Thursday, December 22, 2011

Denying Death: Why I Can't Go There

It is hard to read an obituary or hear a story about someone’s demise without feeling a strong kick in the stomach, that visceral reminder that I am alive and intent on staying that way.

I read a chart recently titled “Lifetime Odds of Death from Different Causes” with ratios displayed near bars representing heart disease (1:5), cancer (1:7), car accidents (1:100), drowning (1:8,942), air travel (1:20,000), fire or smoke (1:1,116), tornado (1:60,000), lightning (1:83,930), and venomous bites and stings (1:100,000). Leading the pack was a category called “Any Cause.” It held the worst odds at 1:1.

At first I laughed out loud at the absurdity of including an obvious fact in a chart that emphasized such exceptional events. I read the chart several times. Each reading produced the strongest reaction to “Any Cause, 1:1,” first with a giggle, then a smirk, followed by a smile, a lingering gaze, and finally, I fixated on “Any Cause, 1:1” and forgot to read the rest.

It is easy to blow off natural catastrophes, manmade mishaps and disease; I am able to imagine most of these as experiences I can survive. The possibility of survival categorizes them as life experiences. Life experiences become great stories.

Not so “Any Cause.” I was entrapped by it as though in a maze with no way out. My rational mind knows it is imminent but my imagination cannot process it. That is because death is not a life experience. The many narratives I grew up hearing and repeating confounded this idea. I want a good death, an easy death, in my home and surrounded by loved ones. If I get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I’m going to take my own life before I lose my mind completely. These narratives address the dying, not the death.

The impasse, the brick wall against which my imagination shatters is in no little way a construct of my belief that there is no afterlife, no loving deity to greet me at the end of the tunnel. I decided long ago that the large mammals I saw scattered along the roadside in various states of decomposition were simply evidence of my impending fate. I am comfortable with this notion and have no fear of that kind of finality. But the storyteller in me writhes at the prospect. I want to be able to report back.

My father was a great storyteller. When I was a child, he regaled me with tales of his intrepid youth in New York City during the thirties and forties. He was also a notorious gossip who entertained us with juicy details about his many customers in the beauty business and his gigs as a jazz musician. In March of 2008, he spent five days in hospice care, enough time for us to bring him a steady stream of visits from friends and family. It was both a party and a death watch. When he lost consciousness fourteen hours before taking his last breath, I already knew that this was a journey he couldn’t tell me about afterwards. But the knowing is not the same as the wishing.

Would I feel less troubled if I believed in a utopian heaven where there is a static and eternal bliss? This idea troubles me more. Not so much because it creates a paradox in erasing the necessity of the word “death” since it is portrayed as the next “life,” and, surprisingly, not even because “life” is by definition a thing that cannot persist indefinitely. Even if I could accept the premise that “afterlife” does not follow the rules of quantum physics, it is still a place I wouldn’t want to inhabit, simply because I’d lay odds that there is no writing there. No striving (racing against time), nothing to push against (no fear of death), no wondering (about the mystery of life and death), nothing to inform the imagination (because we are brain dead). The possibility of finding Christopher Hitchens, Henny Youngman, Larry Gelbart and Oscar Wilde inert and dazzled and enfolded in a cloud makes me break out in a cold sweat. Worse still, if there is no writing in the afterlife then none of them will give me his autograph.

And so I circle back to the thing I know for sure. When my father was dying, he told us a surprising thing. Though he was in hospice care, he said that he wanted us to do anything necessary to give him even a few more minutes of life. He had signed a do not resuscitate order, but that is not what he meant. I watched him fight death for five days, slumping in his chair and then suddenly sitting upright. He would say aloud to nobody in particular “No, not yet, I’m not ready.” On the fifth day, at 7:30 in the evening, his exhausted body gave in. “You can take me to the futon now,” he announced, “I want to lie down.” He lay on his back. My father never lay on his back, he had a lifelong phobia of suffocating. But there he lay, not suffocating, growing more peaceful and still with the passing hours as I watched over him, slipping morphine under his tongue every hour or two.

I did not experience my father’s death. I saw him in death and later, as a bag of ashes. But that is not the same thing. His love of breathing, the glow of contentment with each moment he remained sensate, this is all there is, all that is worth knowing.


  1. Oh Kim,

    How close to home your essay struck. I was with my Mom when she took her final breath too and like you, I placed morphine under her tongue every few hours. I know my mom believed in the heaven and hell scenario so I spoke to her about finding dad and them having a good laugh at their having raised 9 kids.

    I personally don't believe in an afterlife either, no heaven or hell...just nothing after death except a bag of ashes (or maybe as heaping mound of rotting flesh?!).

    Thank you for the thought proving piece.


  2. That 1:1 ratio provides a quick dash of cold water in our veins as the reality of it sinks in. We can feel the chill up the spine as we process those odds. Having been present at three moments of death with people I loved and still love, the finality of the moment resides deep in me as well. May I get to the point like your father and recognize and embrace my time when it comes. But until then, I'll still be wary of tornados and venomous snakes.

    Thanks for sharing these personal thoughts, Laura

  3. Deep thoughts...six feet deep, in fact.

    Watching someone die is a life-changing much as watching someone's birth.

    Everyone should witness both events.

  4. Kim

    A great piece that is also close to home. Even if there is an after life as per the 'italian and catholicism' traditional upbringing I feel I had. I have been too scarred by nuns and priests etc throughout my education that I will not be entering heaven, so feel the fear of the heat of hell. When my friends and I talk about this subject, sometimes we wonder if not believing in the after life has been brought about by the Catholic Church and it's teachings (or should I say inflictions)- rather than an inner non belief.

    Whatever takes us in the end though, I believe the old we come into and leave this world alone. Whilst we can be there for others, the 'act' so to speak of dying, the event, the last breath - in my mind of thinking, is our one last control over life - regardless of what happens next.

    I think LIFE as we know it is perhaps an acronym that covers both views.

    Life Is For Eternity or Life Isn't For Ever...

    And that whatever is in between the cradle to the grave is the acronym KIM -

    representing whilst here -

    Keep It Moving.

    It meaning living, which is what it sounds like you do ever so passionately with your writing.

    So for your sake my dear and when your time comes, if you find there is an after life and you cannot write - I trust you will let all hell lose and not give until the birth of writing in the afterlife!

    On another note, I made a posting somewhere else just before I read and replied to your beautiful story above. I have decided you are a terribly bad influence on me and ended my posting thinking I will be going to hell for sure now (those nuns in one's head, I tell you)! :-)

    You are incorrigible Kim and I dare say this is a gene on your father's side!

    Thanks again for more beautiful words and story telling.