The Things Only The Dying Know


As winter begins to shut down on me here in New York like the white lid of a box, so, too, death is shutting down on my mother across the country, bringing an end to her story.

Death is something we don’t give much thought to anymore. Besides for our loved ones, we pay little attention to people once they grow to a certain age, and once death comes to knock they have already practically disappeared from our society’s conscience.

Meant to spur on a belief in God, medieval reminders of death – like the memento mori in artworks — lasted through the Victorian era as moralizing aides-mémoires that life is short and the afterlife is infinite. The Ash Wednesday proclamation, “Remember, Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” attempted to convey the absolute lack of power humans have within the scheme of history. With death ever looming we should think about the afterlife.

But with the rise of the existentialists came a new perspective towards death: the idea that there is no afterlife — that death is all there is — should allow us to live more intensely. There was no Heaven, Hell or Church for Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and Kierkegaard. And because life is meaningless and absurd, it follows that life is also full of whatever meaning one chooses to imbue it with. As with humanism, adding a god to the equation would only dilute the beauty of human progress while at the same time blinding people to the fact that they have no other life than the one they’re living.

After existentialism ran its course, the next — and arguably current — philosophical viewpoint is the postmodern one: death is emptiness, neither changing how we live nor what happens once we die. Postmodernism is an ironic twist on both existentialism and religion, where death only need be dealt with in a cursory fashion. Like a person who has been too often hurt, postmodernism turns away from a serious dialogue about death and instead revels in aimless abstractions.

Yet throughout all of these waves of history, the theory that is believed by most can be best summed up by the poet Wallace Stevens. In a stanza from his lengthy poem, “Sunday Morning,” he writes:

She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

“Death is the mother of beauty.” What an interesting, seemingly profound statement. The idea is that only through the lens of death can life be viewed most truly, most intensely. Death, according to Stevens, leads to the “fulfillment to our dreams.” Stevens is advocating a religious transcendence within a secular world. Death is still death — there is no Heaven or Hell — but it opens up our minds in a way that we become truly fulfilled. Thus impending death entirely readjusts how we view life. It sounds beautiful — a perfect cross between religious hope and secular reasoning.

And yet, it could not be more false.

My mother has had cancer for over three years. She caught it quite late. I was in Paris and she was home in Washington State when we found out, and it seemed to noisily bring everyone’s life to a halt.
She should not have been alive this long, and, knowing that she hadn’t much time, I begged and begged to take a year off of school — even just a semester — to come home and be with her. My father wouldn’t have it, though, and my mother absolutely would not have it — and I was never really sure why. I knew they wanted me to graduate on time, to move through life with a certain amount of normalcy given far-from-normal circumstances. But it frustrated me that I couldn’t be with her. Why was I slogging through game theory and reading Abelard and Eloise when I should be at home with my ill mother?

When I did go home, though, over winter and summer breaks, the reason my parents didn’t want me around became depressingly apparent. Spending night after night with her in the hospital, I realized just how hopelessly bleak everything had become. If you believe that “death is the mother of beauty” then my mother should have been having vibrant realizations about life in the face of death. There should have been deep philosophical discussions, epiphanies, and new understandings. The dying though know that death is disgusting. There is no added intensity, no newfound creativity or earth-shattering reflections. No, there are only doubts and feelings of utter inconsequentialness.

In his semi-autobiographical book My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman, writes about his similar time dealing with cancer: “From the moment I learned I had cancer… not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated.”

What, then, is the point of death? Does it modify how we view life in any way?

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine wonders how death will come and what it will mean for him. “Suppose [death] steals suddenly upon me, in what state shall I leave this world?” he asks. “When can I learn what I have here neglected to learn? Or is it true that death will cut off and put an end to all care and all feeling? This is something to be inquired into.”

While St. Augustine was somewhat uncertain about how he would leave Earth, as a Christian he surely believed that he would end up in Heaven. So, too, atheists hold a certain conviction that they will simply tumble into nonexistence.

When Christopher Hitchens, the famous writerly atheist, was dying, there was all sorts of talk on whether he would become religious in his last days, and many of his fans praised him for eventually not “seeking relief in religion.” But I’m not sure that’s much deserving of admiration, as if having an enduring desire and hope for something other than our reputation and certainties should be applauded. When the last things we grasp at before death are the straws of our pride, we expire with little meaning outside of ourselves.

It is true that it is only through death that we can truly survey our life. Whether or not this gives it any sort of meaning depends on our personal philosophy. When we are alive, unconcerned about death, it is almost impossible to get any sort of perspective on the true scope of our lives. It is as if we are running through a maze, and we will never find our way out until we can view it from above. Impending death is the helicopter that takes us high above our lives to survey the timeline. We see how one decision led to the next, and, through an incredible series of events, led to the life we now know.

I don’t think that “death is the mother of beauty.” I don’t believe that impending death adds new beauty or intensity to our lives. This is too easy of an explanation. It is too feel-good-y and clearly postulated by someone who had not experienced death in a sufficiently proximal capacity. My mother does not feel good or more philosophically aware having gone through pain and nights where she couldn’t be sure if she would awake in the morning. No, she simply wants to get better.

Death does not add vibrancy to life so much as it seeks to suck it out. Each day is full of new pains and thoughts about how easy it would be to slip into the next dimension, where you’re likely to be soon forgotten.

Yet while death is repulsive, sickening, depressing, it is also a time for reflecting. It does not add intensity to our lives nor does it paint our memories in vibrant colors, but it does allow one to step back from one’s life in order to survey what is truly important. Once a fabulous swimmer, my mother can no longer get in the pool. Once a devoted exercise physiologist who created her own clinic, she can no longer go to work. Once a fantastic teacher, she can no longer give lectures.

And yet, and yet, she is still a loving mother, always keen to read my stories or learn French so we can speak with one another. She is still faithful to her religious beliefs, and her devotion to Christianity, and her relationship with God has pulled her through some of her most grueling treatments. She is still the same wonderful woman, and now that she can no longer really see, her eye closed up due to surgical complications, we still remember the beautiful blue eyes that once shimmered below. Death does not make life more beautiful; it is not an amber spyglass through which the dying can view the world and his past. But the truth about death is it does allow one — force one, really — to prioritize, to understand exactly what is important and what must be held on to at all costs.

When my mother looks back on her life, she surely misses the time before the cancer forever changed her life; but, in a perverse yet wholly real way, she cherishes the priorities she has been able to make: her family, her friends, her faith. The specter of death has disrupted her life, but she holds fast to what she cherishes. We constantly pray for her to get better, but even if death does come, she will leave loving the things that have always been important to her. Death boils life down to its essentials. And as much as Stevens might think that death automatically makes life beautiful, we know that death is devastatingly scary. And yet, and yet, if taken on with courage and with grace, death can become something that, for all the terror it causes, really doesn’t change a thing.

image – Edward Musiak