Death, my own, has been a companion for all my life - or close enough. Such thoughts took up a good portion of my 21st birthday – the arrival of full adulthood for my generation - as I spent two or three hours alone along the seawall in Sausalito, where I then lived, trying to make sense of the idea that at sometime in the far, far future I would die.
As hard as I tried that day to accept what one part of my mind fully understood was the ultimate awful truth of life, I could not conceive of it. You and you and you would die but not me. I was, I almost believed, the one immortal.
Not infrequently through the ensuing half-century, I revisited those thoughts determined to make peace with my mortality or, possibly more important, to rid myself of the anxiety, dread and horror of non-existence.
I suppose I made some progress toward acceptance but mostly my death remained theoretical until a few months ago when the doctor pronounced the words, pancreatic cancer. It's not like many people survive that diagnosis for long.
Since then, I've spent even more time than in the past thinking about death. Not generic death, not death in the abstract, but my personal death. And what, be my time short or long, I can do with the indisputable knowledge that I have a life-ending disease.
Over the years of studying ageing, I have read dozens of books about death and dying – the clinical, the scientific, the medical, the metaphorical, the personal journals of caregivers, others who would make comedy of their own impending death along with “expert” advice on how to meet the inevitable.
Now that I am knocking on that door, none of it means much anymore but I have come to a simple answer that I can live with – until I come up with something better – which is this:
Go on living, whatever that may be each day. If you can't get rid of it, take the burden of fear with you – you've had decades of practice. Most of all, there is no point in being miserable over something that cannot be changed.
[ASIDE: And anyway, how hard it could be, this dying stuff: after all, everyone who ever lived has done it.]
It has helped that I have recalled a true story I told here some years ago but hadn't thought of since then:
Talking with a friend as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point as I stepped backward. Instead of solid pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar - a large, square hole in the sidewalk.
As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building wall with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.
My friend caught my other arm and tried to pull but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she couldn't get a purchase on the ground to help me up. My arm against the building was slipping too and I knew I couldn't hold myself there for long.
Then, in the span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I'm going to die right here and now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it's okay, I can do this).
Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.
But a miracle happened. Two strong hands caught my back in the middle of the fall and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continued life.
I am not religious. I do not believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in reincarnation. And I doubt the significance placed on all those near-death, white-light stories. I believe that when we are done with our one life, we're done.
What I hope for is what happened to me on the basement stairs of that Bleecker Street restaurant one day many years ago - that as death grows close, I can accept that it is my time to go. Meanwhile, I intend to carry on pretty much as I would have had this rude interruption not occurred.
ADDENDUM: (Cue Twilight Zone music.) We were both shaking, my friend and I, when I returned to solid ground and we sat on an adjoining stoop smoking cigarettes until I'd calmed down.
Without our having noticed as we sat there saying little, the metal doors to the basement had been closed and padlocked so I went into the restaurant to ask for the person in the basement who had saved my life. None of the waiters nor the cashier knew what or who I was talking about. They insisted none of them nor anyone else who worked there had been to the cellar yet that day.
I don't know what to say about that.