Thought out of nowhere — or perhaps not since I’ve “faced” this in many books and stories, from Tom in Draw One In The Dark facing the Great Sky Dragon and knowing there’s no way he walks out of there alive, to the girl in Something Worse Hereafter — in the Wings collection — who knows she’s dead, but there’s a second death and not how permanent, to probably countless others I’ve forgotten.
Those last few minutes fascinate me. Oh, people die in their sleep, people die without knowing they’re going to die, but I suspect most of us are starkly wide awake for the end and we know there’s no return, that this time there will be no save. We come into the world without knowing ourselves, and all the time we’ve known ourselves we’ve been alive. How is it to face the undiscovered country?
This is wholly separate from religion, btw. I’m one of those for whom faith requires and effort and a silencing of the mind. I know what they say is on the other side, but is there? Curiously I never doubt those I love or have loved go on, cats and dogs and people alike. The world would have to be a nonsensical thing and life less than sound and fury for death to erase my beloved paternal grandmother, my flawed maternal grandfather or the childhood friend who died much too young. It would have to be a strange place to have forever destroyed Petronius the Arbiter, cat from Hades. No, somewhere I’m sure they’re alive and still integrally themselves, as is Pixel the “speaker to the humans” orange fuzzball I miss everyday.
But those people — yeah, cats are people too, got a problem? — were special individuals, in their own way saints of heroes or… bigger than life. As for me, who am none of those, who can tell? I have a vague idea life continues in some form and hope there will be books and cats, if I’ve been very, very good, but the preferred outcome might be that there is nothing but oblivion. Perhaps this makes me morbid, but my secret wish is that there is literally nothing on the other side. Just… as though I’d never existed. After life’s fitful fever (s)he sleeps well and all that.
Once I came close enough to those final moments that it seemed a sure thing. In fact, during an eleven day stay in hospital I came close to crossing that gateway at least twice. (Might have been three times. My blood ox was so low most of the time, that I don’t remember very clearly. Brain damaged, I tell you.) So… what was there?
Well, like the prospect of being hanged in the morning, coming face to face with your mortality at 33 does concentrate the mind wonderfully. There are so many things I want, so many things I think, so many things I am. And then when it all came to the end, in the silence at the eye of the storm, it all settled down and simplified. I regretted leaving my husband and was sure if there was something on the other side, I WOULD miss him; I worried for my boys, then one and five. But above all, around all, I felt as if the novels and stories I’d never written — at the time I was unpublished and had only written five? novels — were screaming at having to die with me.
Yes, my life changed after I got better and left the hospital. At many times and places people have told me I need to close the office door. I need to keep the kids out. I must swat the cats off the keyboard. I can’t stop in midst novel to go cuddle my husband. Pardon me but… poppycock. What comes after is a mystery, but one thing I know and that is that if any form of awareness or thought or memory subsists, I’ll miss my family and friends. I’m not a good person, but those I love — and not just in terms of sexual love, but my friends too, those I refer to as being “within the magic circle” yes, even my e-daughters and other friends that I’ve only met online 🙂 — I love deeply and I enjoy their company and I will do so as long as I can.
The other thing is that I started taking the writing more seriously — without neglecting my family or friends. It went from being a whishful, sort of hobby that might one day be a job, and it became a driving passion. And the reason I write as much as I do. I don’t want those stories to die unread, in my head. Life is too important to waste, unlived. And stories are born to be heard.
Other than that? I don’t know. I’ve faced it so many times in writing — what will it be like in real life, and how will I feel when it comes? One thing I know — it will come. It sounds like one of those sixties truisms, like “we’re all naked under our clothes” but life TRULY is a fatal condition, and everyone dies eventually. To pretend otherwise robs our life of urgency and strength.
All I can hope is that if I’m required to face it before I expect to, I’ll do so with courage, because whether there’s nothing on the other side; whether the dreary dust-world of the ancients lurks; whether ressurection and eternal life looms… in all of those, I’m sure that for those left behind the manner of one’s death will count. For some reason — probably the movie — I’m thinking of the Greeks at the Hot Gates. The manner of their death sure as hell mattered.
And for the rest, I’ll leave it in the words of one of those men long dead who I’m sure is alive and vibrant somewhere, and probably still writing:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.