Someone died on the trail while we were hiking up the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They were giving him CPR for ages while his daughters leaked tears on a log nearby. When he was clearly and truly irreparably dead, we hiked past and I saw his pale, hairy leg with a scrunched up sock and hiking boot peeking out from the foil sheet. Hikers who’d helped give CPR later remarked, “I could feel his ribs cracking underneath my hands.” It was a sobering incident although a few hours later I still made a joke about the hike being a death march due to my vibrams.
Death is gross and terrible. I told my dad we should get cryogenically frozen and he said he’d look into the paperwork- my good old dad. I feel immense guilt it never occurred to me to freeze Mom even though I knew freezing existed. I think I was in a state of denial about the likelihood of her death since she’d been getting better for a long time and got worse quite suddenly so my dumb brain didn’t weight the new information correctly. Dying, like, goes against her identity as a cool Mom, right? The brain doesn’t handle affronts to identity very well.
Dying is deeply disgusting. Picture ragged roadkill or other dead animals you’ve ever seen flopped over stiff and grimacing- that’s what people are like when they’re dead too. I’d like to imagine death as one peacefully drifting off, looking as though one were sweetly asleep, but death is not like that. Death is ugly and repulsive. Mom was probably seriously dying for a good 6 months or so and I wish I could erase all of that from my memory. Is it wrong that I wish I could have frozen her before her organs started to rot inside her still-breathing body? I don’t want to think about her like that- I didn’t then and I definitely don’t now. But I did, and I do. I think about her and her death all the time. I wanted it to stop, and although she’s dead now it hasn’t stopped for me because it still happened- Mom being dead never stops.
Although Mom believed in heaven and her church friends were always with her, she didn’t want to die. She wasn’t in peace; she was in pain. I feel bad we didn’t try everything. I could’ve done more research but I didn’t want to get closer to it. I wanted it to stop and leave, a weak and contemptible reaction that proves I’m shamefully unworthy of stuff, like being a great samurai, or being a good daughter.
If I found out I had incurable cancer, I wouldn’t get the haphazard treatment that weakens you everywhere while you suffer and stall in waiting rooms that reek of poison, everyone pathetically shuffling around, or sadly staring, or desensitized and businesslike, or just normal- pragmatically ignoring doom. If I had cancer, I’d go to sleep on an ice floe and float out into the Arctic among the icebergs and the sea lions like an old, useless Eskimo. I’d wander alone towards my ancestral graveyard like an elephant matriarch and collapse on my knees in a pit of ancient bones. (Years later a lion king will play in my rib cage.) Or maybe there’d be some project I could do like fix a nuclear reactor that’s too dangerous for healthy people to approach, although they probably have robots or something for that.
It doesn’t hurt anybody for us to get frozen and the main reason against it is because people will think you’re weird. Whatever- the “weird” ship sails whenever it sails. Now that Dad said he’d do the paperwork, the main deterrent for me to do it was actually the clangy jewelry you’re supposed to wear at all times that says to send you to Alcor so they can put you in your freezing pod or whatever. Does anyone know if medical people will still realize it’s medical information if I get a cuter version made? I don’t wear jewelry typically and the thought of going from bare to ugly jewelry horrifies me.
Friends, let’s all get frozen. That way when I wake up in 1000 years in my robot body you’ll all still be there and we can all battle the evil Galactic Empire together and learn to control our psychic powers and flirt with hot aliens.
I hate death and maybe that’s why I think about it a lot. Animals are almost lucky because they can just die like it’s nothing, like it’s supposed to happen, an instinct encoded in their DNA. Animals live and die and nothing they do can be Wrong- their wars and murders, suicides and unstoppable sex, their patricide and eating of their cubs are all All-Right. I wish I could die by letting my million spider offspring explode from and then feast on my delicious, bulbous torso. Or I could die by having my ferocious mate bite off my puny head after sex- whatever, it’s natural, everybody’s doing it, it gives meaning to life, it’s a stitch in the tapestry of the universe woven by the Fates, it’s a poem, it’s destiny.
