What is Death?

I was driving on the freeway with my father when he said to me, “I am not afraid.”

I was taking him home from the hospital. We’d been there to see his oncologist, who told us that his cancer – which at that point had spread to his pancreas, liver, brain, and lymph nodes from where it had originated in his lungs – was not responding to chemotherapy. This was two weeks before dad’s oncologist made the recommendation that he go on hospice. But the truth of his death, that modern medicine was no longer going to be borrowing him any more time was already too heavy in the air to remain unspoken.

I will never forget how he said those words to me, “I am not afraid.” He said them with bluntness, honesty, and sadness. I responded, “I don’t think there is any good reason to be afraid.” We both accepted that the conversation was too difficult to go much further than that, so it didn’t. Not then. Less than a month later, he was gone.

I was with him when he took his last breath at 2:21 in the morning, kneeling at the side of his hospital bed in the living room of the house I grew up in. My mom, sister, and a smattering of aunts and uncles were there, too. There are so many details about that night that I somehow both wish I could forget, and that I am grateful I never will. Every time I shut my eyes I am back in that room with him. I have dreamed about it. Had nightmares about it. Written poems about it (though I won’t claim they were good). Had flashbacks akin to the kind that resurface years after a bad trip, usually triggered by something terribly mundane – a half-finished package of saltines in the back of his truck (his comfort food after the nausea got bad), the childish drawings and “get well soon” notes still displayed above the fireplace, or any reference at all to sleeping on the floor (where I was supposed to crash that night, because every other bed and couch in the house was full).

I want to be out of that room. But simultaneously, I don’t. I have ran through it over and over again in my head. Every detail that is also somehow one huge, amorphous blur. Part of me wants to remain there for the rest of my life, because he is there, too. There is nothing I wouldn’t give just to touch him again. To hold his hand. To hug him one last time. The most painful memory of my life, of the night my father died, is also somehow the one I hold nearest to my heart.

What even is death?

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Dore, “Farinata degli Uberti addresses Dante,” from The Divine Comedy

Death is Confusing

Confusion makes up the largest percentage of what death is to us. This confusion is the source of its power, its gut-shaking ability to make us fear.

The reason why that is, at least, is not a mystery. No one has ever come back to tell us how it is. Death is a one-way gate, the farthest point at which the living may walk together. Once passed through, no individual may tell us, write us, email us, or comment on our Facebook to advise us on anything, much less what they see beyond the opacity of that point when they leave this world. No one, without exception (unless you count ghost stories and religious parables, but – and I say this with the utmost respect – the things we believe on faith are not the same as those empirically sourced from our senses).

My father was, and then he wasn’t. At one second, he was a living, breathing actor; matter that could question and want and wonder. The next, there was only the matter; there was no “him” there anymore, at all.

What greater mystery could there possibly be? And what can we even attempt to do in the face of one that cannot, by definition, be solved?

I ask myself, “Why him?” all the time. Why did he have to die from a disease I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy? Why did he have to die only four years after he retired from a lifetime of service to our country and to this planet? Why did he have to die so young, on the morning of his sixty-seventh birthday? Why didn’t I get another twenty, thirty years with him? Why will my children never get to meet the most amazing and loving man I have ever known?

Why?

Why?

My girlfriend told me she still goes through this when thinking about the partner she lost several years ago to stomach cancer. “Why him?” And I agree. Why? I never met this man, but from what she tells me, he was an incredible person: kind, joyful, just; the kind of individual this world needs more of, not less. Few things more clearly illustrate to me the inexplicable unfairness of death than a bright young man being taken by stomach cancer before he turned thirty. And yet, he was.

We all know someone who has died. Most of us know, and love someone who died far too young, from some terrible disease or other unfathomable circumstance. If that is not you, I consider you incredibly lucky. But even if your only exposure to the unfairness of death is from reading the news, we all know what it means to ask, “Why?”

Why him? He was so young.

Why her? She was so kind.

Why can’t some evil bastard get cancer for a change? It’s always the good ones.

