By Mark David Blum, Esq.
I wonder what death is like. No, my curiousity does arise from any desire to find out. There is a lot of unfinished business on my plate for me to have any interest in hastening my interest in death. It is early and well, thanks to an unrelated email I got and a question posed, I turn and wonder aloud what it must be like to die.
Do you really feel pain? Are you really alone? Is it a comforting feeling as you reach that last moment? I wonder if you know that you are in fact about to die.
Yeah yeah yeah, “Mark’s gone off the deep end again.” No sorry, it aint like that. I have been shoved face first into that question and all of its’ frills and spills for the past three weeks. For me, it has been a slow ride up and down a roller coaster with each downhill taking me lower and lower into the very depths of hell. A couple more dips, and I may get to look Satan in the eye. Poor guy, wont even know what hit him.
I think that the real pain of death is not in the final moment but in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks before it comes. We all know, at least at a subconscious level, that we are time limited on this planet. Death is a part of the process of life; you are birthed one day and then on another you are returned; ashes to ashes.
The benefit we all enjoy about life and which I personally think protects us from going insane is that we do not know when our clock is going to run out. It could be today, tomorrow, or fifty years hence. A disease, a runaway bus, or a genetic defect could stop your clock way short of where you expected. Still, even those events are sudden and unexpected.
Right now, I am watching a person die. Before my very eyes, life is leaving their body and soul. They are becoming an empty shell; more and more desperate to fill the void that life itself once occupied. Maybe it is because of the work I do or how my own history has evolved me into the man I am, but I cannot help but be transfixed and notice every nuance and change in the person. From their personality to the perceptions, to their views of morality and how they treat themselves and those in their lives.
Give me a death sentence – fix a time on that mystery clock and say in so many hours or on such a date and time – I will die, and I have no doubt I would morph into a very different person within minutes. At that moment, such things as duty or responsibility or social mores all become irrelevant and moot. After all, if I wear white before Memorial day, what are they going to do? Shoot me? Why be loyal? Why be honorable?
Seems to me that those last moments when your fate is certain free you from having to be one of the herd. You can dance around, meals are a waste of time, no longer must you push toward the daily grind. There is no more reason to grind; unless you are dirty dancing. I wonder how loyal a person would be in their marriage or if they would even stay married. Would you? What about work – would you want to? Who needs to?
But you cant just sit around. Time is short making every minute all the more precious. Do you spend it trying to gather up as much life experience as you can into the remaining moments or do you find an island with a warm beach and lay there naked in the sun peaceful in the arms of your love?
Hard questions to answer for me because I am not dying and therefore cannot really relate. But I have been asked these questions as if I some wise old Solomon. Answers fail me. Thank goodness for the Socratic method enabling me to restate the question and bounce it back.
Drilling down into these issues can open up a lot of holes. Old sealed healed forgotten wounds can come to the fore. After all, if the person in front of you is baring their fears and scars and the horrors of an imminent expiration date, it is a near obligation to rip open your own carcass to provide warmth and a safe harbor. They are trusting you with their innermost demons. Me, I try to slay those beasts to help free the soul in front of me. But to let them feel safe again, you too have to be vulnerable. Since I am a person who trusts nobody with anything, I struggle moment to moment to make myself a safe harbor for one so trusting of me.
What do you say to someone who tells you through a flood of tears, how so very tired they are of being in pain? No words exist at all that can comfort someone who is so exhausted and worn from the fight. You can only hold them and let them cry, let them yell, let them be morose depressed and angry. The obligation on you is to smile and find a way to keep the door open to so they can talk. You have to also make yourself vulnerable but the comfort only goes one way. Expecting anything back is dangerous mistake.
It gets really crazy at times; the depth of the intimacy of the conversations. As they open to you and make their confession, the discussion always entails a sharing of experiences so as to bring about an understanding and acceptance of things gone wrong in years of yore. The time and words may not cure them of their disease but they do heal their mind and soul. That, as I am learning, is a very dangerous trap for the unskilled such am I. While my participation in this ritual may bring about a healing to the dying, it does not bring about a healing to me. Hence to fight this battle and try to heal, I have raise up and set free my own army of demons and get past them to carry forth.
Truthfully, I would rather be lawyering. People come to me when their whole world is crashing and burning. Rarely has it been life and death but then again long terms in prison are worse than a death sentence. When I get paid, I don my Superman cape and fly off to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. My job gets done, the money deposited, and I walk away breaking my shoulder from patting myself on the back for a job well done. More than twenty years, I have done this dance. You would think I would be used to it by now.
It is different when your friend is dying. At least for me; as I do everything I would do as a lawyer – suit up and fight the demons. But, first I don’t get paid but that is irrelevant. More importantly is that I don’t get to remain objective. I may whip off my glasses, don my Superman cape, but in these situations I fly face first into a wall of Kryptonite. As against the world, I am bulletproof. When under these special circumstances buried in discussions that very few get to have, I feel defenseless and oh boy does that hurt.
