Memento Mori – Thinking about death

Each night at midnight, I close the book I’m reading, go upstairs, piss, enter the bedroom, climb into bed.

Thinking: Here I am, doing this again. Deja vu? Groundhog Day? It feels like I’d only just performed the exact same actions, moments ago. However, unlike in Groundhog Day, it’s not an endless loop, but inexorably consuming a finite supply of days. Now another one is gone.

That feeling intensifies as I age. The hourglass an increasingly apt metaphor. Indeed, more reality than metaphor.

Except that it actually seems to speed up. When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life, and feels like forever. At 73, a year is only a tiny sliver, and disappears like quicksilver.

Old European paintings often included a skull. This was called “memento mori,” meaning “remember you will die.” And, in those times, likely soon. But those people all supposedly believed they’d go to Heaven. Yet deep down they must have feared it wasn’t true.

I’m certain it’s not, and have a strong sense of memento mori. My wife and I watch a lot of science shows, often depicting ancient skeletons crumbling to dust. In them, I always see myself someday.

With that “someday” nearing with each passing hour. For most of my life the end seemed so far distant I could almost pretend it was never. Now at 73 it feels more like closing in.

Does that frighten me? My wife and I recently had this conversation. “Fright” is not exactly the right word, implying some doubt about the outcome. Instead it’s mindfulness of impending loss, both certain and total. It’s not dying I fear so much as what comes after. Though I won’t be around to experience it. The ultimate philosophical conundrum. People liken death to the eternity of nonexistence preceding one’s birth. But of course that entailed no loss. Whereas loss is quintessential in death.

It’s the loss of everything one loves. All one’s human connections; possessions; prideful accomplishments. All become as those crumbling skeletons in those documentaries. But most importantly it’s one’s aliveness, having experiences, thoughts, sensations, feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to live a wonderful life, which of course makes the loss all the greater.

My mother died recently (not unexpected, at 100). A key feeling I have is that I’m alive and she’s not. Her death is a loss to me but so much greater a loss to her. A life so deeply lived is now simply over. Making me savor all the more my own aliveness. Which only accentuates its coming loss.

It’s impossible to truly grasp that condition of nonexistence. And I try not to. Ordinarily I avoid it, stopping myself if I start thinking too concretely about it. Even here, I’m writing this as an intellectual exercise, while trying to steer clear of the existential quicksand of actually modeling nonexistence in my mind.

Yet even if I keep it vague it’s still there. Sometimes while going about in the world, I’m conscious that when I’m gone it will all continue merrily along just as before. A few people might miss me. A little. For a while. Seeing a newspaper obituary of someone I knew gives me a brief frisson. And then I turn the page. Projecting myself into that place is a weird feeling.

Picasso was someone who really lived life to the fullest. He did a famous self-portrait when he knew he was nearing death. Confronting it was starkly imprinted on his face. I can see myself in his place. But then I think that maybe when I’m, say, 100, I’ll already be “sans everything,” without much of life’s pleasure; it will have grown harder, frustrating, even painful; or I’ll have simply grown tired of it, difficult though that is to imagine. Meantime, as long as it’s at least years away, it can still feel distant enough that I don’t really have to confront it. Indeed, to avoid that kind of stark Picasso-like confrontation, I think I’d actually prefer to fade away gradually and gently, my selfhood dissolving without my realizing it.

Meantime too, I counterpose all this with another fundamental understanding. Existence is not something I take for granted. Not at all; to the contrary, looking at the cosmos, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there should exist an entity such as me, with a consciousness, a sense of self — something which indeed our science, far advanced though it is, cannot totally account for. Thus I see my existence as a virtually miraculous gift.

What a churl I’d be to have this gift while griping that it’s not forever. That is the gift’s conditionality. That’s the deal. I accept it because it’s a good deal. And because there is literally no alternative to accepting it.

4 Responses to “Memento Mori – Thinking about death”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Exceptionally well-put. Worse than death is that life, society, evolution, the constants of fizix, the universe & the origin-less kosmos per se are entirely meaningless. This proto-centenarian finds despair is our lot. He finds surcease in acts of sacrifice [e.g., accommodating his college-freshwoman dottir’s bipolarity] & pushing the global revolt for decarb equity. Your tolerance of his remarx is atypical: as a rule, people back away nervously toward the exits.

  2. Lee Says:

    Thank you.

  3. Catxman Says:

    Death is the great leveller. Rich or poor, famous or strictly anonymous, we all marshall before the Great White Bone Chair to be examined by the Skeleton-General of the Future Abode for our weaknesses and deficiencies … and strengths?

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    The gentleman adverts to Messor Gravis himself–Grimmest of Reapers, Mightiest of Avengers–inexorable, ineluctable, indefatigable, scythe-raised, backlit by lightning, high on his stygian steed, swooping down to smite us fools & dreamers. That’s how aye limned him in 1941 boy-preacher homilies, imagining Satan trembled in the torrent of my imprecations. Glory Days!

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