Why Alex?

Why dad?

Why any of them?

“Why?” is the ubiquitous question we ask in the face of death, except in those rare cases of grandparents who were fortunate enough to die old, surrounded by their loved ones and content with their life’s achievements.

Because none of it makes any fucking sense.

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Böcklin, “Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle”

Death is Acceptance

My godfather Chris, who also died from cancer in his sixties, used to joke when passing a cemetery, “See? None of us is getting out of here alive.”

There is no mincing words about this. I am going to die and so are you. People who have not witnessed the death of someone they love may read that sentence twice. Those who have will not need to.

Death is us. It is the father and the mother and the daughter and the son. Death is all the people you ever knew and all those you never will. Death is you. Death is me. So long as there is a “me,” there will be death. We can’t escape it or choose it any more than the skin we are born in, because it is who we are. Not “what,” but who. Death is the cessation of our existence, the end of our time as conscious actors, at least in this physical universe, and as a lover and sometimes writer of stories I can tell you wholeheartedly that always, without exception, the ending is just as important as the beginning and middle.

You are not a whole person without your death. Sorry. But it’s true. The story of your life cannot be complete without that last period at the end of that last sentence. Your death is part of who you are, and in some ways, is the key thing that defines you.

Do not mistake this to mean that I am saying “we are how we go,” because I am not. There were many things that defined my dad, from superhero father who would have done literally anything for his kids, to environmentalist bad ass who spoke truth to power, to doting grandfather AKA the Papa Monster who would chase my shrieking nieces around the house making fake munching sounds if he caught them sitting in his favorite stool; he was all these things and more, but “cancer patient” is not on the list. His disease was something he suffered greatly from, and ultimately what ended his life. But he never complained, and it was not who he was.

So no, I do not meanwe are how we die.” But we are how we live, and the moment we die is when the book goes from open to closed.

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The tree of life from Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.”

Death is (Least of All) A Biological Process

The following description will likely be scary to contemplate for those who have not been with a loved one when they died. For those who have, it likely will not be.

At some point, for whatever reason the Fates choose for you, your body (as well as mine) is going to stop working. You will stop breathing and your heart will stop beating. At some point shortly before or shortly after that, your consciousness will end, and the warmth you took for granted for however many years you were alive will start to disperse, until the body you formerly inhabited eventually reaches equilibrium with the ambient temperature of the room. By then, all your memories and thoughts and dreams of your life will have permanently vanished. If there is a soul, and I hope there is, by this moment it has gone to wherever it needed to go and will not be coming back. And then the matter you once animated will be lifted into a casket and buried/cremated at high temperatures/turned into a tree/disposed of in some other cool way some San Francisco hipster tech startup markets as “the latest revolution in ethical funeral practices.”

The important thing about this description is that it is a biological process no different than eating, drinking, sleeping, pooping, peeing, getting drunk, getting sick, throwing up, daydreaming, having sex, bleeding, suffering from vitamin D deficiency because you work in the video game industry, or losing your temper when your significant other eats all your cereal.

Dying is what bodies do. You breathe because you must. You also stop breathing because you must. There is not one bit of difference between these two phenomena. Death is not the negation of being born, but the fulfillment of it.

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Death, from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Death Is Not Inherently Terrifying

It is a philosophy major cliché to boldly and pretentiously wax about how we shouldn’t fear death. I know, because I was that philosophy major, and the only academic recognition I ever received while I was in school was for a paper I wrote about the Epicureans of Ancient Greece, which I presented at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Student Philosophy Conference, and was titled “Should We Fear the Pale Horse?”

The Epicureans were men who hung out naked in a walled garden all day eating grapes and philosophizing, with no “distractions” that could lead to fleshly attachments, such as allowing the presence of the opposite sex. Wait, what?

But those Epicureans were still pretty smart dudes. They were avowed materialists in a time when denying the existence of the gods was a serious crime, and they didn’t give a fig leaf about being executed for their lifestyle, because they (famously) held that death is nothing to be feared. They believed there is only matter and void, and that when you die, you simply go back to being matter of the non-thinking variety. To put it in philosophy major-friendly terms: if there is no subject left to feel the pain of dying, then it causes more pain to fear death while you are alive than it does to actually die.

