(AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record Mark Wilson)
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[This essay will appear in “Death,” the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
I admire the stoic fortitude, but at the age of 78 I know I won’t be skipping out on the appointment, and I notice that it gets harder to remember just why it is that I’m not afraid to die. My body routinely produces fresh and insistent signs of its mortality, and within the surrounding biosphere of the news and entertainment media it is the fear of death—24/7 in every shade of hospital white and doomsday black—that sells the pharmaceutical, political, financial, film, and food products promising to make good the wish to live forever. The latest issue of my magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, therefore comes with an admission of self-interest as well as an apology for the un-American activity, death, that is its topic. The taking time to resurrect the body of its thought in LQ offered a chance to remember that the leading cause of death is birth.
I count it a lucky break to have been born in a day and age when answers to the question “Why do I have to die?” were still looked for in the experimental laboratories of art and literature as well as in the teachings of religion. The problem hadn’t yet been referred to the drug and weapons industries, to the cosmetic surgeons and the neuroscientists, and as a grammar-school boy in San Francisco during the Second World War, I was fortunate to be placed in the custody of Mr. Charles Mulholland. A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More and Stonewall Jackson.
The messages furnished need-to-know background on the news bulletins from Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach, and they made a greater impression on me than probably was expected or intended. By the age of 10, raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, it never once had occurred to me to entertain the prospect of an afterlife. Eternal life may have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, possibly also to the Muslim faithful butchered in Jerusalem by Richard the Lionheart, but without the favor of Allah or early admission to a Calvinist state of grace, how was one to formulate a closing remark worthy of Mr. Mulholland’s blackboard?
The question came up in the winter of 1953 during my freshman year at Yale College, when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room at Grace-New Haven Hospital rated the odds of my survival at no better than a hundred to one. To the surprise of all present, I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination. For two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase, possibly to dream of the wizard Merlin in an oak tree or behold a vision of the Virgin Mary. Nothing came to mind.
Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, but not horrified. Here was death making routine rounds, not to be seen wearing a Halloween costume but clearly in attendance. The man in the next bed died on the first night, the woman to his left on the second. Apparently an old story, but before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, it was not one that I had guessed was also my own. I hadn’t been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn’t sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.
Minus three toes destroyed by the disease, I left the hospital four months later knowing that my reprieve was temporary, subject to cancellation on short notice. Blessed by what I took to be the smile and gift of fortune, I resolved to spend as much time as possible in the present tense, to rejoice in the wonders of the world, chase the rainbows of the spirit, indulge the pleasures of the flesh, defy the foul fiend, go and catch a falling star.