DON’T LOOK AWAY
It was late in the day, I was tired and bummed. I don’t know why I went down to the pier, just wandering I guess. I’ve felt a little spacey off and on ever since the diagnosis. They say the treatment makes you that way but I think it’s the damned diagnosis. The very words themselves are a kind of wind that blows your thoughts all over the place and they never really settle back the way they were.
The esplanade was quiet, not many people, not much happening. The end of the ocean rolled up and down the sand making a rhythmical slurping sound. Everything was a soft late-afternoon color. It was relaxing.
I sat down on the only bench around, vaguely aware there was someone sitting at the other end. I had no idea it was Death. I thought it was a really really really skinny homeless guy wearing loose sweats with a big hood. Believe me, if I’d had even the slightest inkling, I would never have struck up a conversation.
There was a copy of the newspaper lying between us with the science section face up, a full-color spread on the physics of time and space, something about how time was like a loaf of bread. I picked it up and, to be polite, said, “Are you still reading this or may I …?”
“Please, be my guest.”
It wasn’t a normal voice, not normal at all. It made the phrase “other-worldly” really mean something. With reverb. It was so shocking I almost missed the next words, “They’ve got it all wrong but what the hell, the grotesque misunderstandings that masquerade as science have always been astonishing. Nothing new about that.”
I looked closely and saw that this wasn’t any kind of guy, homeless or homed. There was a strange humming quality coming off the hood … a kind of purring sound.
“Well .. I … I wouldn’t know.” I stuttered. “I’m not a scientist.”
“Even if you were, you wouldn’t”
The voice was mesmerizing and I couldn’t stop staring.
“Science. Humph. They think they’re going to conquer me.” Death paused then turned and looked full into my face. “What do you think?”
Suddenly my mouth went dry and my heart started beating really fast and I almost fainted.
“Sorry.” Death looked down again. “I shouldn’t do that, I know, I really shouldn’t. But I get so little respect these days I confess I sometimes resort to shock tactics. Still, it was uncalled for. Really. I’m sorry.”
I would’ve run away right then but I couldn’t feel my legs. I started whimpering. I didn’t mean to but I did.
“Oh you’ll be all right,” the voice said with a tinge of impatience. “Just breathe. A couple of nice, deep, slow ones. In and out. In and out. It’ll get better.”
I tried to follow instructions. Gradually my breath came back to me.
“There you go.” The voice softened. “In and out. I, for one, never cease to admire the profound simplicity of it.”
“What …. what are you doing here?” I sputtered, dreading the response.
“What are you doing here?” Death asks in return, which is not what I expected. There’s a long pause. Death is waiting for an answer. This is one of those situations in which the possibility of dissembling never enters your mind.
“I’m just … taking a break I guess. I was wanting some time to sit and, you know … think.”
Again, not what I expected. “Really?” I squeak.
Death nodded. “Sometimes a thing requires sustained consideration. Sometimes a thing requires … pondering.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Pondering.”
We sit silently for awhile as I consider what it might be that has caused Death to ponder. I’m at a loss. I decide to ask.
“So, uh, what are you … ?”
“What about respect?”
“Respect itself. Having it. Losing it. Wanting it. The whole enchilada.”
I consider some more. “But you must have all the respect in the world. I mean, everyone’s afraid of you.”
“Fear. It’s not the same thing. It can look the same but believe me, it’s not the
same at all.”
“So when did anyone show you anything else?”
“Oh I’ve been revered. The Stoics, the great Samurai warriors of the East.” Death chuckles. “The Victorians idolized me. Those were good times. But that’s all changed. I may be feared in a basic, primitive, unexamined sort of way, but I get no respect whatsoever. Now I’m discussed as an ‘issue.’ I am not an issue. I’m not a medical issue, I’m not a social issue, I’m not a political issue, I’m not any kind of issue. I’m your freaking destiny! Don’t you people realize that?”
“And I work hard. It’s a 24/7 thing. All phenomena may be unborn and undying on one level but here in the relative world I’m up to my rib cage in a vast human population that refuses to give me the time of day. I work my fingers to the bone, so to speak, and get nothing but grief.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“And no one ever looks me straight in the eye anymore.”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
“People used to. It was considered a point of honor … to look at Death squarely, to prepare to meet me, to show the proper respect.”
“We’re afraid to do that.”
“But that was the whole point. Dealing with the fear. Facing it. Preparing for it. The family would gather round, waiting for me to come, quietly, respectfully, waiting and mumbling prayers and, you know, honoring the moment. Now, when people gather, they’re fighting about pulling the plug. What is it with you people and your machines?”