Yes, they denied the existence of a soul, of an afterlife, and of a creator. I do not deny those things. But they were right from the biological perspective. And I agree with them that we should not fear being dead, because it means our suffering has ended. It is pretentious and meaningless and stupid and empty to say that.

It is also true.

I am thankful my dad is not suffering from his cancer anymore. I miss him and love him so much it brings tears to my eyes just writing those words, “I miss him.” But watching him in agony the first time the pain truly crippled him and he had to leave my nieces playing in the backyard on Easter Sunday to go to the fucking emergency room in an ambulance caused my heart to hurt worse than it ever had in my life (and there were a few times my heart got hurt pretty bad). The pain hit him like a knockout punch. I watched him physically wilt.

For the last six months of his life, he was in and out of the emergency room or urgent care every other week. When he wasn’t in the hospital, he was asleep on the couch. I spent half a year at home, but I feel like I barely spent any time with him at all. I wish I could turn back time and just sit with him there again, listening to him quietly sawing logs. My dad had a great snore, which no doubt caused my mom some irritation over the almost four decades of their marriage, but even that, I miss. The more his health declined and the closer the end appeared, the more I grew to value those little things.

There is, to be sure, another side of death that more closely resembles the movies, the side that rears its ugly face during war and terrorist attacks and Tarantinoesque rampages of glorious revenge. But I do not think that is the norm for most people. For most of us, our face of death will be that of our loved ones. And now that my eyes are open to this, it is very difficult for me to associate death with the emotion of fear.

The “death is scary” zeitgeist, I think, mostly comes from Hollywood. Our view of the transition we all must make from living to dead as something inherently terrifying and bad is the amalgamation of a lifetime of seeing people dying in horrible ways on screen, as if the death of a person is something to be exploited, or that the physical event that ends our biological life is the main thing about death we should concern ourselves with. In either case, it isn’t.

“But bro, these ghosts have unfinished business out here. Brains are gross! Tiddies AND brains? NC-17! Click click pop, problem solved. OMIGOD that part where the old lady was like SHAMBLING through the hall toward her and the music was like REE REE REE? So freakin’ scary dude! LMAO dracarys on all you punk Lannister bitches!”

Listen, I am not shitting on violent-ass movies. I love violent-ass movies. I am simply stating that the reality is much different.

The reality is:

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Death Isn’t Fear; It’s Heartbreak

When I got the news that dad’s targeted treatment was no longer working and the doctors were recommending more “aggressive” treatment with chemo (which is U.S. Medical Industry Newspeak for, “The shit is killing you, and it’s time to move to our last lines of defense and say a few prayers”), I moved home. This was six months before dad died.

We made plans. We made plans to go wine tasting. We made plans to go to his favorite Korean restaurant. We made plans to go kayaking, and when it grew clear that was impossible, just to go for a drive out to the coast. None of it ever happened. We made plans upon plans that never came to fruition, because my father, a former park ranger, EPA agent, volunteer at the Point Reyes National Seashore, and lifelong lover of the outdoors, spent the last six months of his life in too much pain and too exhausted to do much of anything but sleep.

A week before he died, he suffered a stroke that completely immobilized him. He couldn’t even turn himself over in his hospital bed. I am grateful – no, that is not enough, I consider it a sacred privilege – that I was able to care for him at the end of his life the way he did for me at the beginning of mine. But that doesn’t make it hurt less.

That is what death is. Death isn’t “the most terrible of all bad things.” It isn’t a horrifying monster that snatches you up in the night. It isn’t being asked to leave the party while everyone else gets to stay.

Death is a piece of your heart that gets taken away forever, that you can never have back. All you want is to hold it again. One more reassuring hand on your shoulder. One more loving goodnight kiss. One more scolding word. One more warm embrace. One more time rolling your dying father on his side so he doesn’t get bed sores. But you can’t, and you never will, because that piece of your heart is gone.