But I don’t feel like an animal (I can’t rape or kill or psychotically eat my young). I don’t feel like death is natural for me or for any person. Is that feeling itself wrong and unnatural? Maybe that’s part of why (in addition to our need to explain and find patterns) humans have an instinct for religion, every culture comes up with their own brand of afterlife- it’s our human nature to deny death. If you believe in an afterlife or in reincarnation, you can avoid the gut knowledge that death is DEATH. I wish I could do that, be like Henry Ford and the many people who’ve found solace in reincarnation or in heaven. Even if there’s a Zen meditation out there where you inhale the sickness and death of this world and exhale acceptance, if I tried it, I’d choke.* Maybe I’d vomit and burst into tears. It’d be gross.
I wasn’t specially nice to Mom when she was on her deathbed. When Dad had cancer I promised I’d be nicer to him going forward, but I am not at all. I guess impending death just doesn’t make me feel nicer even though I wish it did and it’s supposed to. I wish I could be the type of person who was nicer to someone after considering we’re both going to die, but I’m not. My only hope is to try to grow into a nicer person period who’d be really nice to her parents and everyone else even if we never had to die.
Sorry I’m not enlightened. Looking at everyone who’s accepted death and thinks it can be beautiful and dignified, and everyone else who doesn’t think about it and lives life never knowing death until they, well, die, I’m sorry death hurts and repulses me. I wish I were like the others, that I could ignore it or think of an afterlife, but even the idea that it’s all a plan makes me feel terrible. My mom didn’t die throwing herself in front of a bus of school children. (I wish she had. (It’s hard to die well. Many people don’t.)) She died and suffered for nothing, like an animal, and I don’t find any meaning in it.
I’m probably just abnormal but I don’t think life OR death is for humans what it is for animals. Animals are born, they look adorable as babies, they stay adorable after they’re grown or they become terrifying/ disgusting/ delicious, they may or may not learn some things, they do some work to get their food and shelter, they eat and sleep, they do some work so they can reproduce, they do some work to raise their offspring or they don’t, they interact with other creatures, objects, or places, and then they die. I can’t live my life like that. I can’t be like an animal- I can’t live like one or die like one.
It’s one thing to be stoic and mature about something inevitable. Like when some injustice occurs and someone stronger enslaves you or your legs are gone so you have robot legs or your whole family starved to death in China, you don’t let that ruin your life: you are courageous and heroic by going on to regain freedom or win the Olympics or become a scientist and say, “Shit happens- I was branded sub-human, my legs are gone, and I’m an orphan. There’s no point in dwelling on it so I have to have a good attitude going forward and be amazing.” That’s awesome. But don’t tell this person that the world is better that these injustices occurred, that their lives are more meaningful now because of suffering, that it was all supposed to happen so people could be inspired by their challenges. That stuff shouldn’t happen and we should try to stop it if we can. That’s how I feel about death, about all injustice, all suffering. If it has to happen, then I’m going to be brave about it. But I’m not going to say the world is more beautiful because of ugliness.
For millennia people had other people as slaves. Babies would die left and right. Women would die in childbirth. Sickness and disease would have no solution and people would accept it as part of life because what else are you supposed to do? How else do you cope with it? (Well, you can solve it.) (Death is the one disease everyone suffers under and everyone copes with.) People would rape and pillage their neighbors or expose their unwanted babies on the mountains, stuff animals do, but humans stopped doing this stuff because we’re better than the animals. We stopped coping with diseases because we can cure them.
That’s the gift that we humans have over the animals. We can choose to be better. If there’s a choice between good and evil, between hope and despair, between progress and complacency, we can choose the light. We can choose life.
* Margaret Cho wrote, “there’s this Buddhist meditation where you breathe in the world’s suffering and breathe out compassion and I try to do it and choke.”