What Matters Most When All Is Said And Done – A Blast From the Past from October 2008

What Matters Most When All Is Said And Done – A Blast From the Past from October 2008

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 wishful, 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 resurrection 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.

53 thoughts on “What Matters Most When All Is Said And Done – A Blast From the Past from October 2008

  1. Death certainly does seem to be a singularity, an event horizon that almost nothing comes back out of; so nobody really knows what’s on the other side.

    1. C.S. Lewis comes the closest, I think. “The dream has ended. It is morning. The term is over. The Holidays have begun.”

    2. Reminds me of Tolkien’s description of death in The Lord of the Rings.

      GANDALF: No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
      PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
      GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
      PIPPIN: Well, that isn’t so bad.
      GANDALF: No. No, it isn’t.

      I’ve heard the near-death experiences of some of my ancestors, and they had people waiting for them on the shores of that far country. One described a happy throng, and another saw his brother and father, who said, “We have great work to do. We will be glad to have you.”

      I’m not sure what I believe in…I can’t really do faith…but those things make me feel a lot better. When I had to go into a surgery that some people don’t come out of, I wasn’t really worried about what might await if something went wrong. Like Sarah said, I just knew I’d miss my family and I wanted my kids to be okay.

      1. “We have great work to do. We will be glad to have you.”

        That sums up a sneaking suspicion of mine that this world is merely a training ground for us. God’s plan is far bigger than any of us can know, or even imagine. We’re all just children, and in spite of all the horrors of this world, not yet prepared for the tasks and trials that await us on the other side.

  2. No one lives all that long in my family, so in addition to the friends-and-family regrets, I most dread the unfinished stories. I resent the health crisis a while ago that has delayed things because I feel the footsteps behind me so clearly. But even more, I dread the looming dementia of my father’s line, and diagnoses from doctors of “age-appropriate” memory issues are NOT reassuring.

    It’s silly to worry about unwritten stories, I tell myself… in the end are they any the less unread if they are never written than if they only sell a few copies? But still, these are the children of my mind (I have no others), and I want to launch them into their simulacrum of life in the real world. I dream about them nightly, after all, and wish them well.

    1. If you’re really worried, and I can understand why, you might want to do something different to stretch your brain. Like learning the Ars memoriae, or the Roman way of counting and doing math on the fingers, or some different kind of exercise, or a new musical instrument.

      I know you probably do physical activities and you probably have to lift heavy things, so that’s not as urgent.

      Probably learning Greek while walking and lifting heavy objects and playing a pan pipe would be optimum. Although your fall risk would increase. 😉

      1. Alas, I already know Greek and Latin (and other deadies). There’s no lack of intellectual stimuli available, but the memory bank has its issues. Not disabling. Yet.

        Substitute singing for pan pipe, and I don’t see any problem (just joined a barbershop group, cuz why not?)

        1. Well, locative visual memory (all that memory palace stuff) uses a different part of the brain, and tying it to concepts feels really odd. So I expect it does stimulate things in the memory areas.

          I wish they would experiment with it with kids, because it seems like something that might help kids with different kinds of talents that are not maximized, in today’s learning systems.

          1. I actually like memory palace concepts, despite my deep “literate (i.e., list-based)” professional usage for hierarchically storing information. I find that physical-location clues, even if it’s just pointing at a bit of an image on a screen, are embedded in somatic memories quite tenaciously.

            Early on in consumer URL-handling concepts, there was a brief pseudo-metaverse period where you could tailor an on-screen brightly colored complicated image (my favorite was a drawing of an underwater multi-chamber lab with views, objects, shelves, furniture, etc.) where each bit of the image could be linked to a URL, so that you could, for example, click on the “image of the dictionary on a bookcase” to link to a definition-lookup URL.

            The point wasn’t the particular idiosyncratic metaphor chosen by the individual users for the concept that made sense to them. It was the location of that object as a trigger-cue. Your body remembered that location, and when your brain asked “where do I keep such-and-such in this memory palace?” your finger pointed to the right place and presented the clue for your brain to confirm.

            It was just as somatic as playing a musical instrument, where your fingers go to the right place automatically with a higher-level brain overlay to refine the final choice. I sure do miss that methodology — only fragments remain available for consumers, such as “which high-level bookmark directory is where” on the horizontal browser band of bookmark folders.

    2. Dad died of his last heart attack at 53 (before surgical intervention was common), while Mom lived to see her 99th birthday. Dementia is a potential issue, though my short term memory issues go back to childhood. (ADD or something on the spectrum, most likely.) So life expectancy is a crapshoot.

      At 70, my docs think that I stand a chance at living fairly long (waggles hand at the scale) provided I do my bit. I did (AFAIK) all the right things during Covidiocy, as did $SPOUSE. SIL and her husband got the J&J shot, which I believe has lower long term consequences. I don’t know the vax status of most of my side of the family, though at least two of my nieces got the shot(s) as teachers.

