I’m reminded this morning of a scene from one of my favorite TV series in which two characters discuss meaningful writing. One argues that intimacy is meaningful, and the other that nothing could be more trivial, that the only thing to ever bring meaning to life is death.
For whatever reason, death imbues a lot of my thoughts lately; I feel it distinctly when it ebbs into casual conversation, I feel it when the world stops for a moment and seems shocked, truly, that we are capable of that most final crime. I try to be objective. In cases like the Boston bombings, I worry about sensationalism. But am I the one in the wrong when I scoff at those who act so affected by “tragedy” on the news? How could anyone sensationalize death? Why is not every death a momentous occasion to be marked? Everything we do revolves around the empty skull we’ve come to see at the end of the road. The feeling inside me to create a life comes from my fear. The words we choose, the clothes we wear, and the people we fall asleep with at night all stem from that black seed. It’s the only weapon we have, the only song we write. Have you ever noticed the camps that arise when we discuss death? When we discuss the dead? You can go no further than death, despite the fact that most humans believe that you can, actually. Bringing death into a conversation ends it for a lot of people, who’d rather not be reminded of it. Sometimes I consider myself one of those people. It’s hard for me to conceive of much besides those whom I keep close to me. Other people are usually just that, and their triumphs and failures remain their own. Death to me is sometimes romantic, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes, rarely, really, so painful to think about I can’t concentrate.
I hear some people, usually many years ahead of me, talk about death like a neighbor, who quietly and rationally visits their friends. The absurdity of death has somehow eluded them, its sharpness dulled as it inches closer into view. I like this, I like the frankness and the physiology, and I want to understand death as a process. Sometimes I really do, too. Sometimes the biology is so simple and the oneness I feel with nature, animals, and every soul that ever lived is indescribably euphoric. But other times, not. The late David Rakoff described his reaction to his cancer spreading and the possibility of amputating his arm in a similar way:
“In the evenings, with my bloodstream a sticky river of Ativan, wine and codeine, it all feels eminently doable.
In the cold light of day, however, unable to carry a chair to move it into a corner, for example, what I’m about to embark on feels a little bigger and harder.”
When I was a little girl I’d do this trick. I’d close my left eye, keeping the right open. I’d turn both eyes toward the left, searching for what was behind it, in the very back corner. The blackness gave way to something else. It was the absence of color, of everything. I asked people about it, adults, but naturally they brushed me off. In a way, that complete nothingness is what death has come to represent to me. I think I’ll always find that more comforting than some spooky notion of the afterlife, but then again, what is the joy of living but the mystery?