Tire Tracks in the Sand

By Cyberquill 11/07/20149 Comments

Tire Tracks

Where there is life, there is death.

Not a day goes by that we aren’t flooded with tidings of lives having ended for one reason or another, many untimely. Scores killed in a suicide blast over here, a jetliner blown out of the sky over there, a bus full of children that plowed through a guardrail somewhere, school shootings, famines, Ebola, celebrity deaths, and on and on.

Too many to contemplate each one individually.

Add to the list the Grim Reaper’s ever-growing toll from within our own circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Grandmother died. Father died. Uncle died. Ex died. Hamster died. The longer we walk the Earth, the greater the number of the deceased we knew personally.

Given the prevalence of death in this world, it seems grossly unfair, almost cruel, to lavish a disproportionate amount of attention on a select few as if all the others mattered less or not at all, in particular on strangers whose passing just happens to have unleashed a wave of media coverage that the average face in the crowd will never receive.

Was, say, Brittany Maynard a more valuable person than were the thousands of others whose earthly journey ground to a halt on the same day under perhaps no less heartrending conditions, except that none but their own immediate tribe took notice?

Someone once said, “I’ll do for the few what I wish I could do for the many.” Like stop and reflect on the lives and deaths of strangers.

So this past January, Brittany Maynard learned that she had an incurable brain tumor and less than a year to live. She was also told that dying from this particular condition wouldn’t be too pleasant a ride, to put it mildly.

Whereupon Brittany procured a deadly elixir from an authorized dispenser so as to be in a position to head her terminal cancer off at the pass at a time of her choosing and penciled in November 1st as her date of death—a date she picked for no particular reason except to still be around to celebrate her husband’s birthday on October 30th. (Most likely on account of the increasing severity of her symptoms, her own 30th birthday, which would have taken place three weeks later, didn’t figure in her death-planning.)

She made herself a little bucket list and spent her remaining weeks ticking off its items. All the while November 1st kept approaching, probably a thousand times faster than any other red-letter day in her short life.

What is it like to be aware that a given week is your final one?

You’re in your home, interacting with members of your family, doing many of the things you’ve always done. Like fixing dinner and playing Scrabble. Except you know that a week hence you’ll be gone forever. Save for your irrevocable absence, nothing much will change, certainly not over the long haul.

Do you still brush your teeth on the morning of your scheduled passing, knowing this is the last time you’ll ever hold a toothbrush in your hand?

Perhaps you never counted dental hygiene among your favorite chores, but all of a sudden the minty chemical Colgate flavor sends tears streaming down your cheeks as if it were the most ambrosial taste under the Sun.

For it reminds you that you’re alive.

In fact, everything you do, no matter how mundane or heretofore annoying, suddenly reminds you that you’re alive.

Which, come tomorrow, you won’t be.

And so you can’t help but be acutely aware that no matter what you do, this is the last time you’ll be doing it. Farewell to sudsing up your hair. Farewell to talking on your phone. Farewell to checking your Facebook page.

Here comes the last UPS truck you’ll ever see rumbling down your street, and this is the last strawberry you’ll ever put in your mouth.

In these ultimate hours, do you even strive to retain some sense of normalcy as if Gone With the Wind‘s closing sentence still applied to you? Do you still bother to do the dishes? Take out the trash? File your nails? Do you—or can you—still eat, and if so, does the now grotesquely irrelevant thought that you had better be watching your diet still flash through your mind?

Or do you spend these hours mainly crying, praying, reflecting, and holding hands with your loved ones; just focusing on your impending one-way trip to God knows where—into eternal nothingness perhaps—feeling as if you had swallowed a cobblestone that got lodged in the pit of your stomach?

And when the slated hour has arrived, and you’re lying there on your bed, or sitting upright on the couch; rocking the last set of garments you ever put on; the lethal potion at the ready; your choked-up family in somber attendance to see you off on your journey; your dog nervously wagging its tail, sensing the ominous nature of the situation but unable to fully comprehend what’s going on—does self-preservation kick in with a vengeance and urge upon you the fact that you’re not, strictly speaking, a death row convict on his way from his cell to the the chair, who has zero control over the exact time that the lever is pulled? Therefore, what’s stopping you from granting yourself a last-ditch reprieve and sticking around for another game of Scrabble? Another walk in the woods with your four-legged friend? Another strawberry? Another sunset?

What’s the rush? Why not stay for one more minute, one more hour, one more day? At least long enough to warrant brushing your teeth just one more time, get just one more taste of that minty chemical Colgate, whose deliciousness had until now so undeservedly passed under your appreciation radar?

Whatever went through her mind, in the evening of November 1st, just as she had penciled it into her calendar, the moment came when, surrounded by her family and, presumably, her dog(s), Brittany Maynard downed her prescription hemlock and died.

How many other people’s lives ended that very day and under what circumstances? And how many of them are still talked about, written about, and remembered by anyone but their closest relatives or friends (should they have had any of either) a week later?

