I'm not dead yet. That is one of things I know without having to look it up, so it seems an appropriate subject for an "unresearched essay." Death, one's own death, really is not a subject that fills a lot of one's conversation, except maybe in those cases where the end is very close. Even then, it is difficult to find someone to talk with about the subject since we are conditioned to deny the possibility. When I was a young man, I spent some time in the hospital, and had various roommates. Inevitably I was asked why I was in the hospital, and when I answered honestly -- cancer treatment -- conversation would become more difficult. To be fair, the other person obviously had issues of their own and did not need additional baggage, but it was obvious that no one was comfortable with entertaining the possibility (much more likely in those days) that they were talking to someone who might be dying. My experience hasn't made me any better at handling similar situations. I have had the opportunity to visit with friends who were dying, and I always wanted to be comforting, to be able to say something wise, but I don't yet know a good way of saying "they tell me you're dying," and not one of my friends has given any indication of wanting to talk about it. Maybe they didn't know how to raise the subject either.
The closest I had to a conversation about dying, with someone who was, was with my father. He was old and his health was failing. It was obvious that much of the vitality that had defined his life had waned, and while he wasn't on his deathbed yet, we all knew that it would be soon. I asked him if he was afraid to die. He told me that he had reached a point where he knew that all he was doing was waiting for the end, and that while he had no intention of killing himself, he would not be unhappy if some morning soon he wouldn't wake up. He didn't seem afraid at all, nor sad or even resigned, and I would not have said he was happy either, but he was at peace with where he was. I was not able to be there several months later when he died, so I don't know if he was able to hold on to that peace.
That's what I worry about, losing it at the end. I have no problem with the idea that I am going to die -- "remember, man, that from dust you came and unto dust you shall return." Every Ash Wednesday I hear those words. But I worry about dying horribly or doing it poorly. I don't want to be beheaded, or suffer a lingering, painful death from some exotic disease that I catch from a mutant rat that escaped from a banana crate unloaded in the Port of Oakland from a disreputable ship from South America. Chances are I won't. Most of us here in this country simply grow old, fall apart and die. Nor do I want to panic and embarrass myself by carrying on about not wanting to die.
St. Joseph (the one of "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" fame) is the patron saint of peaceful death. Catholic tradition believes that just as life continues after death, the relationships we have with others in life don't necessarily end with death, and since those who are dead have already achieved what we hope to achieve, i.e. successful transition to the new life, and since we also believe that new life will be somehow more closely aligned with God, we can ask them to put in a good word for us. When I remember to do so, which I don't do as often as I judge I should, I ask Joseph to petition God on my behalf to grant me a timely and peaceful death.
I don't want to live forever, or even as long as humanly possible. I think seventy-five is a good age. I read an article by a physician who said that he didn't aspire to live any longer than seventy-five. He said that he didn't necessarily hope to die at that age, but at that point, he would have lived a long life, and that he would simply let nature take its course. He would not seek medical attention to try to cure any life-threatening conditions. (It's a significant enough position that when I'm done writing my "unresearched essay," I'll look up the reference and leave a footnote. I encourage you to read the original since the doctor has a number of thoughtful observations about life and about modern medical care.) By the time I am seventy-five, I will have accomplished pretty much everything I am capable of and dying will be the only major task ahead of me. Rest assured, sooner or later, comfortably or not, ready or not, I will die.
I've known a number of people who have experienced what they perceive to be death -- the heart stops, and while emergency medical procedures are underway to save their lives, they find that they leave their bodies and in fact leave this world behind. They are attracted to the light, a place of peace and comfort, a place that they instinctively know is good. They are greeted by a familiar spirit, a loved one perhaps, or someone they might identify as a celestial being, an angel. As much as they want to enter the light, they are told that it is not the right time, that they must return.
These people that I've known are not crazy. They are respectable members of the community, are responsible family members, are good employees and co-workers. The ones I've met were not religious zealots before their experience, nor did the experience turn them into zealots. Their experience may have deepened their beliefs, but none have become like the obnoxious ex-smokers who gag around ashtrays. In fact, I had known these individuals for quite sometime before I ever knew of their experience, and when they did recount the tale, there was a certainty and a reverence that was palpable. Their retelling of the event was less like a deposition than an anamnesis -- an event from the past brought forward and made relevant in the present, not just remembered but relived. Their accounts are compelling and paint a picture of life after death as wholly desirable and pleasant.
As much as I believe in an afterlife, I am skeptical of "near-death" experiences. No matter how difficult holding on to life can become, it is still life, and we are moving inexorably in a straight line from conception to death, not circling death in an irregular orbit that is sometimes closer, sometimes further. So maybe the experiences are real, maybe they're not.