“We’re just trying to stay alive a little longer.”
“See? No respect.” The hood moves slowly back and forth. “It’s a pity really, for your sake, because respect helps to manage fear. If you give something the respect it deserves, the energy changes. It a kind of martial arts-type thing … your posture shifts, you see differently. Haven’t you ever watched a Jackie Chan movie?”
A gull shrieks and it startles me, as if suddenly waking from a dream. I’m reminded of a day last week, sitting in the radiology waiting room at the hospital, thinking it was all a dream – really believing, for a moment, that I was actually dreaming, and then, coming awake and knowing it was not a dream, feeling the cold chrome arm of the chair, smelling the mix of fear and sugary perfume on the woman sitting next to me, hearing the nurse call my name. Her voice sounded like the gull.
“Have you read this statistic, in this paper right here?” Death points to the New York Times lying on the bench between us. “They took a poll. They found that people who call themselves religious want to be kept alive no matter what, and people who aren’t religious think you should pull the plug. Now why is that? You’d think religious people would be ready to meet me and people who have no belief at all would be the ones wanting to hang in there like a stalk of celery.”
“I think they find the idea of a big nothingness kind of comforting. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t mind just fading to black.”
Death snickers. “Frankly, I don’t see much of that. Mostly what I see is people clinging to life whether they’re religious, irreligious, or somewhere in between. No matter what you tell the pollsters, you guys cling.”
“I think people feel that someday pretty soon, they’ll … uh … they’ll be able to… I’m not sure how to put this tactfully …”
“Eliminate me? Is that what you’re trying to say? Eliminate me??”
“Well, they’re working on extending the life span longer and longer and some scientists say the possibility exists we’ll eventually be able to rebuild ourselves indefinitely.”
A sound emerges from the hood that can only be described as a snort.
“Ain’t happening sweetheart.”
“But what about cloning and genetic engineering and … science …?”
Death snorts again. “The most you’ll wind up with is a lot of mutant quasi-life forms running around scaring everyone. Not only that but you’ve got the whole identity thing to deal with. You’ve become very very dependent on this idea of individual identity. It’s going to freak people out when clones and copies and downloaded consciousnesses start splintering that serious sense-of-self thing you got going. It’ll be hell and, in the end, it all comes back to me anyway. Trust me on this one. A hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years – in the end, it all comes back to me. I’m eternal and inevitable. Eternally inevitable.”
“Well if you’re so eternally inevitable what’s your problem?”
“The very question I was just asking myself. And I’ve come to the realization that total domination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Ignore somebody and the fact that they win in the end doesn’t make up for it. You gotta have respect. And I used to have it in spades, so to speak. I used to be big.”
“You are big,” I say, imitating Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, “it’s the pictures that got small.”
Other-worldly laughter spills out of the hood. Death likes my joke. I am emboldened. I ask, “So tell me, what happens after … uh … you?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Oh I know. I just can’t … say. Literally. It can’t be said. Not in any way you would understand. It’s not words, it’s not pictures, it’s not numbers or patterns or any kind of math. It’s not international symbols. There’s no ambiguous graphic inside a circle with a line drawn through it. It’s no communicable thing. Can’t be told. It’s a different kind of data. Sorry.”
I’ve been keeping my head down, not wanting to chance another glimpse inside that hood, and my neck has grown stiff. I stretch my shoulders and lean back against the bench, raising my eyes to the horizon. The sun is very low now, sinking toward the rim of the earth, a big, fat, impossibly golden thing, its thick roundness blurring at the edges where time escapes like some kind of shimmering akashic vapor. The future flickers along the wavering line where the sky meets the water. It looks like I could walk out there and touch it, like I could walk out there and touch tomorrow and the next day. They’ve always been there, in front of me, more and more tomorrows. Now they tremble, a fading mirage.
I don’t want to lose the future. I don’t want to lose this moving through time. I don’t want to lose the next moment, and the next, and the next. A wave of fear slams through me like a sudden stop. It hurts. The mirage blurs. Have I cried out loud?
A breeze comes up. The ocean air is cool against my tears. I find a tissue and blow my nose. This is the moment in the made-for-tv movie where your good friend puts an arm around you, you rest your head against her shoulder or on his chest and it looks like you’re together in some way. That’s such crap. The truth is, no matter how much anyone loves you, you’re absolutely alone in this, with the one major exception of the figure sitting next to me right now, whose arm you do not want around you, upon whose breast you do not want to lie.
