Posts Tagged ‘life’

Goodbye, Cutesie

September 9, 2014

Cutesie was our cat. We got him for our daughter Elizabeth when she was four, and she gave him that, well, cutesie name. Maybe a play on the word’s definition? (I decided it was short for Cutesmeier.)

After Elizabeth left for college he was really my wife’s cat and she loved him dearly. He didn’t exactly reciprocate, but did like to be near us, and in the last years started snuggling up to my wife while we watched TV, letting her stroke him. One shouldn’t make assumptions about the mind of a cat. He lacked a “theory of mind,” an understanding that we are conscious beings (like him); rather, we were objects, a part of his environment. But he was certainly conscious, with thoughts and feelings.

cutesieWe buried him yesterday, a proper funeral. He’d been showing his age a bit but was quite fine until the weekend. Then it happened fast; kidney failure. When the vet brought him out the final time, he was still a living sentient being, engaged with the world. Then the needle, and he wasn’t.

Kind of makes you think. Especially happening on my 67th birthday; ever harder to sustain the idea that I’m not an old man, with my own needle looming.* (Though my wife is great at making me feel like the young man I actually never was when young.)

I recalled the rhyme on an old German token, “Heut rot, morgen todt.” Loosely translated: Here today, gone tomorrow. I ponder what it was like for Cutesie to be alive, then not. Watching him being covered with dirt hits one in the gut. I’ve written recently about death**; this intensified the feelings there expressed.

graveWe recently attended a talk about “Final Exit Network,” which helps folks take control of their demise. The speaker stressed that we often treat pets more humanely, to avoid suffering, than people, and I remembered this when seeing how peacefully and painlessly Cutesie went. His transition was virtually imperceptible.

That also seemed relevant to the furore over botched executions. I suspect we’ve gone so overboard in trying to ensure humaneness that we’re tripping over our own feet in that regard. Can’t we manage to do for people what we do for cats?

* Today brought my law school’s glitzy magazine. Once full of news of my professors, now it’s only an occasional obituary (except for Norman Dorsen, reassuringly still active). Even reports on my classmates’ accomplishments have faded out.

** See this also. And that law school magazine has an interesting essay by Samuel Scheffler, arguing that humanity’s continuity after one’s death is psychologically far more important than we realize in giving life meaning.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

July 3, 2014

A book group can expose one to hidden treasures and unforeseen pleasures. Here’s a great example.

images-1Harold, 65, recently retired, lives with longtime wife Maureen in a small English town. One day comes a letter from Queenie, an old co-worker friend whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. In hospice dying of cancer, she’s saying goodbye.

Harold pens a short reply and goes out to mail it. But something makes him pass mailbox after mailbox. Stopping for a bite at a garage, he tells the girl there about Queenie; she relates how powerful her faith was when her aunt had cancer. This inspires nonreligious Harold* to continue his walk – to the hospice in Berwick, 500 miles distant – suddenly convinced that that will keep Queenie alive.images

Thus begins Rachel Joyce’s novel, seemingly light and quirky, quasi-comic even. It’s hard to take seriously at first. But, wow, this becomes a profoundly compelling tale.

Harold and Queenie were never lovers. But they do share a secret; and Harold owes her, more than he even realizes.

When he phones Maureen to announce his plan, she responds matter-of-factly, without demur. This might have seemed weird, except that the two had lived for twenty years in a state of deep freeze, interaction kept minimal. (I could relate, having experienced something similar, for a time, with a girl I lived with.)

The marriage’s black hole had to do with their son, David. Harold hadn’t been the greatest dad, though not the worst by far. Maureen blames him for what went wrong. Iconically remembered is an ancient beach episode wherein Harold dithered about diving to David’s rescue until a lifeguard intervened. Maureen fails to consider that she didn’t dive in either.

images-4They haven’t seen David in decades. Harold doesn’t speak to him. Maureen does; indeed, they have quite normal phone conversations. That normality actually seemed bizarre, in the circumstances; until the more startling truth, revealed near the end, explains all. (I won’t spill it here.)