      Lasting legacy? There’s a nice place in Flyover County that’s that way because of our work. I’ll take that as a start.

  3. Both my uncle and great aunt had out-of-body experiences. Which in and of itself doesn’t sound unusual. The unusual thing about them was that they both saw the same thing at the same time. Specifically, they were both floating over my great aunt’s body laying on her couch, apparently lifeless. When my uncle woke up and told my grandmother it freaked her out enough that she made a long distance call during the day (late ‘60s) to check on her. “I just woke up from the weirdest dream, it was so lifelike but I was dead.” “Let me tell you what Arnie just saw.”

    I’m pretty sure there’s something after death. What it is, or how long it lasts I have no clue. When my paternal grandmother died in ‘20, I had suddenly gotten a very strange feeling in my abdomen/stomach. About 5 minutes later I got a “test notification” from her nursing home. Which is possible, it would have been the first one since she was there (about 6 weeks or so). A few minutes later I got a call from my parents that she died about 15 before. Which would put her death right about the time I had that strange feeling. It’s never happened with any other death in the family, so maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe it takes a really strong connection to the person. My maternal grandmother said she knew the instant her brother died. And she made sure she was bedside when my grandfather and my uncle Arnie passed. She said she just knew that it was time for a last goodbye.

  4. My mother’s family was not religious in any way shape or form. My mother became Catholic in her teens. The rest of the family continued not to be religious.

    My Aunt Molly was a hospice volunteer and when my mother came to the end of a 3 year battle with cancer, Molly quit her job in Washington state and came back to the Midwest to take care of her big sister for 3 months until she passed.

    Aunt Molly told me that, although she knew nothing about religion and didn’t believe a lot of it, maybe none of it, t she had seen enough people die that she felt like there was “something after”. She said, “I don’t know where they go but they all seem like they are going somewhere. One minute they are here and then they sort of leave. Like going out the door “. She also said that one thing about religion was that the ones who were the most believing were the ones who had the easiest time going. She said, “Even if it isn’t true, it does give people peace of mind at the end.”

    I have been at the death of a couple of people myself and I would say I’ve seen the same thing. It seemed like they were going somewhere. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader as to where that might be.

  5. You really don’t think about death when you face him, there is generally something else on your mind, like living through it or protecting your buddy so he can protect you. It’s before you face him that you question your own courage. It is true that you either fight or run, that is how your brain is wired. Is true courage the person who wants to run away, and stands and fights anyway, or the guy who stands in the face of the storm and laughs at it? I don’t know and I doubt we will ever know the answer. I suspect both are needed. The one who wants to run needs the guy who laughs, but so does the guy who laughs need the guy who wants to run. Humans are weird.

    1. Really nothing. To me — understand no disparagement — you’re the deaf man screaming “there is no such thing as sounds. Stop pretending to hear music.”
      It is what it is, but not worth arguing with.

        1. You walked into an ambush. Your response only enhanced her statement.

          She is dangerous.

        2. No. Just that I’ve long ago come to the conclusion some people can’t “sense” whatever it is — note not imposing a name or shape on it — for all I know it’s some form of universal static.
          But those of us who hear it are obviously going to discuss it. You can’t hear it, so it’s useless to argue with you that it might be this or that. For you it’s not. At all.

  6. Do we exist in the beyond? For degrees of beyond? I truly feel that Thump and Silver (our two most recent furball losses, wait for us on the Rainbow bridge waiting for each of us to join them. Mom tells of seeing and feeling dad since his passing almost 14 years ago. She also tells the story of seeing a woman in a long dress walking through the trailer, then me as a toddler get up toddle and follow the woman. Mom snatched me up and held me until the woman left (through walls). Have not had that type of experience in my memory. I do seem to be sensitive in some areas, like graveyards, or a couple of the memorials in DC, but I don’t know what it is.

  7. Many people have a problem with faith because, like death, it’s an absolute. It can’t be moderated or diminished without being lost or destroyed, completely and absolutely. But death is an eternal absolute.

    At the end, I have faith that Babycat will once again crawl under the blankets and tuck herself inside my right arm and purr herself to sleep as she once did. And then I’ll drift off to join her in that long sleep through the long night.


    1. And I have hope — though not faith because I’m not good at that — that Greebo will be there to greet me as I slip into whatever it is and will croak his little grating-voice meow at me.
      And then? I don’t know. But Greebo will be there, to defeat any foxes or convicts that need defeating.
      IF such is possible, we’ll sit down and wait for Dan.

      1. Sarah, you love your kids and are kind to cats. If Sir Pterry’s insights are any good (and the man’s perception of the world bordered on magical), you will have a more or less friendly helper and guide to make sure the reunion occurs.

        G-d willing, it will be in bed, a long time from now, having helped to fatten up many grandbabies (how that works on low carb, I dunno, but you will manage). So take care of yourself, keep on writing, and keep on making those you love happy!

