Friday, October 29, 2010

Thanatos, Part II

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. His particular kind manifested itself in his esophagus, which is unsurprising given his near-legendary reputation as a smoker and drinker. He’s 61 and, should he survive another five years, says he will be surprised.

He’s taken to writing about his disease. Hitchens is a brutally eloquent writer, sparing very little time for sentiment and chronically incapable of pulling a punch. It’s a quality that makes him adept at eviscerating a cause he disagrees with or an argument he finds wanting.* For reference, he once wrote a pamphlet criticizing Mother Teresa as a charlatan and a fraud, which he titled The Missionary Position.

*Arguing with the man must be absolutely terrifying.  He’s essentially memorized the entire Western philosophical canon and will deploy it like a howitzer at the slightest provocation. Generally erudite to a fault, he’s not above a bit of vulgarity –when discussing the death of Jerry Falwell in this clip, he gets a bit irritated at Sean Hannity’s attempt to talk over him, and delivers this gem:

If you gave Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” Exceptional. Incidentally, this also demonstrates the best way to combat someone who tries to interrupt you or talk over you – keep talking. Don’t break your rhythm or even acknowledge that they’ve said anything; finish what you’ve said and it’ll throw them off almost every time.

You may have gathered from that clip that Hitchens is an atheist – perhaps the most famous one alive. He describes himself as more of an anti-theist. Much of the latter part of his life has been dedicated to opposing religion in all its forms. Needless to say, he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and actually considers the idea of heaven as it’s described in Christian theology as something of a “celestial North Korea”, where all sing their praises to the leader every day for eternity. Hitchens has said, in fact, that heaven would be worse than North Korea, because in North Korea, you can die. You’re stuck in heaven forever.

In confronting his mortality, Hitchens has had to grapple with forever’s opposite – that is, nonexistence. Both seem equally horrifying. Forever means that your burdens will never be lain down.  Far from arranging themselves as the catalogue of your life, your memories will pile in your brain like a heap of trash. You’ll run out of room before long, so important things like your first kiss or your first pet’s name will be ejected from your head like foam from an overflowing glass of beer. As people age, they succumb to a phenomenon where the years appear to pass by faster and faster – this is because each subsequent year represents a proportionally smaller portion of our lives. A 13-year-old wakes up every day to new information and new experiences. An 80-year-old has seen it all before. Could you imagine what kind of creature you’d be like at 500? A thousand? Some meaninglessly large number off in the distance? It barely seems like living.

But then, nonexistence. Your silver cord cut and your story ended. It’s less than a comforting thought. I’ve heard it suggested that the idea of death (apart from the process, which can range from somewhat pleasant to hellish) is not to be feared, because you’ve already experienced a near-infinity of nonexistence – where were you before you were born? Persuasive, perhaps, but before you were born, you were not. Death means the end of something you were. I’m rather enamored with living, you know? Hitchens is too.  There was a catch in his voice when he discussed the concept of nonexistence during an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic a few months back. A shudder. The awful prelude to a death rattle.

The brain does all kinds of strange things in the last second, as it shuts down nonessential things like taste and hearing in a vain attempt to keep its body alive. Studies have shown that terminal patients, in the moments before they die, will experience a surge of brain activity all out of proportion to their state of mind beforehand. If the priests and prophets are right, and Christopher Hitchens is wrong, then death is to be followed by an eternal afterlife – whether it’s in the lake of fire, or through the Pearly Gates, or some other variant of forever. If Hitchens is right – and, to be frank, I suspect that he is – it’s followed by nothing.

There’s something there, though, on the cliff’s boundary. My grandmother’s brain surged, her arms raised, and there was something.

Next: The conclusion, in more ways than one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thanatos, Part I

I promise this isn’t a personal story. Not entirely.

My grandmother died on a weekday morning in the summer of 2006, the victim of a cancer that began in the colon but (as cancers often do) quickly extended itself to whichever organ its idiot reach could embrace. She was diagnosed in November and died in July, which gave us a bare eight months to say goodbye. None of them were pretty – she withered quickly and drastically from various bouts of chemotherapy and other necessarily toxic remedies, although she curiously never lost her hair. By the end, she lacked the strength to lift herself from her bed, which was set up in the family room of the house she and my grandfather had inhabited since coming over from Italy after the Second World War.

My family was scattered in and around that house when I finally arrived, each mourning in their own way. My youngest aunt sat on some steps among the grapevines and apple trees in the backyard, her own personal retreat since childhood. My brother was outside on the path leading to the house, and as he embraced me I saw that he was crying.  I hadn’t seen him cry since childhood; as we had aged it had become unthinkable for either of us to shed tears. 

When I saw my grandfather, I knew what had caused my brother to lose his composure.  It’s often been said that death is hardest on the living – the dead are beyond any earthly suffering, but those left behind are constantly confronted with their ghosts. Their loss lingers in the bare facts of their absence. You’ll smell them on their empty clothes when you open the closet, long after the scent has faded. You’ll wake up expecting to be next to someone and despair at the no-one who has taken her place. For my grandfather, this was the first time he had been without my grandmother in almost fifty years. He sat on a plastic chair outside the back door, seeing nothing.  I’ve never asked him, but I don’t think he really remembers any of that morning. His life was on hold at the time.

My mother and another aunt were standing vigil over my grandmother’s body when I finally made it into the house.  She’d spent much of the past few months confined to a hospital bed in her living room, and hadn’t truly moved from it in several weeks. I stopped a few feet short of where she lay. Her eyes were wide open. She almost looked surprised. As my mother told me it was OK for me to come closer, I flashed back to something she’d told me earlier that morning, when she woke me up to tell me about my grandmother’s death.

“She opened her eyes and raised her hands towards the ceiling,” my mother had said, sitting on the corner of my bed, her tears not quite spent.  “Then she was gone.”

There it is, then. My grandmother, in the fading moments before lapsing into impermanence, saw something so compelling that she attempted to touch it. Whether she tried to embrace it or hold it off is lost to me forever – until, at least, years from now, it comes for me as well. This question, skirting about the corners of my consciousness, has haunted me ever since.

What did she see?

 Next: Other peoples’ opinions.