How many of you think about death?
What it is like, what happens during and after, where do loved ones go, where will you go, where the heck is there to go . . . The big sleep; The last refuge; The blissful release; Lying on your back, six feet down, with dirt on your face, holding your breath forever; Death.
I used to think about it all the time, myself. Like most, I was originally introduced to the idea of death as a kid and pretty much accepted the concept effortlessly. I mean, hell, I was a kid, right? I was going to live two days past forever; what the heck did I care what happened after I 'died?'
That was, of course, back before kids started bringing guns to school. Guns and bombs and Lord only knows what else. (Honestly, I really wouldn't be all that surprised to turn on the telly one day and discover that some teenager attending Los Alamos High had managed to build his own nuclear device and was holding the entire town hostage . . . it's only a matter of time, isn't it?)
At any rate, my personal delusion of immortality carried me safely through my adolescence and into my teen years. If various textbooks were correct, I might have carried that opinion, that truly basic misunderstanding, with me until my mid-life crises, until - oh, say - around 50.
That is, under normal conditions.
If I might digress for a moment . . . 'normal' is a word I've learned to hate, y'know? Even when I was just a kid, even before I understood that most of what happened to me never happened to other kids, I had no idea what the word really meant. I assumed that all kids lived like me, with the same problems and the same difficulties . . . hell of a shock to discover otherwise. Ever since that day, the word 'normal' is, to me, just another way of saying, 'Once Upon a Time.'
Anyway, instead of living my life 'under normal conditions,' I dropped out of high school and joined the military shortly after my 17th birthday. I voluntarily enlisted, during Vietnam . . . and was accepted into the Coast Guard. (This is an excellent example of the many little oddities that plague my life, but I'd be willing to bet that, with the exception of those who actually pulled military service during Vietnam, the majority of you have no idea just how unlikely this series of events actually was.)
I won't bother you with exactly how Death and I were first introduced, or how often we've met throughout my life, but I would like to tell you about a couple of his customers I met along the way; Mr. Whiny and the Preacher.
Y'see, somewhere during my first year in the Coast Guard, lifesaving became very personal to me, a literal battle against Death, and some of the skirmishes were intense. I gloried in being able to steal lives from him and raged when he proved I couldn't win them all. Mr. Whiny proved to me that sometime I couldn't win for losing.
Without going into needless detail, Whiny's stupidity on the open water destroyed his boat and killed his little girl. We arrived on-scene moments later and my shipmates went in after his wife and son. I slipped on a harness and dove in after Mr. Whiney, myself.
No pulse and he weren't breathing. I started CPR in the water, screaming for someone to tow me back to the boat. (The reason we wore harnesses; why wait a second longer than necessary to start CPR?) After a few seconds, I got a pulse, and then he choked and threw up a gallon of bay water. By the time we reached the boat, his eyes were open and tracking, his pulse was steady, if a tad weak, and he was breathing on his own. Chalk up another in the win column, right?
Wrong; just as we reached the boat, he looked me in the face, said, 'No . . . it's no use,' and died.
Oh, hell no you don't, pal! I dragged him into the boat and started standard CPR. His heart kicked over and, when he gasped in a breath once more, I screamed for his family to come over and tell him to stay, to keep him here. They did, passionately and at the top of their lungs, but I watched his eyes as he recognized that one was gone.
He said her name, softly, and stopped breathing again!
Goddamnit! I got the family out of the way and started working his heart and lungs again. It took me around five minutes, but I managed to drag him back yet a third time before we hit shore, but only long enough for him to briefly open his eyes in annoyance, actual annoyance, and say, 'No,' in a slightly peeved tone before he died a third time.
Okay, this was a grudge match, now! I resumed CPR, determined to drag that ingrate sonuvabitch back into the land of taxpayers if I had to breathe for him the rest of his life, attached like his own personal limpet!
I was still working on him when we reached the base. I kept at him and rode the basket, straddling his stretcher, as MedEvac crane lifted us both onto the dock. Paramedics were waiting with an ambulance and they immediately joined in, but after about twenty-five minutes, and all the possible extreme measures had been tried, they called it quits and told me that he wasn't coming back again.
So I lost it and started punching out his corpse, screaming about how I wasn't going to let some cowardly asshole screw this up and let Death win, and otherwise making a total jerk of myself . . . in front, I might add, of his wife and surviving child.
Oddly enough, it turns out that there is no law against assaulting corpses in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, a small loophole that -- combined with a forgiving skipper -- ultimately kept me from being tossed in the brig. Instead, the skipper took me off search and rescue for a while, and had me work in the mailroom. He also arranged a series of long talks with the chaplain (which didn't help a whole lot, but kept both me and the Father amused). It was around about this time that I married, and divorced, my first wife.
I ended up requesting a permanent transfer. The skipper endorsed it, HQ approved it, and -- in perfect accordance with my entire existence -- I ended up on a drug interdiction ship out of Base Miami Beach. That's where I met the Preacher.
That was his nickname because he was a deacon in his church and our unofficial chaplain. He was one of the downright nicest guys I'd ever met; friendly, funny, and devout without being a 'holier-than-thou' sort or judging any of the rest of us. He was always there for a shipmate, ready to help, listen, or just offer advice. Didn't drink, smoke, or fool around; what, in the day, used to be called 'a real straight arrow,' but he bore up under the label without a quiver. (Sorry about that . . . habit.)