Most people aren’t Elvis, nor are they 15-minutes-of-famers like Brittany Maynard. Most of the roughly 100 billion (give or take a few billions; no one knows for sure) human beings that have died so far slipped into near-universal oblivion the moment their hearts stopped beating.

It doesn’t seem fair. Life’s not fair. And neither is death. (If it were, posthumous attention aside, why do some people die at age x and others at age x+80, with karma playing no detectable role in meting out these seemingly random life sentences?)

One of my favorite death songs, called Tränen Trocknen Schnell (“Tears Dry Quickly”) by Austrian singer/songwriter Rainhard Fendrich, pulls no punches in making the case that the world will keep on turning, with or without us. Its words tilt a bit toward the depressing end of the eschatological spectrum, but their poignant beauty, I believe, makes up for the disquieting effect they may have on the listener.

Since the lyrics are in German—Viennese German at that—I translated the gut-wrenching portion of the song, beginning at time 1:37 and reprised at 3:13, into English (see below the clip):

[…]

You hope you’ll be missed in that place
Once your soul feels too constricted

No one is keen to hear the truth

No cloud and no star will fall from the sky
Not even a stone will roll off another
Time in its matter-of-course ways
Will slowly erase you in every heart
And carry you home

Tears dry quickly
The Sun burns hot and shines as brightly as before
Memory is but tire tracks in the sand
To be blown over by the wind
And much too soon it is out of your hands

[…]

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  • Cheri

    This post is elegantly written. Since I have had enough gut-wrenching in the last month, I will refrain from listening to the song.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      I silently followed the breaking news on your blog.

      The song is safe listening for non-German speakers, as neither its melody nor the artist’s delivery betray its content. If one doesn’t understand the words, it might as well be about baking cookies.

  • Cheri

    I hope you are doing well. Have you ever read or heard of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow ? He won the Nobel in Economics in 2002 or thereabouts. Having read your writing for a number of years, I think you would be interested in the topic.

    The Brittany Maynard story was heartbreaking and courageous. I read your post on that too.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Never read or heard of Kahneman nor his book. Odd title. It initially tricks the brain into wondering whether the responsibility for omitting the Oxford comma rests with the author or the publisher. Only after a few nanoseconds of contemplation does one grasp the irrelevance of the wondering. I downloaded the free sample from Amazon. It does look interesting. But first I must finish Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

  • Richard

    A beautiful, sensitive, defiant piece, CQ. I shall now watch the clip.

    Many years ago, Clive James described dying as joining the great majority. Now he is soon to be part of that democratic movement.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      True. Over the grand sweep of history, we, the (still) living, form an ever shrinking minority.

      But not only we shall die. So, too, will the universe itself. Will it be joining the great majority of universes?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNydwuCTVMU

  • Richard

    It was exciting to watch this presentation by two of the leaders in the field of cosmology.

    Never before, however, has so much speculation arisen from such paucity of evidence. In Cycles of Time, for example, Roger Penrose outlines the mathematics to demonstrate how the expanded universe can give rise to a fresh ‘Big Bang’.

    Doesn’t Alex say at the start that new questions are posed faster than answers are provided? This means that supporting evidence will be less and less available and so speculation, mathematical and non-mathematical, without there ever being evidence to confirm it, will increase more and more.

    This does suggest we are galloping faster and faster after a fantasy trail. In this connection it is pertinent to remind ourselves that all the mathematics is based upon axioms involving counting and dimension, both abstract notions. Gauss himself reckoned we’d have to have a rethink of the dimension of space. The Einstein concept of space/time still relies on ideas of dimension and counting, as do all the physical-mathematical constructs.

    Needless to say, I am at a complete loss to even begin to understand the actual mathematics.

    I had no idea that the Andromeda nebula (M31) filled so much of the sky (Greg at around 28.00). Fascinating.

    If we are so ignorant about the universe, how come are we so sure about what happens to awareness after death? I venture to suggest we have no evidence at all, only the near-irrelevant circumstance of its absence before birth.

    Tell me, in what direction were those tyre tracks in the sand laid down? Rely only on the photograph, not on speculation.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      I think this particular presentation was taped seven or eight years ago. I haven’t been keeping tabs on the latest developments in astrophysics.

      In any case, the fact that modern science still seems speculative with respect to some of the most fundamental questions regarding origins and ultimate fate is certainly comforting. After all, the last thing we want is incontrovertible mathematical proof that divinity does not exist and that death (our own as well as the universe’s) is truly the end.

      Even so, no matter what evidence or proof we’re given, if it clashes with our personal desires (whatever they may be, but most commonly the desire for life after death), we’ll likely subscribe to — or, if need be, come up with — some auxiliary hypothesis that casts doubt upon the evidence’s explanatory powers.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      BTW, here’s a topically related panel discussion, which also features Alex Filippenko, titled “Did the Big Bang Require Divine Spark?”

      Here, Filippenko essentially parrots my own take on the divine spark. (Since the discussion took place some time before I published my post on the topic — http://blog.cyberquill.com/the-creation-conundrum/ — there might be a slight violation of causality here. Let’s just posit that our views on the role of divinity in creation trace back a common, perchance divine, origin.)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmwbjE220n0

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