Sunday, July 25, 2004

To Die, To Sleep, To Dream, To Wish You Had a Paper, Any Paper, Even a USA Today (An Exercise in Diseased Individuality)

Deathbed is a good old-fashioned word you don't see much of anymore. I searched the Chron database from the first of the year to now and found it in 17 stories or letters to the editor.

Only twice was it used as if it were a real word to be used about real people. Most of the time, deathbed was either a metaphor -- some section of town is on its deathbed -- or a reference to something in a work of art -- a George Washington portrait, an Alamo movie, a play in which someone talks about (but we do not see or hear) a deathbed confession.

The Chronicle book editor David Kipen used it a half dozen times in a contemplation of Nabokov so taken was Kipen with the idea that Nabokov is not someone you would read on your deathbed. Twice it was used more or less literally, in a letter to the editor about a kid killed in a drive-by shooting and once in a Tom Stienstra column about the death of a mountain man, whose leavetaking was slow and noble and called out for literary treatment. There was also a note that sometime in 1929 the Chronicle ran a story describing how a local woman discovered a local man (her husband) was, in fact, also a local woman "on his (sic) deathbed at Highland Hospital in Oakland." (I like using sic. It gives a sentence class, the way a black dress gives class to a woman. Or a man, if he's got the figure for it.)

"Deathbed" should be pretty much interchangeable with "hospital bed" wouldn't you think, since that's where most people die, in hospitals and nursing homes? We should see deathbed all the time. But it's really an old-fashioned homebound word. Unless it's your bed in your house it's not a classic capital-D deathbed. Even then I doubt hospice workers use it. It's rather brutal to our tender modern ear.

I am thinking about deathbeds because yesterday I visited a friend on her deathbed. No doubt about it. That's what it is. She noticed a lump on the side of her neck in February, fought with her health insurance company to get a proper diagnosis, learned it was a rare and virulent cancer in May.... And now they've stopped treatment, signed her up for hospice services and sent her home to die.

Her family and friends-- reporters from back in the day, even a few myopic editors blinking in the light -- are keeping vigil. It's days, not weeks. Her mind was skipping when I visited, keeping to the topics under discussion but overlaying one train of thought with another. We talked about her cats and her journalism students. She said she had given her cats some difficult writing assignments, and the cats were next door working hard to improve their writing skills. I congratulated her cats.

I had a romantic view of death when I was 20 or 30 or even 40. What is romanticism but a kind of diseased individuality? Thinking about death, I fell into the assumption that my individuality would endure. I spent time imagining how I would be missed -- by how many, by how much -- and how human progress would certainly lose a good deal of momentum when I died and might even lose headway and start to drift toward the rocks. Even then my philosophy was hardening into Christian atheism -- I know who God isn't -- and general agnosticism, which added up to disbelief in the afterlife. But how inconstant my philosophy because even as I disbelieved that I would endure, I continued to imagine myself scrutinizing the world I left behind.

Gone but not forgotten? How about forgotten but somehow not gone! Even when my self regard was less grandiose and I thought of my death going unnoticed by the world, in my fantasy, even in the worst case, I could not help but think of myself after my death still there knowing the world and what passes in it. I've been thinking that not knowing how it all comes out is among the greatest losses if there is no afterlife. What this otherworld of afterdeath (no; I'll stick with afterlife) might be like, and how you might sort out connection with friends and family and assorted lovers -- with a despot god on the margins or in the center demanding god knows what -- the sociology of the afterlife and the politics of the afterlife, if there were an afterlife, would make me want to hide in the corner.

The only clear pleasure in the afterlife it seems to me would be looking back and seeing how things come out back here on earth. Will humanity colonize the stars? Will the British monarchy endure? Will the machines rise and rule? Will professional basketball players ever stop wearing those ridiculous baggy uniforms?


Will my mildly autistic grandnephew live a productive and happy life? He is only 5 years old. I would like to know. He is a sweet child.

That knowing, that keeping up, that series of happy surprises (for only god is omniscient, right?) would be one of the pleasures of the afterlife about which we can all agree. The mechanics of how eternity might be organized are unthinkable (and don't bore me, romantic individualist that I am, with promises of cycles of reincarnation ending with my merging with the One). But sitting in that other place and looking back as history lurches upwards or subsides or comes to a crashing end -- now, that would be must-see reality TV. There's your eternity: sitting in the bleachers watching the great game of life play itself out.

I look at my friend on her deathbed. I think of so much that will be lost when she dies. I think of all that she is losing since I believe she will not go beyond this life, this final rest. I think of how she would have liked to have known how it all came out.

I think of all her magnificent unsatisfied insatiable curiosity.

1 comment:

edith said...

Please continue with your fun things. I'm finding that with work stress, terrorist threats, weight problems (Caused by a faulty food pyramid?) and concerns over a disfunctional family, I need to laugh and laugh hard! I enjoyed the Lincoln thing and its timeliness. If we are to be scared by intelligence information, why not use outdated information? While we are guarding one set of buildings, why wouldn't the terroist target another set of buildings? While we're defending one city, why wouldn't not hit another? Terroist are a threat to the nation, but the Bushies are an even greater threat. We can rebuild buildings, but a broken constitution may not so easily be mended. A Bush nation will be less than the nation left to us by our forefathers. Fanatics, both political and religious, scare me! And I need to laugh so that I do not cry!

Let me note that I found your "teaching column" pure magic- the topic and the written word. Ah, then you do have a way with language!