Death and Dying, Life and Living

I have no clue how typical my Twitter feed is. It pulls in tweets from a swath of viewpoints, some famous and some social-media famous. Last week it filled up with tweets about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain: mourning their deaths, praising their talents, thanking them for their contributions, praising them for their grace during chance encounters, and referencing their suicides to implore greater action against and understanding about mental illness.

It was only in the last year or two that I found out that a real person existed behind the Kate Spade brand name. And Bourdain I knew only from the commercials on CNN. For me, Kurt Cobain’s suicide and David Bowie’s sudden death were way tougher. But the public mourning that followed all of these and other celebrity deaths is both natural and healthy. The talk about mental illness that has followed the suicides is an especially good thing. Strangers and friends are calling on each other to be open about their own mental and emotional struggles, and more accepting of others’.

One of the emerging themes in the tweet and retweets I’ve read is that emotional and mental pain is not wrong or something to be ashamed of. It is, in fact, part of being human. Too true. It’s a problem that many people share, maybe most, but still so rarely talk about. It amazes me that still I can leave a doctor appointment without him asking me a single question about my mental health. In fact, no GP has ever asked me.

What’s interesting to me is that while we’re mourning famous suicides, pushing the problem of mental illness into the light, and calling for understanding of each other’s troubles, we are all ultimately locked into a single point of reference: ourselves. You can’t know someone from their life on TV or in magazines. You can’t know what makes a person’s life so unbearable that suicide is an answer. You can’t know how someone might view suicide as a move into the warm grip of death. Bolted as we are in ourselves, can we know if it’s normal to feel unbearable mental pain? To know if it is normal or not to hate life? To consider veering into oncoming traffic? To think about laying a rifle barrel on your tongue? To ponder leaping into a mall concourse from seven floors up?

In moments like those, some people look forward to a release. Others, maybe those who ultimately do not leap or pull the trigger, confront death, stare at it, perhaps for the first time. Death. It’s one of those things that we all have in common but hardly talk about, like bowel movements. Death is banal. Violent and tragic death is so common to watch and read about on the news, accompanied by a moment of pity, and in our entertainment, actively in video games and passively in our movies and TV. I remember being stunned part way through the 10 episodes of Fargo season 1, that a story of a small-town crook had entertained me with over 30 murders, nearly all gruesomely shown. The final tally was 43, presented as though this was Any Town U S A.

That sort of killing for entertainment doesn’t do us any favors. It dilutes the power and mystery of death as a stepping off point to – what? Everlasting life? Peace? Nothingness? Hell fires? Many of us have theories about what follows. But a theory at the top of mind is not a confrontation. And whether we’re dealing with death theoretically or imbibing it as entertainment, we’re treating it obliquely, and thus also stealing away the power and mystery of life.

Facing death directly — at a suicidal moment, in a slow moving threat of illness, the prospect of a loved one gone and you too one day doing the same – you realize that you know nothing about it. That it is coming, relentless, pestering, begging or demanding, and no matter what you ponder or pray, the world doesn’t let up or stop spinning, or give you a moment to catch your breath or ask for a reprieve. Looking into that persistent abyss you realize that by avoiding it for so long you lose – and by owning up to it you see truly — that life, each life, is precious. And unless you believe in infinite universes — a theory as fantastical and unprovable as any religion, and to some perhaps as comforting — then each life is also absolutely unique.

Think about that in the context of the nature versus nurture debate: there is no combination of time, place, and circumstance on this Earth that allows a single person to ever be here again. When life is framed that way, looking directly at death not as a theory or a statistic, but a mystery into which all of us will move but each of us must in the end confront alone, well, it makes me wonder why I ever bother to put pen to paper, or worry about my inbox, or pay my mortgage.

It’s a reciprocal relationship. How you view death says a lot about how you view life, and vice versa. I suppose you can learn that as a child and in a hurry. It’s taken me a long time, and I’ve only fully recognized this while at my father’s hospital bed. He’s suffered with chronic pain for over 30 years and has been close to death several times. The details are none of your business. The point is that the inevitability of his death (or anyone’s) doesn’t make it easier to imagine life without him. But his suffering in pain makes it easier to understand how and why he might be ready for it.

His quiet tolerance for pain is staggering. Recently, prior to him going into the hospital, I wrote to him about my struggle trying to understand his strength. The writings of Viktor Frankl, I told him, helped me understand his suffering, to understand how he can stand it and move on, to not give up or succumb to self pity or despair.

But it wasn’t until I was at his bedside did I learn how he dealt with his pain. A believer in God, his strength to endure suffering, and his ability to again and again defy death and cling to life, didn’t come from his prayers. At least not foremost. It didn’t come from not being ready to go to heaven. It didn’t come from sadness that we’d be losing him. Instead he’s driven by the unfairness of it. If he died, he said, we’d only be losing one: him. He, on the other hand, would be losing all of us.

It’s almost sounds selfish, or like the fear of missing out. But it’s not. It’s perfect. His suffering and his survival has been about love. To him life is precious. Too precious to leave. And not necessarily his life, his living, but the lives of his friends and family are too precious for him to leave behind.

And yet, while processing this at his hospital bedside, death – and life — doesn’t sit still. A dear friend, far stronger and healthier than me, today was leveled with stage IV cancer diagnosis that came out of nowhere.

No matter that I know I too will die, like all of you, I can’t imagine life for him. Or without him. But the time we have now, till he’s gone from cancer or anything else, is more important to me than ever.

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