Yeah I know. “Man up”, “grow a pair”, “quitcher bitchin; this aint about you”. Got it. Doin it. Makin it so.
I get to open up blank Word documents on my computer and talk to myself. I can blow no horn, sing no tune forlorn, nor draw a straight line since the day I was born. No, it is the blank cavass of “Document 1” the opens up to me the infinite realm of possibilities of expression.
Facing you the reader helps me face myself in the mirror. I imagine myself through your eyes and try to shake off the demons and right the ship of state. It so easy to get lost that I depend on you to endure my blatherings. They have to go somewhere and inside my head is not a good place to be.
Every one of us, especially as we age, gather up more and more baggage, jam many more skeletons in our closets, and grow thicker harder callouses. Life is hard but we learn to dance with our devils, bury them in our “history”, and try to stand up and keep moving forward. For the most part we succeed and adjust to social norms and conventions and life goes on. Never for a moment think though that the person you are standing there talking to or looking at doesn’t have their own “history” and pain and scars with which they do daily battle. Rich or poor, color and gender are irrelevant. Age is the distinguishing factor. You cant help but increase the volume of baggage as you travel more and more miles on life’s trail of tears and cheers.
Over the next months, just be my anchors, will ya. As the pressure builds in the one way movement and the vicious claws of own demons rip at me, let me come here and vent. You don’t have to read and may not even be seeing this sentence. But when I write, I see a whole audience and fantasize about them glued to every word. Reality dictates the contrary (and page counters confirm it).
But I need to maintain my trust in the world; that it is dependable and coherent. Though I may die before I can post this tome or I may live, god forbid, another 100 years, until that moment or until I am given a fixed date and time, I need a place to turn upon which I can depend and blindly trust. It is where I go to shove my demons back into their crypts.
Don’t anybody die today. I have written too many eulogies already this month.
*** The great Doctor, Wayne WY Chou, M.D. wrote in response: Doing what I do, I guess I have a certain unique out look on death. For real, I didn't know what to do when I was first asked to see my first Pronouncement. I had never seen the deceased before in my life. I had no connection with the people weeping in the hallways. They seemed so fragile and so strong at the same time, trying to keep their sobs down as not to disturb others in the wee hours of the morning. I knew what I had to do, as my job dictated certain actions, but for the first time in a long long while, there was a part of me that recognized something particularly human about that situation.
Science tells me that there was a dead person, and I had to be there to make sure that death had actually occurred. But me, as a person, realized that something monumental had just finished. There in front of me, was a person; this person had loved ones and enemies; they had their own regrets and victories. This person would be remembered for the things that they've done and not done. This person's life could have been the author of many great dramas and stories that would enchant and engross the masses. Somehow, the people that wept in the hallway told me so many things without speaking to me . But I realized something else - that I would never know these stories, and that, though burnt into the minds of others theses memories maybe, they too are impermanent. One day, I too, will lay there, with some green, fresh-out-of-med-school resident standing over me, and be the subject of such strange and existential ponderings in the wee hours of the night.
As I got on with my work through out my time in residency, I have sent many people into the afterlife. It may sound scary to the lay people - "Holy Hell, here's a doctor who's admitting to killing people" but, the truth's a bit different. In these cases, similar to the things that you've described in your excellent diction above, I suddenly find myself to be in similar shoes. There are so many factors that lead to death that it is almost impossible to say what will do what to who. A pneumonia may kill a man in this room, but spare his roommate who received the same treatment. It is near impossible to tease out the differences. Alas, such is the limitations of science. Here, however, I find myself as the person to translate all these things, all the crazy chalk-board scribbles, all the numbers and blips on the machines, and come to the conclusion that, yes... this life is nearing an end. Now what do we do?
One of the things that I pride myself of, and there are only a few things that I ever pride myself on, was that in almost all of these situations I have been able to send these patients... no... these suffering human beings ... to their ultimate rest in a peaceful fashion. I find that, similar to your musings, death is likely easier when the person had died. It was the time before the end, when you can count the grains of sand just before they fell through the hourglass that would be the greatest pain. I've seen uncertainty. I've seen anger. I've seen hate. I've seen sadness. I've seen regret. I've seen rare moments of clarity when the dying woke up just enough to bid farewell.
I've also held the hand of a dying man, and realized after that I and the medical staff were the only one that visited the room.
I can't say that I've had to share their burdens. I could never be the new charnel house for their closets of skeletons. That would not be my job description, as it were. When I am faced with death, I find myself diving into the matter with a certain fervor. I hypothesize that it was because I cannot share the burden of their whispered secrets, and I can never hope to understand the comings and goings that makes up for their personal labyrinth of life. I do find that what I can do is ease their passing, and make those last grains of sand have a softer falling.