My Death Problem
A mind great enough to anticipate its own mortality is also great enough to manufacture the most elaborate ways to deny its existence.
I've known for a very long time that I don't conceptualize death very well, but I didn't truly grasp how poorly I handled it until my cat died last month.
It was then that I discovered I can't make sense of death. My brain knows what it is and what it means. I understand, intellectually, that death is a ceasing of biological functions that support life and consciousness. I understand that we handle this concept rather flippantly in the way we portray it in movies and on television, in much the same way we portray sex, but reality is much grittier. It's also sloppier and often times uglier, and it hurts more than many actors can accurately express on a screen or stage. I think it's only after you experience a hard bout of grief that you can really appreciate how rare it is when a movie or a show can encapsulate the complexities of death and dying.
I'm even having trouble expressing it right now, so I guess I'll just use anecdotes. Back when I was about eighteen, someone I worked with died very suddenly. In life, he was one of the kindest and funniest people you'd ever want to meet. Jovial, vivacious, fun. He lit up the whole office, and one of the best things about coming to work every morning was seeing Ron, because no matter how grumpy everyone else might have been that day, you could always count on him to have a smile on his face. I used to like going into his office because he had really cool toys and action figures in there and he had an awesome computer. Then, one day, he left work a little early because he didn't feel well. The next morning, he didn't come back into the office. He didn't call. A few hours later, my brother (who was good friends with Ron), went to his house to check on him and found him lying dead on the couch. It was later revealed that he'd had a major heart attack earlier that night and that he had major coronary artery disease. This person, this hilarious and lively and kind man that everyone loved, was cut down in his prime by something that kills millions of people every year, but it didn't seem like it should have happened to HIM. Because on the emotional level, good things don't deserve to die. They should get to go on forever and ever.
The whole office was devastated, and my brother... I think even now, I have trouble putting myself in his head when I try to imagine what it must have been like walking in to find one of your best friends dead like that. I wound up seeing Ron's body too, because I went to his funeral where there was an open casket. I had never previously been to a funeral like this before. It was my first time seeing a real dead body, and part of me didn't want to see, but I knew I needed to. I crept up to the coffin along with everyone else, bracing myself to see what would almost certainly be my former work buddy just lying there looking asleep, because that's how it always looks in the movies.
But he didn't look that way. What I saw filled my heart with so much horror and confusion that I wanted to run out of there screaming. That wasn't my Ron. That was a dummy dressed up and painted up to LOOK like him. He looked like a soap carving that someone had spray tanned and rouged up in order to give the illusion of vitality, but his eyelids looked like they'd been glued shut. And his hands looked like something off a department store mannequin. And inside my brain this horrible tug-o-war raged on. "This is Ron?!" "No! This is NOT RON!" Back and forth back and forth. It got so that I would see that soap carving face of his every time I closed my eyes at night. He haunted my dreams, this dead body, this shell that once held a spark.
The memory has since lost some of its vibrancy, but it greatly affected my ability to perceive death, and even now the image of that wonderful man lying dead in his casket fills me with loathing and sadness. Without life, these bodies of ours are just... meat. So where did that spark go? Did it die with him?
Zip forward about fifteen years to last month when my family and I went to visit our beloved cat Angus after he had passed away so unexpectedly. I knew on some level that because Angus had died when we weren't there, we had to have a chance to say goodbye to him. It's just what we do when a loved one dies. Bodies lie in state so we have a chance to come to terms with reality. But what if the reality is so all encompassing and soul crushing that you can't really come to terms with it? My brain needed to know, without question, that our sweet boy was truly gone, but my heart wishes it could unsee Angus lying there a lifeless shell. My kids absolutely insisted on coming as well, and of course I allowed it. Because, again intellectually, you are not supposed to hide these things from people, kids included. Or especially. Death is not supposed to be this taboo thing (and I don't pretend for a second that taboo feelings, whether conscious or unconscious, contribute greatly to my misgivings about death and my inability to accept it), and I wasn't going to put my kids into the same dysfunctional state of mind regarding death that I've been in most of my life.
