Sunday, September 25, 2011

... from whose bourn

"I asked if I might go out for a breath of fresh air. The doctors answered 'Yes, just close by, for half an hour.' "

So Queen Victoria, at the bedside of her adored husband, in December 1861. He was dying. She needed a respite from it all.

Why is it, given the collective human experience of death, that the individual human brain is not yet "hard wired" to understand it? "None of this makes sense to me," the grieving say when it is all over, or shortly before it's all over. "Everyone else is enjoying their lives, and he is dying."

And yet, on all our own happy days when we were enjoying our lives too, someone was dying.

At best I suppose it's human societies which have managed to hard-wire themselves into understanding it, which is why religions and civilizations have rituals to ease the dead into the ground and the mourning through the necessary time. But the human being, alone, is still at a loss. We suffer physically, from a wound like an amputation. Even if we weren't constantly and effusively friendly with the person who died, even if it was someone we saw twice a year, still this was a fellow traveler, perhaps born before me and therefore a part of life since before time began. After the amputation you can only look at the stump in shock, bind it up or do what you can to help people suffering worse bind theirs, and wait to get used to it. While thinking, this was someone who lived before me -- before time. How can time die?

Perhaps the worst of it is just fear. We can't help but think ahead. Here death has happened to someone else in the herd, but surely it can't happen to me. Not to me, the very special Ivan Ilych who, in Tolstoy's story, "had a striped leather ball as a child." Think of all the people I was born before, all the people to whom I am prehistory, I am time. How can I die?

And it can't happen to me like this -- physical pain, helplessness, anger, drugs, muddle-headedness, starvation, ravaged body, near-ravaged personality. The disbelieving struggle for last breaths, the terrified begging of family for help when there is none to give and even panic is immaterial. This body got diseased, randomly. I wonder if, on the first day, the diagnosis makes everything look different, even to the angle of the sun in the sky on a beautiful summer morning, even to the surreal look of other, healthy people out walking their dogs and conversing easily ... this body is finished. You must learn, now, what we witnesses will follow you into learning. But not yet.

It's our witnessing and surviving of it which seems an added cruelty to the dying, and which gives an added sickly prick of fear and guilt to the survivors. Every single mourner still eats and drinks afterward. Maybe not as much, but the food still goes in and digestion still works. Every mourner, if he was a caregiver at the end, needs "breaks," Queen Victoria style, from the watching and the waiting. If I were the dying one, I think I would resent my loved ones going off and needing breaks. Really? But you're going to live, tomorrow. How's that for a nice break? I wonder if, when it's our turn and everything is reduced to one hospital bed in one room and a last few minutes, we'll see them gathered as though at the end of a tunnel, a hollow place far away where everyone is still in the pink of health and frankly looking forward to being able to consult their own needs soon And when it is all over they still laugh and tells stories, in between bouts of crying and silence.

Scar tissue forms. Society or church ease us through the rituals that human beings in the aggregate have learned bring comfort, even though human beings as individuals don't understand this death. (Although, really, modern funeral rituals are getting very pathetic. So many people are basically non-religious that even "services" run under the auspices of a big, popular, catch-all evangelical denomination are little more than ad hoc family reunions in which it so happens everybody is wearing black and crying. There is no liturgy. A family spokesman gives a speech about the deceased, and humor is required. The deceased's favorite music is piped in. It's downright tacky, and there is no hint of awe at this person's "entering into eternity." That one phrase from Reform Jewish funeral services has always appealed to me. It may sound overly grand, but it focuses the mind. It seems to reassure us: this, very minor, person has gone where you all, very minor people, are going, and where all other people -- and aren't they all very minor, in the end? -- have gone and will go. So be still.)

Then one day when we scarcely notice the scar tissue anymore, when we feel pretty good and are at peace with the universe, maybe after we have been through this a number of times and think we know death, -- barring accidents, I suppose we do suddenly find our old striped leather ball.

*Queen Victoria, A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert (2000), p. 280.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The day's reading

 "... Islamists decide whether violent jihad should be launched against non-Muslims based on a cost-benefit analysis, not on any conviction that killing non-Muslims is immoral."

Shall we have the New York police department refrain from investigating Muslim terrorism because the Obama justice department says that's insensitive? Read it all.

Of Mafiosi and Mullahs - Andrew C. McCarthy - National Review Online