      2. If Greebo is there, he’ll be waiting to push you toward whatever equivalent of a keyboard they have. Just because you’re dead is no reason to neglect your duties.

  8. An eerie story in three disjointed parts:

    1) One of my earliest memories is of wandering into a disused flower garden early in the morning. Dew on the grass, sending light everywhere, beautiful prismatic colors, and a smell I can’t identify but would love to find again.

    2) My great-aunt died in a timely and fulfilled fashion. At her funeral, I was wondering idly what she was…perceiving? now, and got an overwhelming impression of something very like my morning flower garden, only much more. And emotion that blended surprise, not-surprise, and gladness – “Oh, it’s YOU!” without the words. Which was lovely and sweet, but…we weren’t all that close, I filed it away as “God does strange things” and went on.

    3) My mother died in a neither timely nor fulfilled fashion. In the last few weeks, I told her what I’d “seen” at her aunt’s funeral, and it helped her feel better. I didn’t know HOW much better until I was going through her papers and found an old journal page about how scared she was of dying (not something I would ever have believed of her). But any garden was always her safe and special place. I know that image was meant for her, and I also know she wouldn’t have believed it from anybody but me. I’m still sad, but I feel oddly honored to have been the delivery service for that message.

  9. Like Sarah, I’m not too worried about death per se. It’s unfinished duties and unwritten stories that bother me. Once, many years ago, when the Black Dog got far too close, it was only the knowledge of the trouble it would inflict on others that kept me from doing something. That hound has stayed at a decent distance for a while, but when it seemed as if I might be having serious heart problems (I wasn’t. Was something far more common and manageable), my greatest fear was leaving colleagues in the lurch and readers without the rest of the story.

    I believe in an afterlife. What’s there? No idea, but I have a few guesses, which are probably wrong. As usual. 😉

  10. When shadows all have gathered,
    And burdens have all laid down,
    And all the chords are raveled,
    Then the veils fall all around.

    There find we on our pathway,
    The road we’ve sought so long.
    Gladly our feet follow
    And our hearts come to song.

    The sun in shining splendor
    Leads us on our way
    And the breeze now soft and tender
    Cools that gentle day.

    Then come we to a harbor
    With ship of shinging sails
    Through fragrant roses’ arbor
    That ring with silent tales.

    The Master of that Vessel
    Welcomes us aboard
    And in each corner nestles
    A bright soul brought to the Lord.

    Upon the distant beaches
    Friends and family wait,
    And each greets and then beseeches
    That we meet them at the gate.

    Here we find our working
    Has yet just begun,
    And all the dreams still lurking
    Gleam brightly in the sun.

    1. Beautiful! The mood reminds me a bit of both “May it be” and “In Dreams” from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack.

  11. Several times I’ve been lying in the bedroom and had the distinct sensation of little cat feet on my back — but the door was closed and our current cat was not in there with me. The only conclusion was that I was feeling the ghost of our previous cat coming to visit us.

    I often have to bite my tongue when discussions of What Comes Next come up. So many things that I know to be comforting for the people who are saying them strike me as ahem not reassuring, mostly for reasons related to past trauma. My biggest hope is that it’s not a One Size Fits All thing, because I spent so many years dealing with people who tried to squeeze me into boxes that simply didn’t fit — and the saddest thing is that at least some of them seem to have genuinely thought they were doing it for my well-being, rather than just sanctimoniously telling me that they were doing it for my own good and one day I would thank them for it.

  12. I had a really weird dream, on the night one of my online friends died unexpectedly. There was literally no natural reason for it to have happened. So yeah.

    And my instant thought when I woke up was that somebody had died, to the point that I was calling my relatives to check on them.

    But the dream itself was not scary.

  13. “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire,” as the Talmud has it.

    Would it not then follow that he who saves an SFF writer’s life saves uncounted universes?

            1. If they are crying in Heaven, they aren’t saints.
              So they aren’t there.
              Sinners don’t have all the fun.

              2 Nephi 2:25 Adam* fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

              *Preceding verses make it clear that it’s a partnership with Eve.

  14. One interesting thing to me is how obvious it is that someone is gone when they die. Pictures look more like the person than the body they leave behind does.

    1. @ Evenstar – pictures and people
      When my mother passed away, her younger sister remarked at the viewing that she “looked just like Grandma Gunnison” — something we would never have known as we have no photographs of that great-grandmother.

  15. The blogger New Neo, whom many of you know, has been dealing with the abrupt passing of her long-time friend, also a blogger, Gerard Vanderleun.
    She posted this observation today:
    “There is still a very surrealistic quality to what happened. Gerard was such a vibrant and vital force that it seems exceptionally strange that he could have died. When I type that thought out and look at it, it seems an absurd thing to say. After all, everybody dies. He almost died eleven years ago, and I was present. And yet…his departure from this earth seems nearly impossible. It takes a lot of getting used to.”

    Getting used to a loss is not the same as getting over it.

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