My heart rode at the top of my throat the whole way to the vet's office and I can still see myself drifting listlessly down the short hallway to the back room where they had Angus waiting for us. He was lying on a metal table beneath a white towel, and the vet tech slowly peeled it back to reveal the hump of beautiful gray fur and flesh that used to be my dear, sweet friend. And of course, I gasped. I think everyone did. Isn't that customary when you see something dead? They had groomed his coat until it shined, and he'd only been dead maybe 90 minutes, so he was still warm when I touched him. But his eyes, though closed, again had that "stuck shut" look to them. And his mouth, though not open, had the slightest gape to it that also just looked "stuck." Without the electrical impulses of his heart and brain to power him, he was just a stiffening body. Nothing more. I wanted so much to see those brilliant blue eyes again, but without life, they would just be dusty marbles.
And like the experience with my friend Ron, it's that face I see (and still see) almost every night when I close my eyes. Not Angus as he had been when he was alive--not even the very last time I saw him alive, when he was gasping for air and tranqed out of his mind. It's that dead face. That stiff countenance that signals beyond all doubt that life has vacated the premises. We all stroked his fur and kissed him and cried all over him. My daughter said she was begging and praying so hard for him to just wake up, because to her he looked like he was taking a nap. But to me, there was something very fundamental missing. He wasn't asleep. He was DEAD. And I couldn't understand how it was possible that the thing that propelled this beautiful creature through life, the thing that helped him eat and meow and play and twitch his ears and breathe in and out, could just be... gone. And then, when I brought his cremains home, I stared at this bag of pulverized ash mixed with larger rough fragments of white colored bone and again, that precipice of understanding was there. I knew what it was. I understood the biological process of rendering an organic life form down to its barest parts with heat. But I still could not grab hold of it and accept that this is how these things go. This is death. This is what it means to be dead. But how can these beautiful things that bring us so much joy just be reduced to something that fits into a baggie?
I look at Angus's urn now and it still baffles me that THIS IS MY CAT. This small jar now holds one of my dearest companions whose size had once been immense. It had defined him in so many crucial ways. And where did his essential self, the thing that made me love him so much, go? It can't just be GONE, can it? If the thing that gives us our spark can just be winked out like it never existed in the first place, then what is the fucking point of any of it?
And it's in that I suppose I can understand why people look to religion and other forms of spirituality, to wrestle with these mysteries. Because you feel like you have to tell yourself comforting little stories to make it so you can sleep at night. We tell ourselves they aren't "really gone," that they're "out there" or "watching over us," or that they're somehow reaching through a spiritual plane to affect things here, like moving our belongings or sending us messages in our dreams, and we look to mediums and other charlatans who claim they can see these departed spirits to confirm what our hearts so desperately hope, because the prospect that they ARE truly gone, that their lives, which affected us so profoundly, are just winked out like birthday candles, is so horrifying and sad that we don't want to face it. And we can't face it because one day, it's going to happen to us, and we can't conceptualize the idea that everything we've ever done or made or felt will just be wiped away like so much chalk dust.
And the thing is, I can feel that artifice tugging at me, telling me to just give in to these stories we tell ourselves, because it's just easier. And that only makes me bitter. I'm fucking pissed off that I can't know for sure. On the one hand, everyone we ever loved and lost is frolicking through a wonderful place where there is no pain and where there is only love and light, because that's the best thing we could ever wish for those we love most. On the other hand, we have to entertain the likelihood that we weave these illusions like bandages for our wounded hearts, and our brains--remarkable and powerful as they are--will do everything in their power to make these illusions true for us so that we never have to face the heartbreak that death is truly the end, that this life we have is our one go at it. And that life is a fragile, fleeting, fickle bitch of a thing. It's like a match head that lights up, flares for an instant, and then burns slowly for another moment or two before it gutters out. And maybe the barest parts of that flame and the molecules it altered move on to a more tiny and silent process our eyes can't see, but what does this mean for our minds? Do they dissolve into the atomic ether as well? Do we become neutrino soup?