won’t you spare me over til another year …
— Unknown —
I think a lot about death.
I don’t think a lot of death, but recently I began to consider a notion of Death as the Great Rest. After a life of effort, of toil, of trying to make at least a small portion of the world a better place; after joy and laughter and travel and heartache and despair; after love and all the loss, comes rest. I may be predisposed to thinking about death as something violent, unjust, fickle and unpredictable. Death the indiscriminate chooser. In my quietest reflections I personify death, which is probably wrong-headed because then it becomes easier to hate, and to fear.
These recent reflections on death began while I was reading Sarah Vowell’s discussion of Henry Vane in her book, The Wordy Shipmates. I can’t say why precisely, but while I was reading those passages about Vane I started to consider the quiet satisfaction of important lives and benevolent deaths, where death comes at the tail end of a long, complex, interesting journey full of family and friends and colleagues and important work, possibly full of writing, governed (at least in part) by some sense of duty. Where death can, somehow, seem like a sweet reward. I started thinking about Queens Elizabeth and Victoria; Adams and Jefferson; Gustave Eiffel; Rosa Parks; Eudora Welty and William Maxwell; the list could go on. There are no bridge abutments or assassins bullets here. No Diana or Gandhi or Kennedy or King. These were long, fulfilled lives about which I thought, allowed to play out to their natural ends. It’s not to say that any of their lives were easy or death was welcomed, but I want to imagine that one’s perceptions toward death might somehow be tempered by such a surfeit of living. Though they are not dead yet, I think about Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth II — long, rich lives each one, and hopefully a peaceful passing.
A peaceful passing — is that an oxymoron?
Maybe what I think about isn’t so much death, but old age — and how much I think I’d like to get there. Not right away; I’m happy here, easing through my thirties, and am in no hurry. My grandmother turned ninety-eight in February. My great aunt, we called her Dee, died in 2003 at one hundred. We aren’t supposed to live this long, she once remarked, and that stuck with me. Another favorite aunt made it to ninety six with nary a sniffle before she died of a stroke. My family, my experience, is one caught somewhere in the middle between longevity and abbreviation. My brother was killed in a car crash at sixteen; my cousin died of complications from Cystic Fibrosis at twenty five; a friend from college was murdered at twenty two; a friend in high school committed suicide. This list, too, could go on.
Such romanticized notions of old age and death belie the lived realities of many people, I know; they do not take into account poverty, war, famine, concentration camps, any circumstance, really, political or otherwise, that becomes a deterrent not just to length but to ever realizing or achieving that sense of duty or potential. But I think about it still, only occasionally pausing to wonder what it would really feel like to have muscles and bones and joints eight or nine decades old, to have outlived most if not all of your family and friends, to live in a world that may seem, at best, unrecognizable from the one that exists in your memories (if you’ve managed to hang on to any).
I feel a collective eye roll coming on as I once again invoke William Maxwell, but I can’t (and don’t want to) help it. Though it’s really his wife, Emmy, whom I remember now, as I think about Edward Hirsch’s essay in A William Maxwell Portrait. It was not old age that brought about Emmy’s death, as it was for Maxwell a week later. Rather her life was interrupted by cancer — another unjust, churlish, arbitrary lurker. She fought it for a while, and then discontinued treatment. So that they found themselves dying next to, and in time with, one another.
My favorite part of the story of the Maxwells’ dying is that both of them, despite it all, despite the end, were still living their lives. They were still finding pleasure in the world and the people around them. They were taken out of their death beds to the Met to see the Chardin exhibit. “One night I came back to a telephone message from his [Maxwell’s] nurse waiting for me at my hotel,” Hirsch writes. “The red light blinked on and off in the dark. `Mr. Maxwell wants to know if you have seen the Chardin show yet.'”
“Emmy wanted to dispel the sadness. She wanted each of us to take a glass of champagne. The cork popped. We toasted and sang `Don’t Fence Me In.’ Bill held her hand. He whispered and hummed along. Emmy closed her eyes and was ready to slip away. She wanted to hear `Death and the Maiden.’ One felt that she was going somewhere, that she believed in something on the other side. Each of us said goodnight, good-bye. `This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,’ she whispered to me as I leaned over to kiss her cheek. Her voice was so low that I couldn’t tell if I was hearing her right. `Rilke says that each of us must die his own death. Now I have to die mine.’ And then she was asleep.”
… the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do … and then she was asleep.
So I think about death. Just this week this article by David Brooks appeared in the New York Times, and I was reminded how varied and complicated the end can be. Death fascinates because, along with birth I suppose, it is the one thing we all share in common — and yet it is, for each of us, unique. There will never be another one like it. My friend JJ and I have been planning a Death Slumber Party, where we’ll drink too much wine and discuss different ideas about death — the ones we bring to the table, probably our hopes and certainly our fears, as well as what other traditions teach us about it. As far as I’m concerned Religion has done quite a number on death, staking various claims to its significance, trying to control what it means. No matter, it’s still the ultimate ending of consciousness as we know it, of life as it has been lived. The point that uniquely severs the line between what was and is and that which can never be known. That time beyond time, as Roberta Bondi called it, although I think Time isn’t necessarily a word to describe it. Timelessness beyond time?
In some ways, I think I might be perfectly suited to death — I’m an introvert. And death is absolute alone time, right? No one to bother or interrupt me. The ultimate crowd-free zone! The Perfect Rest. And yet, how presumptuous to think that anything beyond here, beyond now, beyond knowing can ever be adequately imagined, much less compared to or in any way resemble all this. One could argue that such thinking is a grand waste of time, much like worrying about the nicks and cuts that sprout on the bumper of my new car. Such concern provides little satisfaction. Unlike my bumper obsession, though, I would rather lend some credence to these desolate ideas, because they are with me whether I give them adequate space or not, and there are often lessons to be learned in that space. Lessons such as this, from Alec Wilkinson’s essay in A William Maxwell Portrait:
“No sensible person can fail to be astonished by creation, he [Maxwell] thought, but the idea of an old man watching over individual lives, a being who judged, kept track, and intervened, who favored one person over another, a figure from a story — such a version had no meaning for him. His view was less sentimental — terrible things can happen at any moment, the universe is brute and mechanical, no agency protects the innocent, and it is unwise not to be prepared. Life continues even in the face of the unthinkable, one step after another, until eventually we reach the end. The point was to conduct oneself with dignity and courage, to be diligent in pursuit of the highest purposes, to find and nurture love, and to live while one has the chance. What happened at the end of life was a subject he never much cared to think about. An afternoon nap that goes on forever was how he imagined it.”
And there we have it, today’s lesson in living, brought to you by William Maxwell. Ever since I discovered him last year there has been something new to learn, always offered with what seems like such gentle encouragement — don’t think so much about what happens at the end, rather focus on other living pursuits, he urges. I try. Besides, what got me writing about death now, what got me thinking about Death as Rest, as reward, as Some Kind of Comfort was, as I mentioned, Sarah Vowell’s discussion of Henry Vane the Younger. I should have kept reading. If I had, I would have discovered that in the end, despite his toil and duty, despite his devout public service, despite the profound contributions he made, Vane was wrongly accused of supporting the overthrow and execution of King Charles the First so Charles the Second arrested him for high treason and had him summarily beheaded.
So oh well.