This post… Hoooooooo. I wrote this a few months ago, before I had actually started the blog. Since then, I have been uncertain about whether or not I actually want to post it. As if not posting it somehow made it less real, if that makes sense.
This is a peek into my brain. Fully in keeping with the utter honesty that I’ve promised.
And boy is this a weighty one.
I found out about the Order of the Good Death today. From what I can tell by their website, it’s a group of end-of-life professionals dedicated to bringing back the concept of “Memento Mori” as something to be embraced as natural and good rather than feared. To quote from their website, “The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
This is something that I’ve got to explain in depth, as it concerns major events in my life that helped define me as the person I am today. Brace yourself, dear reader, because we’re going in-depth with this, my own amateur analysis of my experiences.
The concept of death was introduced to me young. It is for a lot of people, and mine was one of the more classic introductions, the death of a pet. In this case, the cat had been with my family as long as I had been alive, and certainly as long as I could form cognizant thought. He died when I was still in elementary school, so “cognizant thought” may be pushing it, but I was fairly advanced for a child. I never really thought about death before that, even though I was already reading at a High School level and beyond, so I had certainly come across it before in literature, but had never really paid it much mind. It was a story element, one like any other, to be appreciated for what it lent the plot. My pet was no story element. He was a real, breathing creature whose existence I had taken for granted, and then he was gone. My parents had my brother and I write a short letter about our feelings to Roy to be buried with the body in a shoebox in the backyard. Seeing as I only really had literature as a way of experiencing death, I wrote a short fantasy piece to him in the letter rather than putting down the feelings I didn’t know how to express. My parents questioned why I didn’t write down my feelings, and I responded that “I thought it would make him laugh.” To this day, I am uncertain as to why I said that, or why I was anthropomorphizing him, but I’m certain that it speaks volumes to someone with the proper training in child psych.
The incident haunted me for years. It would not be unfair to say that it broke me for a while. Not a great thing to happen to a kid, certainly. I became obsessed with the concept of death, it invading my every thought. I started watching much more TV because the bright colors and wacky audio deadened my brain to the panic I was feeling. However, nothing is so easy to remember as something you are trying to forget, and it came rushing back often, breaking what little stability I had regained. I grew up in the specter of 9/11, and this misunderstood panic that gripped me was only multiplied by that. My elementary school was under 20 miles from an airport, and every plane that passed overhead would trigger a new panic attack. Actually flying in planes was a fear that took me years to overcome. Since my stability of mind was seriously eroded, I even ran out of a spelling test in tears because I had written it in cursive and the teacher requested it printed. I kept myself together by constantly repeating to myself on the lonely walks in between home and school or a friend’s house that I wasn’t going to die, that they would find an immortality drug or something of the sort, that it was all fiction. I went through the usual stages of existential crisis, entertaining the thought that I was the only person and everyone else in the world were simply there to define my reality, questioning everyone about what happens after death, momentarily coming to terms with my own mortality only to panic again when I realized that all of my loved ones were also mortal and had less time left than I, etc. etc.
In other words, highly standard and healthy thoughts for an elementary schooler to grapple with. As I am writing that last sentence, I am honestly unsure how sarcastic it is meant to be. Again, I’m not trained in psychology, so I don’t know. It felt too early for me at the time, but I’m uncertain there is ever a good age for it.
What brought me out of the funk was a good friend of mine, whose company I often sought as a distraction. In my usual desperate manner, I asked him if he believed in reincarnation. He gave it only half a second’s thought before replying “I dunno, but I think I’d like to come back as a horse.” Those words have stuck with me all these years. I won’t say I got better instantly, but it certainly helped. It wasn’t even the words themselves, it was how utterly unconcerned my friend was about the thing that had been quietly destroying my life for a few years. I haven’t talked to this person in years, but as a kid he seemed to be one of the most down-to-earth individuals I had ever met, and his lack of concern told me at that age that it wasn’t something worth worrying about.
Death popped up a few more times in my life in prominent roles. When I was solidly in my depression, I asked my parents to get me someone to talk about it. Full of the 90’s mentality that talking to a “shrink” was weakness and insanity, I asked not to see a therapist. Instead, against my better judgement, I went to my mom’s parents’ priest. I hadn’t really thought of religion as important at this point, since I had read bible stories and judged them to be boring, terribly written literature. Mass with my mom’s family and holiday rituals with my dad’s family were just that in my mind, family rituals, unconnected to anything but ancestral history. Christianity, on the other hand, was a pushy moral code and myths that most people got huffy about if you called them mythology. So I was understandably concerned about going to said priest. However, he didn’t try to convert me or anything, and instead just read to me from a children’s book called “Freddy the Leaf,” in which a leaf on a tree watches his loved leaves die off before accepting the inevitability of his own demise and perishing.
Needless to say, since I was already a wreck, this didn’t do wonders for me at the time. Part of it was that I was almost begging him to lie to me, to say that death was made up, an elaborate and inconsiderate prank. Part of it was that, although he left religion out of it, he talked to me like a child of my age, while my parents had raised me, for better or worse (better I like to think), talking to me as though I was an adult. In any case, a ton of crying took place, and I left the meeting deathly quiet, a quiet that persisted internally for a few days/weeks/months. The timeline is a little uncertain for me, since that isn’t really a mental space I like to revisit. I was convinced that either he had lied to me in that condescending tone, and death was a myth, or death was real and therefor there was no point in living. That was the only time in my life that I had seriously considered suicide, but I didn’t consider it for very long.
