeasurable suffering, too. I want them to know that I have railed against them and adored them in equal measure. I want them to know that they taught me the complexity of being human; that there is no static state; that one day I can be the lion and the next, the lamb.

If I die sooner rather than later, I want my husband to know what he already knows: he has filled my life with joy. There is no other man on this earth who could have shown me the kindness and exquisite love that he has shown me.

If I die sooner rather than later, I want my daughters to know that death is part of life and that they needn’t be afraid of it. I want them to know – please could a friend of mine remind them of this over the course of their lives? – that I did the best I could to honour and care for them; that I know I failed frequently as a mother and was downright shit at times. But I never – not for one single second – stopped loving them. I want them to never forget – even when times are tough and they’re facing loss and hardship, which they will – that to breathe and to be alive in the world as a human being is a gift beyond all others. I want them to allow themselves to live their gift to its fullest potential, whatever that may be. I want them to remember the time the four of us did ‘toes in the ocean’ on the Isle of Colonsay in the freezing wind.

I want to thank the poets and writers who came before me and all those who will come after. I’ve spent innumerable hours in their company and I’m glad. Art, in all its manifestations, has fed me throughout my life.

If I die sooner rather than later, please cremate me and spread my ashes in woodland, somewhere in Scotland. Or, if the current pandemic gets really bad and we end up having to dig mass graves, like they did during the Spanish flu, of course, just put my body in alongside others. I don’t own property, stocks or shares, so there won’t be lots of paperwork to do. Whatever savings I have, will go to my husband and daughters, of course.

I have had an incredible and luck-filled life. I have been blessed. Who knows whether I’ll survive the coronavirus. None of us can know for sure, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to face the possibility of an early death, and to share this space here with anyone else who feels compelled to do the same.

I’m 49 years old and, like many of us, have a history of respiratory illness. Right now though, I can hear the lambs baa-ing in the neighbouring fields, and I’ve work to do.


Em Strang has set up a Facebook group to talk about death, you can join here.

Comments (15)

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  1. Adrian Roper says:

    Thanks Em.

    1. Em Strang says:


  2. Michael Potter says:

    Oh that is so beautifully written, you are very good at this. Thank you, i so needed to read that just now – what a bonkers time we live in!

    1. Em Strang says:

      Bonkers, indeed, and fiercely beautiful! We’re living in the most paradoxical of times, it seems to me. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

  3. Fiona Graham says:

    Thank you for writing this so much more tenderly and eloquently than I might have written of my own gratitude for the life I have lived but haven’t even attempted through idleness and pretence of invulnerability.

    1. Em says:

      Hi Fiona, why not join the FB group and share some writing there? Thanks for your comment.

  4. John McLeod says:

    As one of the many who are vulnerable, this made me cry, reminded me of who and what is important in life, and what I need and want to say to those I love.

    1. Em Strang says:

      I’m so glad it touched you, John. Stay safe!

      1. John Donnelly says:

        Em, God love you. I wish I had written that. You raised my spirits enormously today. Stay well.

  5. Robert says:

    Beautiful, Em. Thank you.
    I can’t say “I want to praise humans, all of us, no matter what.” We’ve wreaked so much harm on the world, alongside so much beauty. But your piece makes me feel a bit better about being human; and someone said that was the whole purpose of Art.
    So, well said. Stay well and all good wishes.

    1. Em says:

      Thanks, Robert, and to you too.

  6. Mandy Ware says:

    Several times this week I’ve thought that’s Spring is such a “wrong” time for so much illness, fear and uncertainty. The garden is full of hints and promises and the contrast with all the edginess and panic has been really tough. Your poem has helped me to bridge the divide and now it makes sense in a way that brings a lot of calmness. So thank you.
    “Failed frequently as a mother and was downright shit at times” – now, that made me laugh. Oh yes!

    1. Em says:

      Haha, yes, Mandy, motherhood is full of the unspoken – just like everything else really! I guess that’s one of the reasons I love writing: to be able to dig in and uncover whatever’s beneath the surface. Glad it spoke to you!

  7. Frank Morris says:

    Hi Em.
    Thanks for this beautiful poem / reflection.

    If I die sooner than later, I want to thank all those precious souls I have met on the train to London, who shared their thoughts with me and listen to my own thoughts, thus making the journey infinitely more pleasant.

    1. Em says:

      How wonderful, Frank! I’ve already noticed so much more openness amongst people, collective kindness and generosity, since C-19 came along.

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