Over the past year or so, I have been consumed with thoughts of death. These have not been fearful thoughts, nor necessarily sad thoughts, although life has to be sweeter by far than death. But we all live and die. This is the way of living things – we are born, we live and we die. From the simplest of life forms to the most complex, this is the inevitable progression. And if life is a continuum, a straight line from birth to death, I hope mine is reasonably long, I don’t want it cut short. And if life is a course between two points, birth and death, I am thankfully still on the minus side of that course, still alive, though headed inexorably toward that end point.
I guess that these thoughts hit me for the first time when I was reading “Colossus” a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb last year. Halfway though the book I was struck by the thought that these remarkable people – the brilliant theoreticians and scientists, the skilled administrators, the talented fabricators, the president who made it all happen, are not with us anymore. Their lives, if notable, have been chronicled, their material achievements are listed for us to see, but they themselves are gone…forever.
I have been reading biographies of famous people for many years but I have not necessarily thought of them as dying, or dead and gone. I was content to read about them and their lives and achievements but never was struck by the obvious fact that they are no longer with us. Why? I don’t know – maybe because I rarely thought about death itself – for me it was still such a long way off. I suppose that this change relates to my own old age and the now perceptible finiteness of my life. I was born, I grew, I was educated by school and experience. I lived and loved and became a father myself. But I will die – maybe sooner, maybe later…but I will die. In my younger days these thoughts rarely crossed my mind.
Another source for these thoughts and this piece of writing is the passing of a very close friend of ours, whose remarkable intellect, loving manner and vibrant personality are unforgettable. Even now, many months later, it is hard to imagine her gone. But is she really gone? Her appearance, her voice and her mannerisms are so alive in our memories, the memories of our children, who had the good fortune to know her, and in the memories of everyone else who knew her, that her absence is impossible to realize or accept.
In my mid-seventies now, I am grateful for my health. I am a trifle overweight, true, but I do still faithfully exercise on most mornings of the week. I watch what I eat, minimize the sugar and maximize the eggs and fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit. Foolishly, to treat a persistent sweet tooth, I still occasionally mix up and bake my favorite cookies, but amend the recipe by reducing the sugar and making it all dark brown, cancelling the chocolate bar and reducing the chocolate chips, using whole wheat flour and increasing the chopped nuts, while including almonds and hazelnuts. Then I ration my consumption by baking them small and keeping them frozen. Or if I’m feeling wiser, I’ll have an apple or some dried fruit if I am craving something sweet. And of course, likely not good for my health, l still have that scotch or red wine in the late afternoon.
And thank God, most of my body still works like it should. Yes the threat of personal embarrassment does rush me to the bathroom once in awhile and accordingly on long drives I consciously keep myself a bit dehydrated to minimize stops. I seem to be treating my hypothyroidism successfully and also treat a previously unknown bone density problem caused by that lazy thyroid gland with the necessary doses of minerals. I also am experiencing some lower back pain resulting from, I am told, deterioration of several vertebrae and a disc or two and some arthritis. Arthritis has also singled out a few key hand joints so I have tried to control inflammation by choosing certain foods and avoiding others. But on the whole, I think I’m doing ok. Those organs and functions without which I cannot live – my brain, heart, lungs and digestive system, seem to be functioning quite well.
I have a good friend back in our Arizona community who is about ten years older than I who tells me that while his seventies were okay, his 80’s have been quite different. He can really feel his body giving out and maintaining this aging machine has become much more time and energy intensive in terms of doctor visits, scheduled medications, painstaking food shopping and preparation, and pursuit of required exercise.
One thing that bothers me a great deal as I have grown old is that time passes so much more quickly than I thought it would. When I was young, it seemed that Christmas or the end of the school year and summer would never come. My high school and college years dragged on interminably as did my twenties and thirties. And now since I am retired I thought time would really drag and these ”golden years” would really stretch out, but surprisingly it been just the opposite. I have never experienced the hours turning into days, the days to weeks, the weeks into months and then years more quickly than now, exactly when I want things to slow down.
I did a little research on this phenomenon and surprisingly the passage of time apparently speeds up with routine and sameness and slows down during growth and the acquisition of new experiences and learning. When you’re young every day brings something new and time stretches out. For example, think of how time seemed extended on that special vacation when you encountered new cultures, people, places and activities. And now during retirement when every day is more or less the same time passes more quickly. The new understandings, growth and learning acquired vicariously through movies and books, don’t have the same effect as real ones. I guess if I were wealthy enough to spend my retirement traveling and having those new experiences, these so-called “golden years” might pass much more slowly. But I’m not so I can’t and they don’t.
