I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is
nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much
pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I
was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the
gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can't say it
wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home
from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little
souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
I don't expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment,
while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a
friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it
always does. "Ask someone how they feel about death," he said, "and
they'll tell you everyone's gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds?
No, no, no, that's not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What
you're really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don't really exist.
I might be gone at any given second."
Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, illness led me resolutely
toward the contemplation of death. That led me to the subject of
evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and I became
engulfed on my blog in unforeseen discussions about God, the afterlife,
religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the
nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the
end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death,
Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to
go into death without faith. I don't feel that way. "Faith" is neutral.
All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever.
The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than
most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans
for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow's "Herzog," I say, "Look for
me in the weather reports."
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that
faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer
persuades me. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to;
everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to
impart. All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who
do not agree with it. I know a priest whose eyes twinkle when he says,
"You go about God's work in your way, and I'll go about it in His."
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to
function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I
have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins' theory of
memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions,
songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés
that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a
lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes,
I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually
die, but so it goes.
O'Rourke's had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it
this quotation, which I memorized:
I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to
animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for
anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer,
the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer
in the winter and happier in the summer.
That does a pretty good job of summing it up. "Kindness" covers all of
my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at
the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make
others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little
happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is
a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must
try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our
problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always
know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his
deathbed "the distinguished thing." I will not be conscious of the
moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It
wasn't so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I
was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and
was communicating to her that I wasn't finished yet. She said our hearts
were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn't be discovered.
She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I
Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally- not symbolically,
figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call
and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real,
physical world I have described, the one that I share with my
wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place.
I'm not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The
only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many
long days and nights. I'm talking about her standing there and knowing
something. Haven't many of us experienced that? Come on, haven't you?
What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists,
theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It's a
human kind of a thing.
Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I
will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing.
Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have
known since she was six, "You'd better cry at my memorial service." I
correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director
Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 2010 he came very
close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a
documentary named "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh."
Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself "a simple
worshiper of the external Buddha." Paul told me that in those days,
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over
the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as
accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to
reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than
we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that
cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion.
Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably
take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says
whenever Tintin proposes a journey, "Not by foot, I hope!"
-Roger Ebert, from his autobiography "Life Itself: A Memoir."
at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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