When I was twelve, a friend of mine and I were coming home from a movie. It was near evening, but there was still light in the sky. Our way home took us through a city park. A dead end street led to the park. There were houses on the street, but the street was empty and no one was around. We were just about to the park entrance when I heard a car approaching. I glanced back to see it coming up the street but thought nothing of it. I few moments later, the car stopped just a short distance from us, and someone in the car yelled something. I turned around to see the cars doors swing open and four older boys jump out and run toward us. They attacked us. I was struck in the face, stepped back, and fell into a depression along side that street that acted as a drainage ditch. I hit the ground and covered up as I was repeatedly kicked. I was scared of course, but I had a heavy coat on so it didn't seem like I was getting badly hurt. The kicking stopped, and it seemed to me that things got very quiet for a long enough time that I thought maybe my assailants had gone. I let my my hands drop and looked. I was wrong. They hadn't gone, or at least not far. As soon as my arms had cleared my face, I saw a shoe headed my way. As when it hit, I felt my eye swell shut.
The kicking continued for some time after that, and I wasn't to be able to respond to much of anything. I believe that I was conscious the entire time, but I can't say with certainty. What I was experiencing was a feeling of detachment from what was going on, vaguely aware of the pummeling, but it was almost as if it was happening to someone else. I was no longer aware of any pain, nor of feeling cold, or scared, or even concerned. The thought crossed my mind, matter-of-factly and without alarm, that I might be dying. I was a bit concerned about how disturbed my parents would be by my death, and worried that my clothes were being stained by my blood, but they were fleeting feelings. The sound around me dissolved into silence, any light faded to black, and the feeling of my body drifted further and further away.
To be clear, I was not dying. Aside from being very swollen and bruised and needing a few stitches here and there, none of my injuries were life-threatening, yet I suppose at that moment the possibility seemed real enough. Psychologically I was reacting in a manner consistent with the beginnings of a near-death experience. Faced with a perceived dire threat to my existence, I began to react in a manner that would allow me to process the information -- perhaps it was my Scarlett O'Hara moment when I realized that it was time to return to Tara. I can only imagine how my body would react to a true existential threat, like if my heart were to stop for any length of time.
Eventually, though, I will really die. At some point, in Catholic terminology, my soul will depart from my body, or using language that I think is a little more precise, I reach the point where my body no longer responds to my spirit.
There is a difference between a soul and a spirit. A soul is the animating force of a living creature, so for instance, dogs and cats, fish and ants, have souls. Spirits on the other hand are the non-corporeal beings of the universe, the angels, eternal beings living in the presence of God. Spirits have no bodies, souls exist only in a body. Mankind is unique in creation in that our souls are also spirits. I think the distinction important -- it allows me to see the body as the manifestation of the spirit, that which allows the non-corporeal entity entry into creation, incarnated in time and space. Death, then, is not an end but a transition. I speculate that death is going to be somewhat akin to puberty where you are a child one day and sprout celestial pubic hair the next, and even though you knew it was coming, you will be totally surprised (and I hope fascinated) by it.
The truth is, however, all that I can do is speculate. I certainly don't know for sure what death is going to like, and even when I turn to the Church for wisdom, they kind of shrug and say that it is mystery, that which can not be known, but I'm good with that. Dad used to say that heaven was this place where you would get to do what you wanted to do. If you wanted to farm, you could be a farmer, if you wanted to be a builder, you could build things. I presume there are limits to that vision -- I think that if you wanted to be a porn star there would be a great deal of frowning and grumbling. Eventually, after whatever interim period there may be, we will be find ourselves in the "life in the world to come." Eventually, we will be returned to creation as it was meant to be.
Is that wishful thinking? Merely superstition?
Who knows, and like I said, it's difficult to get a serious conversation about death in our culture. Cultural celebrations of the dead, like All Saints' Day, Dia de Muertos (Mexico), Obon (Japan), Hungry Ghost Festival (Buddhist) and I'm sure many others are a ritualized means of calling people to face their fears and embrace the inevitable. Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, was supposed to be a time to confront our fear of death, to dress as demons and ghosts in order to demonstrate the death no longer has power over us, that Christ conquered death. But then in this country we got hung up on misinterpreting the "pagan symbolism," and started dressing our kids up as cartoon characters and flowers and stuff. Fun is fun, and I don't have a problem with costume celebrations, but once again the opportunity is missed to talk about death.
I'm not dead yet, but I hope to be, when the time is right. And I hope to do it right, so in the spirit of Dia de Muertos, I ask "Blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God." In the meantime, if anyone wants to get a cup of coffee and talk about dying, let me know.
*** As promised, here is a link to the article by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel: Why I Hope To Die at 75