Some other thoughts and questions about my inexorable drift toward that final point on the continuum of life have occurred to me. What will I leave behind? Who will know that I’m gone? Who will grieve? What’s it all for? Will I be born again or just sleep forever, like I did before I was born and became conscious.
One thing for sure, I don’t want to leave a mess behind me. I don’t want a spouse, child, sibling or friend sifting through a pile of my possessions rolling their eyes and saying – “Why did he keep this? What in hell was he planning to do with these? Why so many books – did he really read them all or just collect them thinking he would eventually find the time? And these jeans and sneakers – did he really think he would live long enough to wear them out? Why didn’t he get rid of things instead of just letting them accumulate?”
I really want to clean up my life like my Swedish kinsfolk recommend and make things easier for those I leave behind. Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”, tells us what we need to do. I just hope that I can summon the energy and willpower sufficient to accomplish these recommended tasks when the time comes. But until then, I still have dreams of utilizing lots of my “stuff”, even now. But it’s so true – in recent months I am looking at certain possessions and asking myself why I keep them. I’m never going to use them so why are they here? Having moved so many times we took advantage of each move to thin out our possessions and make ourselves a little lighter and more portable. But here we are – two houses, Vermont and Arizona, both full to overflowing. So clearly there is work to be done before I reach the end of that line.
And what am I leaving behind in terms of a legacy of some sort? I don’t mean money or wealth – there’s precious little of either to leave to anyone anyhow. What I mean is a legacy of good works, good deeds that some people will remember, at least for a little while. I hope my career in education has enhanced many lives – I’ll never really know. But I hope that somewhere, somebody still remembers me and that my work on their behalf meant something in their lives. I was overjoyed to find that a few of my students from my first teaching job stumbled onto my article about them and still remembered me fondly, but surely there are many more from subsequent experiences, at least I hope so. And once in a great while I hear of someone I once supervised saying some good things about me as a school principal or superintendent. Well, as the Mac Wiseman song says, “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered”
And then there’s the question of who will grieve my passing. In addition to my wife and son and my brothers and remaining sister, whom I hope will have retained at least a few fond memories and perhaps mourn my absence, there may be a treasured friend or two who may feel the same. Because of bouncing around the world and the country so much and thus scattering my friends and acquaintances, I don’t think that my survivors will have to worry about an overflow crowd at the funeral, if they even bother to schedule one. And I have requested that my body be cremated and my ashes thrown to the breeze from Yaki Point at the Grand Canyon. So that part of the end promises to be simple and quick as well.
And as it winds down, I cannot escape wondering what it was all for – life I mean. What is our purpose here, other than survival and procreation? What happens when I stop breathing and lose consciousness forever? Will I be “born again” or will I just sleep forever. It certainly is difficult to accept that my life will end – bang, just like that – and there is nothing afterward. But in fact there was nothing before it so why should there be something after? Jim Holt, who pondered the question of “why does the world exist” in his book of the same name, wonders why there is “something rather than nothing”, and suggests that “the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”
I envy my sister and brothers and my loving wife, who because of their religious faith, do not have to ponder these questions. They are secure in the knowledge and conviction that our purpose here on earth is to “glorify God” and that they will joyfully be greeted by loved ones on the “other side” after their death. Yes, Mom and Dad, and sister Barbara will be there, healthy and whole – I would love to believe this, but simply cannot. My religious faith has never been that strong. I mean will our loved and treasured pets be there too? And how about that rotten, worthless relative or that duplicitous subordinate who stabbed me in the back? Do I have to put up with them again on the “other side”? No, I think life might indeed just be a lovely experience with nothing before birth and nothing after death.
Well actually there is a little built-in immortality associated with my life. Because I have a son, parts of me, my DNA, my genes will go on living. I won’t know it but parts of me already present in my son will go on living in him and his children and in their children. This is wonderful to contemplate, but is this the purpose of life?
My parents are gone, their parents are gone . They live on my my life now and the lives of my brothers and surviving sister. But after we are gone, do our children remember them and keep them alive in their minds? My dear sister Barbara is gone but I can see her mannerisms and hear her voice in the movements and voices of her children. But how much of Barb will be left in her children’s children and in their children? And indeed, my wife’s recent addiction to discovering a multitude of previously unknown ancestors does make us wonder what fragments of their appearance and personality we display in our own.