I recently reviewed another book group selection, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about a woman not wholly prepared for a big hike, and of course Harold is preposterously unprepared for his, having walked out in “yachting shoes.” Things go downhill fast, and the reader wonders how this can possibly continue. But an angel (in human form) fortuitously appears and gets Harold reasonably fixed up to reboot his pilgrimage (though still in yachting shoes).images-2

The novel grows more broadly comic, yet at the same time rather darker, when Harold’s story becomes a media sensation and he attracts a motley gaggle of fellow “pilgrims” he could do without. He agonizes over extricating himself but is stopped by a sense of responsibility toward them. Eventually, they leave him behind.

UnknownAnd now it gets truly dark. Does Harold reach Queenie? It no longer really matters, with Harold and Maureen both haunted by their fraught memories, their regrets, their demons. Maureen even begins to sense her own responsibility. At one point she actually travels to find Harold, and their strained conversation is heart-breaking. When Harold mildly suggests she join the trek, she cannot stifle her reflexive, acid “I think not.” Enroute home she ruefully chides herself for those words, and her inability to say the things she wishes she could.

But that isn’t the end.

This is such a deeply affecting, human book. Harold and Maureen are neither heroes nor duds, but Everyman and Everywoman. Sometimes life goes smoothly; sometimes not. Sometimes people sink under their troubles, but sometimes they rise up. Harold and Maureen are limited people; but sometimes we can transcend our limits. Sometimes love dies but sometimes rises up again.images-5

I think yes.

*Harold overlooks the girl’s not actually saying her aunt was helped.

I’m Going to Die

June 30, 2014

(A version of this appeared on the Albany Times-Union’s “Faith & Values” page, June 21)

America’s deaths are projected to rise (baby boomers being mortal) from 2.59 million in 2010 to 4.25 million in 2050. That could include you (or, worse, me). And while best-selling books claim to prove Heaven’s reality, even most believers aren’t eager to depart.

UnknownI heard a philosopher on the radio recently calling fear of death irrational. Human brains have no way to mentally model nonexistence; and he analogized one’s life to what’s between the covers of a book, saying that Long John Silver doesn’t fear what happens when Treasure Island reaches its final page.

“That makes no sense,” my wife remarked.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

I agreed. Philosophers going back to Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius (whom I’ve written about) have similarly struggled to persuade us – or, really, themselves – that death is nothing, basically because one won’t be around to experience being dead. But we understand what ending a life means. The radio philosopher’s analogy was silly because Long John Silver is a fictional construct with no consciousness.

Death is loss – complete and total. That one won’t suffer afterwards – as one grieves the loss of a dollar, or a beloved – may be a small comfort, but very small. Indeed, I think most of us would prefer if posthumousness could somehow be suffered. At least that would be something. Better than nothingness.

My cat, not knowing he’ll die, is unafraid.  Unknown-1My knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, but surely more of a blessing. Ignorance may be a sort of bliss, but I prefer an authentic life, grounded in reality. That includes the reality of death. Accepting this is  painful, yes, but it’s part of being alive in the fullest sense; looking life squarely in the eye.

Fear is healthy insofar as it alerts us to dangers and motivates preparation and avoidance. But while of course it makes sense to act to postpone death, in the end it comes, and fearing the inevitable is useless.  However, our thinking about mortality includes more than simple fear. While the radio philosopher was right at least that we can’t wrap our heads around the concept of nonexistence, what one does fully understand the loss of everything one values. That anticipatory regret is not at all irrational.

We must figure out how to live with it. Unknown-2And it does have one beneficial aspect, of putting other anxieties in perspective.  The same radio program also featured a man with acute stage fright, a folk singer. But why obsess about appearing in public (what’s the worst that could happen?) when Death is on your dance card? If you can live with that, no lesser fear should terrify you.

Moreover, its being limited makes life all the more precious. And I don’t allow knowing it will end subvert my pleasure in living it.  Rather than morbid contemplation of what being dead will be like, I prefer to focus instead on what being alive is like (that itself being enough of a puzzle, as I’ve written). images-2Rather than seeing death as a theft, I see my life as a gift. I don’t take my existence for granted; au contraire, there was no cosmic necessity for it, and I consider it almost miraculous.

To crave more of it may be natural, yet foolish if that corrodes what one does have. As Richard Dawkins has said, let go the impossible wish for another life, and live the one you’ve got.