The real sting of death is the thought that all life’s possibilities were supposed to wait until I got around to paying attention.
I was about to turn sixteen, and this was my first job. For two hours every day after school, I took calls from the funeral homes and produced obituaries of people who would not have been newsworthy if they hadn’t just died. It was fill-in-the-blank work with little room for creativity. (No one, I was told, wants Grandma to have a “creative” obituary.) But it was my first exposure to the magic of publication: I typed, and the next afternoon a paper carrier would toss those same words onto our porch.
John Q. Public, 54, son of James and Susan Public of Spruce Street in Quincy, died unexpectedly Tuesday evening at his home in Sacramento, California.
I didn’t defend suddenly, because I saw that the city editor was right. I had been confirmed as a Lutheran two years before, so I knew all about death: Death was the instant when the soul left the body to keep its appointment with God’s judgment. A person’s soul was his or her unique and eternal essence. It was the spark of life, and either it was in the body or it had left—suddenly.
A few years later, I began to wonder about the suddenness of life’s beginning. Was a zygote just a clump of cells one moment, and then a complete human essence the next, fully formed in the eyes of God? It seemed incredible. Surely souls had their own developmental process, like brains or livers.
That didn’t fit very well with the image of a spark, but, still, I never challenged the suddenness of death. Until the summer before last.
My father—who, as I write these words, seems to be in no immediate danger—began the summer as a model 87-year-old, a hopeful portent of my own longevity. If I watched his stride closely, I could see that he favored his left knee. But he still moved smoothly and confidently. If the situation called for it, I would not have been surprised to see him run.
His mind was also aging well. He had some trouble remembering names, and, more recently, nouns in general, but that was just a communication issue. He knew what was happening and what he thought about it.
Dad had long ago retired from farming and rented his fields to my cousin, but he continued to drive out to the farm and putter. One June day he was standing in the back of his pick-up, looking for something. And then—suddenly—he was on the ground with a broken leg.
He managed to fish a cellphone out of his pocket, call 911, and tell them how to find him. Then he called my mother and told her that everything was about to change.
He was right. Dad was Mom’s caretaker, so his problems rippled. One domino toppled the next in a year full of surgeries, broken bones, hospital-borne infections, and diminished sight and hearing that saw both of them go in and out of nursing homes for months at a time.
By the end of that hard year, they had recovered enough and hired enough help that they could once again be home together. But neither of them is what they were. Dad does not drive and neither of them can walk more than a few steps without a walker. Mom sees only shapes.
But the more unsettling part of the change was intangible. Each had gotten depressed when separated from the other, and though they recovered to a certain extent when reunited, their interest in the outside world never came back. Two years ago, Mom and I argued about the relative merits of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Dad and I talked sports and traded the latest jokes we had heard. All of us would guess which way the stock market was headed and gossip about celebrities.
None of that happens any more. Increasingly, I struggle to find any topic of conversation beyond their respective symptoms and appointments. Now that they so seldom leave the house, even the weather is becoming irrelevant. Sometimes I forget to shout, or they neglect to tell me that their hearing aid batteries have died. Eventually some nonsensical response tells me that they have been guessing about my end of the conversation, and I have to wonder how long I have been talking to myself.
Slowly over the last year and a half, against all my resistance, I have been coming to understand that the city editor was wrong. Death is not sudden. Death is a process. Day by day, possibilities fade, and you do things for the last time, usually without realizing it.
And it’s not just them. It’s me.
Several years ago, when all the kids were getting those scooters that you stand on with one leg and push with the other, I got one, too. For a month or so it was fun. I used it for any errand that was more than a couple blocks but not worth driving to. Then one day, looking for a little extra speed, I braced with my right leg and pushed off too hard with my left. As I toppled right, I realized that this maneuver really required a third leg that I didn’t have.
By the time I stopped sliding across the pavement, my body was a map of the places where you are supposed to wear pads. Palm, elbow, knee—all scraped. My forehead was bleeding the way forehead cuts do. Using a sock to keep the blood out of my eyes, I walked the scooter to a fortuitously nearby emergency room. The doctor who stitched my head gave me what she must give all victims of scooter and skateboard accidents: a lollipop.
That day I never consciously thought, “I’m too old for this.” But months later I realized that I had not been on the scooter since. A few years after that, I roller-bladed for the last time—again, realizing it only in retrospect.
These last two summers have been abnormal, as parental emergencies—my wife’s father was also failing—ate the time and energy that used to go into recreation. So we haven’t done many of our standard summer things. We haven’t taken the kayak out. When I imagine climbing one of the White Mountains, I think, “We should get in better shape first.” And then it doesn’t happen.
I don’t believe those summer things have happened for the last time. But who knows? When Dad drove his pick-up out to the farm and climbed up to root around in the truck-bed, he didn’t know that was the last time, either. The last time usually starts out looking just like all the other times. No one makes a speech or hands you a commemorative certificate.
So what about my relationships with friends I haven’t called in a long time, or the unfinished projects that I never seem to get back to? Are those parts of my life done now, and I just haven’t caught on? Maybe they are already in some kind of soul-fragment Heaven, where Mountain-Climbing Me is leading them on a hike up some towering thunderhead.
Without ever sitting down to consciously rethink things, I’ve come to a very different picture of my essence, my soul. Far from being an indivisible spark, it now seems like a liquid made up of all my relationships, interests, activities, and passions. My body, in this metaphor, is a cup.
A leaky cup. Drop by drop, aspect by aspect, my essence leaks away, and I die. It’s not sudden at all.
Most of my friends find this imagery depressing. But I do not, because I have lived in the presence of death before. Fourteen years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that had killed her mother. It was advanced enough to require the full hammer of treatment, and even then her odds of survival were disturbingly close to even.
For a year, we did everything with an awareness that this could be the last time. We attended summer music festivals, watched the trees turn bright colors, ambled slowly through snow-covered woods, and cheered for the tiny sprouts and blossoms of spring. It was, despite all hardships, a delicious year, a year we often remember fondly.
As the immediate danger faded, we swore that we would never take life for granted again, that we would continue to greet each day like a rare gift, full of unique possibilities. But little by little, we slipped back into the negligent attitude of the culture around us: We would live forever, and whatever might happen today could just as easily happen tomorrow or next week or ten years from now.
That illusion is like Novocain. It doesn’t make me cheerfully tipsy; it numbs me to the point that I can’t tell one day from the next. Shaking the habit may require enduring some temporary pain as my nerves wake up and report, but I’m confident it leads to something better.
The real sting of death is the thought that it wasn’t supposed to be this way, that I was supposed to be immortal, and all life’s possibilities were supposed to wait until I got around to paying attention. In that frame of mind, every drop that escapes or evaporates is tragic.
But when death is accepted, as I remember clearly, the focus shifts from what is being lost to what is being saved. Today, for example, I kept many parts of myself alive. I wrote something other people will read. (Sixteen-year-old me would appreciate that.) I played with children. My wife and I walked amidst the changing fall colors.
Someday all these droplets of life will be gone. Today they were here, and my cup could still contain them. That’s something to celebrate.
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