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.