I start with a confession. When people have asked me how I am feeling, I have said something like, “Well, as my father used to say, I woke up, I looked around, I was on the correct side of the grass, so it’s going to be a great day.” [pause] “He lived to almost 101, you know.”
The confession is this: I have been saying this for so long, and my dad has been gone for so many years, that I cannot remember if he in fact used to say anything like that. It has just become part of what I say and, consequently, part of who I am.
I raise this particular matter today, however, because a most unusual thing happened to me today, just shy of my 75th birthday. I woke up, I think, but no one asked me how I was feeling. Or said any other thing to me. It seems that today, before my own self-appointed time, I woke up dead this morning. Wryly I thought, “huh, pretty soon on the wrong side of the grass I guess.”
Now there was something else that I always said, uh beforehand, that had relevancy to this situation in which I find myself. I always said, and this was an original with me and had nothing to do with my dad, I used to say “Boy, I am going to be wicked pissed the day I drop dead.” In fact, I am, as my list of things to accomplish is, if anything, longer today than at any other time in my life. That may be because I was enjoying each day so much as each flowed into the possibilities of the next day, that my list kept expanding as, apparently, my time window was shutting.
These are not, by the way, bucket list items. Bucket lists speak to death. My list was proactive and lively and, thus, mostly mundane. I wanted to clean my garage. I wanted to sort my various writings. I wanted to throw away my old clothes. I wanted to put the album pages for the past few years into my postage stamp albums. I wanted to see the original movie Birth of a Nation, having put off that pleasure for, well, about 75 years I guess. I also wanted finally to live a whole week showing, without frustration or rancor, love I felt for the ones I loved; my love, it seems, was often cloaked in the folds of my own personal list.
Now one thing about what my father might have said and which I might have either repeated or invented has become today’s preoccupation. Now, that is, that I have stopped chuckling to myself that this all must be a dream and soon I will wake up because everyone knows that, in reality, when you are dead you just, incredibly and inconveniently, stop. Just stop. That’s it. Bell rings, you’re done. So if I am thinking at all, going through this dialog with myself, I surely must just be dreaming and when I wake up I will tell people I am on the right side of the grass.
However, and without going into unnecessary detail, let me just say that the several things that clearly have been done to my body over the last several hours have convinced me, beyond all doubt, that I am indeed deceased. Let’s leave that conclusion as a given, if you will.
So, the grass thing. Being buried always seemed so messy and clearly confining and corrosive that, when pressed, although the thought scared me to death (well, scared me very much), I always allowed as how I wished to be cremated. I had this whole well-publicized script for my funeral; my ashes would be shaken into Cape Cod Bay at high tide from the deck of my favorite Italian restaurant in Provincetown, while all my friends and family were seated and enjoying my favorite dinner, which since you would like to know consisted of: baked clams, veal parmigiana, pasta with oil and garlic, a bottle of chianti in a straw-clad bottle with a rooster on the label to prove provenance, some rum-soaked dessert with a double espresso, twist of lemon on the side so you can line the lip of your cup before you start to sip. (If you don’t like the menu, no need to attend.)
But now I have this new dynamic in the discussion of grass or fire. Which is most likely to prolong my present state of thinking? Does it matter? How dependent is my awareness on my body being intact? If the body and the thought are somehow linked, surely fire will shut me down post-haste. On the other hand, if I am buried and decay, will I slowly and painfully lose my mind, sort of a post-death Alzheimers of the spirit? Perhaps I should do neither; perhaps I should try to preserve myself physically as long as possible? Perhaps those people who were wealthy enough to afford to freeze their bodies accidentally tripped themselves into the best possible result? But how do I convey my decision to hang around in one piece, given how I am now — situated? What do you suggest?
This conundrum is very serious stuff. The belief that you live forever with your soul surely resolves this problem, as well as providing comfort on many other fronts. If I only knew for sure….
You may be wondering if I am aware of my surroundings, seeing or hearing or sensing my family, or the various people whom I feel are touching and treating my body. The answer is that I am not connected to the world at all. I am only connected to me, to how I feel and think and process. It is very lonely in here, all alone. I am not complaining, mind you; compared to my expectation this is surely a step up. I think? If it goes on forever, will I run out of things to think about, to process? Will I have an eternity to make up my mind on every single thing within my mind-range? What then? Maybe I should just go for the fire. But it scared me then and it scares me now.
The whole damned thing scares me. I want the Woody Allen solution: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.”
Is this what it is like, then. An eternity of reprocessing those things that happened to be stored in the synapses the moment I cashed out? All the movies I recall. All the actors whose faces I know but cannot recall their names. All the jokes I recall? Or do you get to drill down, get to everything you ever knew? That’s a bigger set of things to work with, might give your mind a few hundred extra years of time to be able to think about – stuff.
If you dig down, do you get to reprocess all the pain, all the things that went wrong, all the things that went really morally deeply ashamedly, harmfully to others who did not deserve it, fucked up? Do you have to go there? Do you get so bored, about 38% into eternity, that the worst pain is better than having nothing on your mind?
I have concluded that this is really unfair. You ought to have a chance to understand what is coming so you can plan better. I just hate being in the dark. I am getting tense, where just a few hours ago I felt sort of peaceful. I am conjuring now my favorite meal, the rich chunky tomato sauce is coating the breading, the melted cheese is dripping down the sides of the my forkful of dinner, I am reaching for my glass of chianti because chianti is such a good match to the food and the bottle is strangely far away and I am getting tired but I wonder how smart it is to go to sleep because sleep is sort of like death except you do get to wake up and maybe if I just close my eyes but keep on thinking except my eyes are actually already closed and I am drifting I am drifting I am drifting……
(If you enjoyed reading this essay, close your eyes and concentrate and I will send you a complimentary reading list gleaned from the annals of my mind.–October 2017)