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