When we are in our teens, twenties, and early thirties, death is something that is not real to most of us. Of course, if asked, young people will say that they will die…someday…way off in the future. But they do not really know that they will die; they do not know their deaths as personal, as part of themselves. And why should they?
But by early middle age, most people have had some experience of death and begin to notice that their bodies are not responding quite the way they used to. Yet most of these newly middle-aged adults treat their deaths as something that they can put off thinking about. I’ve even heard a 35 year old say that if he died tomorrow, he’d led a good life and it would be OK. I doubt if he really knew what he was saying.
We move inexorably closer to old age, though, and our bodies slow significantly. We hit menopause; we start to notice age-related erectile dysfunction (ARED— or as I like to pronounce it, “arid”). There is a new a sag here and an ache there. Sight begins to fade, and hearing to dim. It takes longer to recover from illness and to heal from injury. Stamina? What’s that? As we have more experiences of death, in our families or among our friends and colleagues, death begins to feel more real.
And then something happens to us that awakens us to the stark reality that we and everyone we love really are going to die. Death, especially our own death, is no longer an abstraction, something way off in the future. It is something that looks us directly in the eye. The thing that happens could be the death of someone we love or even the death of a beloved pet. It could be a life-threatening accident or illness. It is probably different for each of us, but when it happens, we begin to know that it is true: we really are going to die.
I had one of those experiences recently. My beloved wife, Anne, had a significant TIA, and, while it was, as these things are, temporary, it was terrifying for both of us. I won’t go into details, because they do not matter to anyone but us. But oh how empty the house was as the ambulance took her away to the hospital! I’ve been alone in the house before, of course, but those few minutes when she was gone and I did not know what I would find when I got to the hospital held an emptiness and an aloneness like no other, an emptiness that echoed across the rest of my life.
In those moments, as Anne’s death became truly real to me, I saw my own death, and began to think more realistically about the death that is waiting for me, for her, and for the other people I love. If I survive her death, how will I survive it? How will I live through that stark emptiness that I glimpsed last week? And if I die first, how will I face leaving her forever?
I began thinking about the stark truth that I will die and that my death is not all that far away, at some more or less near point in the future, perhaps as soon this afternoon. Let’s assume that 20 years is a reasonable guess about how much time I have left to live. From the perspective of almost 70 years old, 20 years from now does not seem like a very long time, especially when I consider that some of those years will probably see me considerably less able to do the things that I love doing.
Suppose, then, I have but 15 years of productive, active life left to me. I have to face some realities that I did not have to face before. I cannot put off things that matter to me. For example, those books that I’ve been working more at than on? I have to choose between finishing them and realizing that I will probably never finish them. And that Bucket List of places we’d like to visit? I have to start visiting them or let go of them.
I’ve always admired people who are multilingual, and I used to tell myself that someday I’d learn to speak Welsh or Spanish or re-learn Russian. I have to decide either to do it or to reconcile myself to remaining monolingual. And there is time enough for only one of these languages, and that one will probably never be more than semi-conversational. The list goes on: the books I’ll never read but have kept telling myself that I will, the poems that I will never write, the great grandchildren I will never meet, and the experiences I will never have.
There is now a piquancy to these realizations that was not there before, because knowing in this way that I will die changes things. The deep knowledge, as is sung in Brahms’ Requiem,
…dass ein ende mit mir haben muss und mein leben ein Ziel hat, und Ich davon muss.
[…that my life will come to an end and that my years have a limit, and that this is necessary….]
brings me eye to eye to a world without me in it. And I am left wondering how I can live with that knowledge.
I find no comfort in smug declarations about life after death. The truth is that it is impossible to know anything about a supposed post-death reality. It is, I think, a waste of time to speculate on things about which we cannot have knowledge or about things over which we have little or no control. As the Buddhists say, it is not a skillful means to Enlightenment.
The truth is that I cannot avoid dying. My death will happen, someday, somewhere, somehow. Between now and that moment when I no longer exist, people I love will also die; people who are as dear to me as I am to myself will die. I can no longer pretend that I do not know this. So what am I to do? The answer that I have given in the past is to live so that my life is not over until it is over, but now I begin to wonder whether there is a smugness in this as well.
Immediately following those words in Brahms Requiem we hear:
Siehe, meine Tage sind einer Hand breit vor Dir, und mein leben ist wie nichts vor Dir.
[See how my days are but a hand’s breadth to Thee, and my life is as nothing to Thee.]
I find a kind of, almost paradoxical, comfort in this: ultimately my life does not matter. It does not matter because the notion that I matter ultimately is an illusion. To be sure I matter to people who love me and they matter to me, but it is the love that matters, not its missing immortality. I am reminded of a poem I wrote some years ago:
I do not know where we go when we die;
And I do not know what the soul is
Or what death is or when or why.
What I know is that
The song once sung cannot be unsung,
And the life once lived cannot be unlived,
And the love once loved cannot be unloved.
And that is enough. For now.