I’ve been thinking about death a lot of late. Most recently, the publicity around David Cassidy’s death has provoked me to thought because—as much as I hate to admit it—The Partridge Family was a part of my youth.
So let me start there.
When I was a kid, death was clearly not what it is for me today. People didn’t really die. If I saw someone get killed on a TV show, often there was a cop-out (I remember, for some reason, Batman and Robin turning bad and being machine-gunned by terrified police officers, only to discover that they had not been killed—robots had taken their place). Checkov dies on Star Trek (“Shadow of the Gun”) but is brought back to life.
G.I. Joe could be killed in battle with dirt bombs. But he always could be set back up.
Death was an act.
When I was in my teens, I became a bit of a Jesus Freak and, understood in that context, death was a door. That became a little harder to grasp when my ex-girlfriend’s father died suddenly of a heart attack. But we accepted the fiction.
When two of my best friends from high school died while I was in college, that fiction became harder and harder to maintain.
I married, and adopted new decorations for that fiction, but death remained a door, even if I was beginning to doubt.
Now, during this period I had known people who died, I had dressed corpses, and of course I had seen death on television (both real and dramatic).
The trick was, I had never seen anyone die, in person. We insulate people in the United States, and death usually takes place a long way from us.
Death remained, in theory, a door, even if the outlines of that door were starting to evaporate into smoke.
Then, last March, I was present when my father died.
I remember. His breaths came ever more slowly over a period of hours. He would stop breathing for 10, 20, 40 seconds at a time. Then he would gasp, and breathing would resume. Then one time, he didn’t. His skin became cold, rapidly.
And that’s when the door evaporated entirely.
I no longer think of death as a game or an act. I no longer think of death as a door. I believe that when you die, you’re gone.
So what must it be like to die? In some ways, I look forward to the experience—except that I will not be there. So there will be no experience.
I was nearly killed in a bike crash a long time back. I was knocked clean out, concussed, jaw broken, and I have 10-15 minutes missing. The only reason I know that they are missing is that I woke up while I was being put into an ambulance. But other than that, I was riding and then things stopped.
If I had not woken up in the ambulance, that stop would have been complete. That’s what I expect death to be like; and since I will not wake up again, there will be no way to account for, to assess, to realize that there was a stop.
That’s what I expect death to be like.
In some ways, I hope I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure I’m right.
And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, we all know that.