“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
My wife has attended three funerals in the last month, and none of them had to do with the fact that she is an attorney with a certified specialization in probate law.
The first was the funeral for her former senior partner. That one wasn’t too hard to take. He was well into his eighties, had led a full and rich life, and died after a relatively short illness. As deaths go, not all that bad.
The second was for a much younger man, who committed suicide. She went to that one because he was the son of a friend, a friend whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver just ten months earlier.
The third funeral was the only one of the three I attended. It was for one of my best friends.
“Death is a big subject with me,” Woody Allen proclaimed in his classic film, “Annie Hall.” Me, too. In fact, the older I get, the bigger it gets in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t the thought of what happens after death that keeps me up at night. I’m not hung up on what death might bring. You get no Hamlet’s soliloquy from me.
No, my preoccupation with death is the part that leads up to it – the life part, the part that begins immediately after birth and continues right up until the point that the living ceases.
We’re born to die; that’s the rub for me.
It all started in my mid-20s, when I almost died from a botched appendectomy. The details aren’t important, but the upshot of the experience was that I went into surgery and woke up to be told that I had almost died.
Two things occurred to me in contemplation of that news. The first was that the being dead part of death was nothing to fear. Had I died that day, I never would have known it.
I wouldn’t have missed not being alive, wouldn’t have regretted not completing the project I was consumed with before the surgery, wouldn’t have mourned the loss of the many years I would otherwise have expected to experience. I wouldn’t have been in any sense sorrowful over my demise because, of course, I wouldn’t have any sense of it, or of anything else for that matter.
And so, that experience, early in life, freed me of the fear that I have since come to suspect leads many to find solace in religion. There isn’t anything to be afraid of in death. It is the literal absence of anything; the complete nothingness of a non-existence.
And I do not mean to cast any aspersions on religious beliefs by anything I’ve just said. It’s just what makes sense for me. I understand that many who have a faith in a spiritual existence believe that death opens doors to a new awareness, a new reality. I understand that for those with that kind of faith, religion gives hope and provides courage. But that’s not how it works for me. Death is the end, the terminus, the point at which nothing can be known or understood or felt or learned.
It’s the second thing that occurred to me after my near-death experience that keeps me up at night, more so as I grow older and more familiar with sickness and my own frailty. It’s the things that happen to us that bring us to that point, the dying part.
I’m probably losing some of you at this point, and I understand if you wonder what all of this has to do with you. Nothing might be the answer – or everything. It all depends on your perspective.
Here’s mine: All of life is marked by the certainty of death. From the point at which we gain any understanding at all of our own mortality, we are aware of this fact, either consciously or subconsciously. Either way, we can’t escape it; it’s an immutable part of the human condition. We live to die, and die we must.
And so the question becomes how we deal with this reality. Do we strive to extend the period we have for as long as possible by living “healthy” and by staying “safe” and by avoiding “risks”? Or do we seek to experience as much as we can in whatever time we have, figuring that since we can’t know when our time will come, we might as well live every day as if it were our last? Or do we try to ignore it entirely, thereby living day to day without any sense of purpose other than to take what comes and do what must be done to make it to that next day?
I’ve found myself in all three of those attitudes at various points in my life, sometimes even incorporating aspects of all three at the same time. And I’m pretty good at living in the here and now for the most part. I work hard, play hard, and enjoy everything about the moments of my life that I can.
But ultimately, when it’s all stripped away and I am alone with my thoughts, I’m left with the reality of death, of the slow march to it that I and all of us are inexorably on.
Back about 20 years ago, Marlon Brando, then still vigorous and yet already a legend in his own time, gave an interview that gradually drifted into metaphysical ruminations.
“Here’s how I see it,” he finally said to his interviewer. “We prance around like big shots, doing our thing, whatever that might be. We live life to the fullest of our capacities, striving mightily to make a mark of some kind. And then, in the end, we find ourselves lying somewhere, gasping for our last breath. And maybe, at that point, we ask ourselves, ‘now what the hell was that all about’?”
I’m haunted by that thought.