Another event was the death of my great-grandmother in my early high school career. She had been a little over/under 100 (and had lied about her age for several birthdays, so I can’t say off the top of my head), and had asked us to come down so that she could see us before she died. I had many legitimate reason that I gave for not making the trip, but the core of it was that I was terrified. She had been old for as long as I had known her, and had all the troubles that came with that, restricted movements and fragile bones and the like. The casual racism held over from outdated morals I can only speak to second-hand, since she didn’t really mention such things when I was visiting. She even teleconferenced in to one of her birthday parties because she was in the hospital. But when she was actually dying of old age… That was something that I couldn’t face. I said that I wanted my memories of her to remain of her joy for life and the like, which was true, but I also wasn’t prepared to face a relative wasting away before my eyes.
At her funeral, I made some small speech about how in performing in “Fiddler on the Roof,” I had come to recognize some more aspects of my Jewish heritage that I hadn’t really thought about before, and with that realization, I offered a slightly tear-choked “L’chaim.” I said “L’chaim” because the Nana Betty that I had known was a person that probably only I remember, an incomplete figure full of life, always eager to take us out to eat, or play cards, or give bright-red staining kisses as a way of saying hello and goodbye. “To life,” because I wanted to remember a living woman, one whom I had only ever seen with the eyes of a child, but who had always been vibrant and alive, even when confined to bed-rest.
A few more times during high school I again returned to that state of deadened depression. One of my friends in the theater died of Muscular Dystrophy, and I mourned him silently. Then, the school faked several students’ deaths for a day, complete with watching a wrecked car being pulled away from school grounds as a med-evac helicopter flew off, culminating in an all-school assembly on the subject of drunk driving which was set up as a wake for the “dead” students. Afterward, we returned to our classes and talked about how the assembly made us feel.
I still find it hard to put into words how that whole setup made me feel. During the mocked crash, I was snarky and sarcastic, wondering how much the cost of the fuel for the helicopter was costing, and saying that the campaign was pointless, that those who weren’t going to drive drunk didn’t need this and that it wasn’t going to make anyone stupid enough to drive drunk reconsider. During the assembly, I was mad enough that, should I have felt so inclined, I would have made a solid effort at literally spitting venom. I was a theater student and reading at a post-collegiate level, but even those qualifiers weren’t necessary to see what was going on. This was theater, and bad theater at that, pulling no punches on melodrama and manipulative heart-wrenches. I was pissed that they could so devalue death as to use it as a cheap scare-em’-straight tactic (I also grew up with DARE. I might have the slightest bit of misanthropy directed specifically at those who attempt scare-em’-straight campaigns.). Once we were back in class, I was both deeply sad and resentful, and upon being called upon to express how I felt, I spitefully commented on my displeasure that the whole school was called out to mourn these fake deaths, but the passing of our friend went without notice. Several of my friends and my teacher were quick to assure me how inappropriate that would have been, and they were right of course, but reason means nothing in the face of childish rage and sorrow.
The thing is, at this point it wasn’t so much death that scared me as it was concept of the cessation of being, of “Oblivion” if you’ll forgive my getting poetic. Death was simply an event to my mind, one like any other, but the nothingness to come… That still terrifies me. I’ve never bought into the concept of death as being at peace, because I don’t see life as inherently strife-filled. I’ve had good days and bad, but I’ve felt on all of them. I, the creature that I am, experienced things. The death of self is what I fear more than the death of flesh, because I am addicted to sensation. I feel, therefore I know I am alive. I want to keep feeling. Who wants to live forever? I certainly wouldn’t mind.
I’m a more educated person than I was when these fears first came upon me. I have lived enough as a thinking human being with a developed mind that I’ve begun to think in certain patterns. For example, I’m an existentialist. I don’t believe in any inherent meaning to the universe, but rather than despair in that fact, I say that it gives me the ultimate power of determining the importance of aspects of my life however I choose to determine them. I define meaning where there is none. What some people call pointless things, I exalt in as the most important things I could be doing. And, since I am always changing, always learning, I can alter that perceived importance at will. Along with this, I have accepted the fact that there exists no strong evidence for existence after death, and that the Oblivion I so fear is the likely outcome of death. I’ve more or less come to terms with it, though I do on occasion have a small relapse where I sit up in bed, swearing softly and unable to sleep for fear of the little death not releasing me this time, that I am closing my eyes and won’t awaken.
And then I come across this Order of the Good Death. The title of the organization grabs me immediately, for it is theatrical and fantastic, evoking vague mysticism and Victorian themes. It sounds like something out of a game or fantasy novel, and I love it. Reading their philosophy brings me joy, because these people are trying to help other people with the very thing that emotionally crippled me for years. Heck, even though I was too young for them to help, I wish that people like them had been around when I was in the depths of my crises.
I want to say that I espouse their philosophy personally, that death is not to be feared. I really do, and to be perfectly honest, I can say that with far more sincerity than I could in previous years of my life, but I’m not there yet.
I am, however, getting there. I have improved by leaps and bounds, and have risen far above my starting point. Memento Mori? I can’t forget it. But no longer does it dominate my thoughts, nor deaden my emotions. I can write about it, I can talk about it, and most importantly, I can live my life despite it. So what if it must come, if life must end? I say L’chaim, and with that I send the air that I breathe rolling out into the greater world. I too must one day rejoin the greater world, my atoms disconnecting only to reconfigure in a new and glorious form. And as for Me? Well, I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see. I’m still in favor of eternal life though, just on the offhand chance the transhumanist sciences pull through for us. But if they don’t, then, well…