I know I will die but I don’t know when or how. One often hears regarding someone’s sudden death – maybe a sudden fatal heart attack, perhaps a fatal auto accident or some type of dreadful explosion – “well, at least he didn’t suffer…” This I have taken to heart. I really don’t want to suffer. I’d like to die suddenly, instantaneously or perhaps in my sleep. I’ve gone to sleep, I’ve lost consciousness, I just don’t ever wake up. Easy and painless. But I don’t want to suffer the pain of illness and slow inexorable deterioration of my body or my mind. If I’m in pain, let me float into death on the soft clouds of psychotropic drugs. Or if I have my wits about me, please let me decide when I should die and allow those I love to do me this favor. They can hold my hand and kiss my cheek when I expire and before I go I can imagine them doing it. Also, I can tell them goodbye and tell them I love them. This is dying in dignity, enveloped by love and sweet memory: This is the way it should be.
I certainly don’t want to die struggling for life – fighting madly for a breath of air as I am drowning somewhere, or straining for oxygen as my lungs fail. Nor do I want to contend with the indignity of incontinence as I stumble toward death. When those senses and controls fail, I want my whole body, my heart, breathing apparatus and brain to fail as well. I certainly hope that our entire country permits assisted suicide eventually, as do most western European countries and several of our states. As our bodies deteriorate and we are engulfed in dreadful pain or our minds fail, I think that we or our loved ones should be able to decide when we die.
I suppose that it will be difficult for someone who has thrived on strength, order and “being in control” to relinquish control to someone else, even a loved one. But we all do, I guess, as we drift toward the inevitable end of our lives. Yet there may be some comfort in finally admitting that I can no longer continue being strong and in control. At some point it will be impossible and perhaps it will be a relief and a comfort to turn myself over to someone who is younger and stronger and can care for me. But I dread the day that they take the keys to the car away from me. I hope I have the good sense to realize that I can no longer drive safely and relinquish them voluntarily.
Hopes and dreams are necessary to life so no matter how old we get so we need to keep them alive. We should always have a must-read book at our side and a must-do project in front of us. When we stop striving and stop dreaming, we’re done. We dream all our lives – we dream of perfect love and perfect happiness; we dream of having enough money to do anything we want; we dream of the perfect house, that perfect place; we dream of finding answers to life’s eternal questions – why are we here? Where do we go when we die? And I hope at age 76 that I can and will still dream. I think when we stop dreaming, stop hoping, stop trying, then we are really finished, even if our bodies keep going.
I have had my little set of dreams, yes. And I am happy to say that some have been realized, but so many have not and I know now, will not. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (see upcoming article “The Grand Canyon and Me”); I’ve stood on the highest mountain in Arizona – Mount Humphries in the San Francisco Peaks; I’ve traveled to Ireland twice, Germany several times, driven from Frankfurt to Vienna…and back, seen so many historical sites in Turkey, seen the pyramids, the sphinx, Luxor and the Valley of Kings in Egypt, been on a safari in Africa, walked the streets of Dublin, London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Isdtanbul, Delhi, Bangkok and Katmandu. Thank God, thank God for all this. But many dreams still remain.
Some of those dreams yet unfulfilled – camping for weeks among the red rocks of Canyonlands, Sedona and southern Utah; camping in a wheat field in Kansas or North Dakota on a windy night; taking a “blue cruise” – sailing on the beautiful warm blue Aegean off the coasts of Turkey and Greece; traveling to certain other countries that have fascinated me – like Russia or the country of my kin, Sweden; art museums that I’ve missed – the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to name a couple. I’ve seen virtually nothing of other countries in my own hemisphere – I would love to explore Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve never seen the Redwoods, Seattle, or Yellowstone. I have never lived by the sea, even for a little while, not even in a trailer. To listen to the waves constantly, have them wake you up and put you to sleep would be such a thrill. And to daily see the water stretching out to the horizon to meet the sky would be so liberating and inspiring.
One of the tragedies of death is the disappearance forever of the knowledge and experience accumulated. We indeed are lifelong learners, absorbing new information, new facts and valuable lessons our whole life. And then when we die it’s all gone. So I guess that’s what all this is – a legacy of some kind, certainly not one as rich and as lasting as those left by many a scientist, novelist, poet or composer but the best I can do – some reflections on family, life, politics, and the world. I write so that some of my experiences and therefore some of me might live on. My son, who’s very busy and involved in his own life and career, reads little of this now. But I hope when I am gone, that he will hold me close once in awhile by choosing to read some more of what I’ve written. And perhaps he will choose to share it with his children.
In spite of accounts of “near death” experiences, death itself continues to be a mystery. Perhaps reviewing Socrates’ opinion on death would be an appropriate way to end this piece: ”To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
Today I noted in the NYTimes that two of my heroes have passed away. One of my favorite novelists, Philip Roth, author of so many great novels, including my favorite of his, “The Human Stain”, died yesterday. And Richard Goodwin, liberal speechwriter extraordinaire, whose golden words spoken by the Kennedys, Johnson and so many others also passed away. Yes, we all die, but what a legacy both of these people left. Read their work and you will agree.