Am I scared to stop existing? You bet. I don’t want to go in some horrible way that will make my last minutes/days/weeks/months on Earth a living hell. Being shot. Stabbed. Burning to death. Drowning. Dying young. Or maybe dying young would be better. But probably not.

I am terrified of death, but it isn’t because I fear the void is dark. What I fear is that I will arrive at my own end with regret that I didn’t spend more time with the people I love, or that I didn’t live the way that I wanted to and create enough meaning and purpose for myself. And, as a selfish and often thoughtless person, what I fear even more than those things is that I will not have done enough good in this world to help ease the suffering of others.

In dad’s case, thankfully, that last one was never a question.

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Friedrich, “Stages of Life”

Death is a Paradox

So, what is death?

Death is confusion that leads to understanding. Mystery that leads to acceptance. Fear that leads to courage. Pain that leads to gratitude. Warmth that leads to cold. A phase change that cannot be reversed. A 3000-word post that has bled from my heart onto these empty pages, but somehow leaves me no more comfortable with its subject than I was before.

Death is the last and greatest paradox. Paradox: an unsolvable problem. I don’t have any answers. But I do want to propose something.

I propose we tell the truth. Speak about death and what it is. We may never fully comprehend it. But maybe we don’t need to.

Share the dead with the world. Their ideas, dreams, and lessons only continue so long as someone wills it. Keep their echo going.

Find the equality in death. Death is the one thing we all have in common. No one is born to the same conditions, or with the same talents, abilities, or deficiencies. Death is the one thing that makes us all perfectly equal.

Find the fraternity in death. There is no medicine that can help ease the pain of a loved one dying, except the kindness of those who have gone through it, too.

I will never forget the drunk dude who approached me at a dive bar the night of my dad’s funeral and told me how his mom had passed from cancer a year before, who embraced me like I was his brother and said that it was going to be okay.  This man was a complete stranger who in other circumstances would’ve been giving my friends and I the stink eye.

Or how about the random lady at the yacht club the night my dad died, when my buddy invited me out so I wouldn’t be alone? She hugged me like I was her own son after telling me how her husband had died of liver cancer seven months earlier – they had four kids in college.

Or how about my Aunt Margaret, who took such good care of my mom, taking almost a month out of her life to stay at the house and dealing with a nightmare rental car corporation that tried to charge her $5,000 to change her drop-off location in the bargain?

Or how about the way my Aunt Louise cooked huge pots of minestrone soup for all the tired family members who were coming and going the last week of dad’s life? Home-cooked minestrone. That is delicious.

Or how about the way my Uncle Chris kept our fridge stocked with beer? Always 805, the good stuff.

Or how about the way my nieces kept wanting to play hide and seek even after the grownups were ready to head home from the wake, because “the sadness [was] in the house?”

Or how about all the people I had never met or couldn’t remember, who came up to me before and after the funeral to tell me stories about my dad, and immediately treated me like we, too, were dear, old friends?

It helped. All of it. That’s the point. Death gives us a glue that cannot be found anywhere else and cannot be undone. In a way, it makes those relationships bulletproof. You do not understand the thing that is bringing you together. But goddamn, does it force you to open your eyes to the light in that other person.

The dying get morphine. We get each other.

And this is what I have learned.

Poetry: “Love”

Love is a father
Holding tight to your hand.
Love is the losses
That you never planned.
Love is the laughter
Drifting from the yard.
Love is the gatherings
When times grow hard.
Love is the crib
That swayed you to sleep.
Love is the bedside
Where your family weeps.
Love is a close race
Down buttered corn.
Love is the embrace
When voices grow worn.
Love is a treasure
That crossed half the world.
Love is a note
Wrought from misspelled words.
Love is the piece
Of the Endless we scrape.
Love is a bus
When no one is awake.
Love is the first light
That makes way for dawn.
Love is what remains
When all else is gone.

 

In memory of my father John

6/21/1952 – 6/21/2019