Anyway, since he was such a decent guy, a pillar of his church, a dedicated father, and husband . . . well, naturally, he ended up getting shot. Moreover, he took a bullet that all but had my name engraved on it.
He happened to be standing next to me during a mission, when - in the middle of the action - I happened to sneeze. My head jerked down a few inched and a bullet cut a small furrow out of my left ear, before and ricocheted off the bulkhead behind me and nailing The Preacher in the temple. Mine was the last face he saw on the planet, both hands holding his broken head together and screaming for the corpsman.
Well, actually, they absolute last thing he saw was my astonished face. Y'see, odd as it might seem, that was the first time someone died on me while I was looking them right in the eyes. I watched the lights go out and felt, on some level I've never really cared to think of, the Preacher change from a living being into carrion.
Another short digression, if I may, to note that, although every death is sad beyond measure, the one's that really rip your heart out are when they have enough time to actually comprehend that they are dying. They always spend their last minutes either begging to live, trying to pass a final message to a loved one, or doing their level best to die as well as possible. The part that gets to you after awhile is that you simply cannot keep them alive a second longer, they almost never get the message straight, or you have to pretend that you don't see how terrified and pitiful they really are. Actually, one of the supreme ironies of Death is that he's hardest on bystanders.
However, in my experience the universal reaction of those experiencing sudden death is mild puzzlement. Just about every person I ever watched die from something sudden seemed to be slightly baffled, and then dead. Not the emotion one expects, frankly. (I imagine there must be quite a bit of 'What the hell was that?!?' going on at the next level of existence.)
Not the Preacher, though. As I tried to hold his skull together, he looked calmly around, then closed his eyes. After a moment, he sighed, opened his eyes again, looked me right in the face, and grinned. That's right; dying and knew he was dying... and he smiled that lopsided grin of his. Damnest reaction I'd ever seen and one that shook me right down to my soul. An instant later, I was holding a corpse and starting to shatter.
I was only 18 at the time, single, and fractured, becoming a bit of a loner and spending far too much time in the gym and on the range. The Preacher was 24 years old and left behind a good marriage, a pregnant wife, and a two year old daughter . . . and he grinned at me.
This is called 'life,' for those of you looking for a handle on the situation. I started looking for mine in tinted bottles and bags of powder, shortly thereafter, and then started searching for Death, intending to ask him about Mr. Whiny and the Preacher, and why they died so differently.
Crank it forward a few decades and you end up with yours truly. I only drink occasionally, now, and the only powder that enters my body comes in little blue packets imprinted with the universal lie of 'Equal.' I never found Death, but came to some basic understanding while searching. (For the record, my campaign against my personal anthropomorphism of death ended in a friendly tie, five to five.) Now I'm a 47-year-old writer and retired professional paranoiac who, to this day, cannot enter a Wal-Mart without looking for my old friendly enemy in the faces around me.
He's everywhere, y'know, and although he's destined to win in the end, it is possible to keep him at bay for a while.
First, understand that Death is the ultimate Democrat. He will take anyone, anywhere, anytime. He never discriminates, although he does tend to favors the ignorant, wearing the nickname of "Fool killer" with justifiable pride. The best weapon and only shield you'll ever possess against Death is staying smart. (Or, as a very wise man once said, stupidity carries a natural death sentence.)
However, knowing how to survive is more than just learning how to fight or use a gun (although, admittedly, both are good starting points, nowadays). It also means learning to always staying alert to where you are, who's around you, and what's going on. Then being willing to look like a total ass by doing whatever's necessary to leave a situation that doesn't feel right. Which also means knowing how to keep your loved ones alive in bad situations and how to drag them back should Death's touch brush them is required, as is keeping current with medications and emergency supplies.
Sounds like a pain? Yeah, it pretty much is . . . but so what? Y'see, another thing you have to understand about Death is that he's a consummate professional, who doesn't care a whit about justifications or excuses. The CPR class was inconvenient or silly? Just didn't have time to take yourself or your kids in for shots? The speed limit on that particular road was unreasonable? The accident was the other driver's fault? Damn cop shouldn't have been chasing that speeder in town?
Okay; CPR classes are inconvenient and fairly silly, and it does screw up a schedule to make time for doctor visits, and driving smart is difficult when everyone is being an idiot, and always being alert enough to stay out of the way of idiot drivers or emergency vehicles is a total pain . . . but not going to classes, not getting necessary medical treatment, and not dedicating one's self to driving safely is like sending Death an engraved invitation.
Because Death does not care what happened or why! The good news is that Death does his job without question and never judges his clients, so chances are you'll never be called stupid after you die . . . or, rather, anywhere you can hear it. Survival is solely in one's own hands and depends on knowing how to do what is needed, each and every second.
Nor does Death offer refunds or exchanges. The concept of a Death that will hearken to ones heartfelt pleas and exchange one life for another is a lovely bit of fiction. Is there a single death that is not met with his particular plea from someone? Parents scream it into the night, spouses plead with their deities of choice, children bawl it into their pillows; it never works. Only one per customer and all transactions are final. Sorry.
Finally, if you don't take anything else with you from this little bit of silliness, please remember this; Death is not to be feared. It's just a natural offshoot of life, like puberty or menopause. (Well, a little worse . . . more like zits or enlarged prostrates, I suppose.) Accept it and you'll find that the rest of life's little traumas become far smaller . . . and that you, too, will be able to grin as you die.
Stay smart and live well; make your life a song well sung and leave everyone wanting more.
What could be better?