A crumbled paper bag blows across the esplanade. We sit staring out at the sea. The gulls curl themselves through the sky. The sun is almost gone. There are clouds bunched above it, reflecting the light in facets that skim off the surface of the water like a stone flung perfectly and flat, skipping and skipping over and over before sinking. How long have I been here? Something is changing, shifting softly, slowing down, becoming still … becoming incredibly quiet.
“What was that you said about respect and fear?” I ask.
Death turns ever so slightly toward me. “Look, you got your two basic types of fear. Fear of the known and fear of the unknown. Fear of the known is a helpful thing, it keeps you from stabbing yourself with a pencil. Fear of the unknown might be justified, but then again, it might be a waste of time. The unknown can turn out to be a walk in the park on a sunny day with someone you love and you find a fifty dollar bill. You don’t know. That’s why it’s un …”
“But what if the unknown turns out to be crawling through broken glass in a big storm with mean people who beat you over the head and take your wallet and leave you for dead.”
“Which brings me to me. What if you die and then it’s really fun?
“Are you saying it’s really fun?”
“No. I’m saying: You. Don’t. Know. And when you don’t know, maybe you should stop for a minute. Stop and ponder. Show some respect. You don’t have to conquer a thing in order to be okay with it. There are other ways to relate. Give it some props. You guys used to know that. You bowed down to everything cause you didn’t know bubkes. Then you learned a couple of things and all of a sudden you’re masters of the freaking universe, and you don’t bow down to anything you didn’t make yourselves. Well, guess what? There are still a couple of things you don’t know, and I’m one of ‘em. And, if I may add without seeming immodest, COMPLETELY UNKNOWABLE.”
“Okay, okay. I get your point.”
Death turns a bit more in my direction.
“All I’m saying is – when a thing is inevitable, when it governs every aspect of the known universe to the degree that you can understand it, when it brings kings to their knees and rich men to their end … what’s not to love?”
“It’s yucky, that’s what not to love. It’s a bunch of yucky stuff. Disease, vomiting, pain, or crashing into something really hard or some kind of terrible tearing apart or bleeding all over everything. It’s awful.”
“That’s biology. That’s not me. We’re stuck in that sucker together. Blood, guts and rotting things come with the package. Not my fault. I’m just part of the whole unfolding process. A very big part, a crucial part, a fundamental part, very very big. But still … a part. And I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that it wouldn’t be nearly so yucky if you guys would let it take its course. You’re so afraid of being helpless and pooping in your pants, you turn the end of life into a marathon of pain and suffering. Newsflash: When you’re dying, you are helpless. Get used to it.”
Death rattles on with a critique of our failings but I’m focused more on the biology revelation. I find it comforting that Death is a part of something that I’m a part of, not a separate thing at all but a part of some larger thing. Death happens and life happens. Inside something else. It makes sense. Up/down, in/out, life/death, decaf and caffeinated. If you have a pair of opposites, there has to be a larger thing within which they sit opposing one another. It’s like physics or something.
I take a deep breath. It’s so quiet. The only sound I hear now is very soft, like whispering, like the water whooshing up and down over the sand. In and out. It’s soothing. I’m thinking I’m getting sleepy and then I realize Death is saying
“Go ahead. Take a look. It won’t be as bad as before. It’s easier if you look at me, rather than my looking at you when you’re all unawares. If I look at you and you’re not ready for it, well, you saw how that goes. That’s the hardest. But if you look at me, if you prepare yourself and just take a little peek, it can be possible … Give it a shot.”
“I think not.”
“You’re going to have to, sooner or later.”
“It’s too hard.”
“Give it a try.”
“I know,” Death says gently, “I know.”
And now the voice is terribly close, mingling with the sound of the surf and the purring that throbs softly from Death’s hood. It’s as if the whole world is breathing slower and slower, in and out, slower and slower. I feel the words within a darkening sphere of blue light on glistening water … Don’t look away …
The purring sound comes nearer and now it’s not purring at all but my blood, my pulse, my living resonance throbbing through my body. I am frightened at the brightness of the inevitable as my mind slides silently beyond itself and I see that Death is within me, has always been there, deep within me since the moment of birth, growing with me toward a still small point where time moves past the tears and pain of bodies, past the sorrows and confusions of mind, past a vast unbroken line of longing where all the hearts and all the minds and all of us are dying as the very life within us merges unto Death. I see that I am made of this merging and all my fear is fear of what I am, fear of the inexpressible totality into which I am woven – in space, in time, in oceans of suffering and joy, in the ancient aching mystery of what we are and why.
I bow down with every particle of my being. The sky darkens. The tide ebbs. The hood hums and purrs….
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”
©2011Patricia J Anderson
First published in Ars Medica, A Journal of Medicine, the Arts, and Humanities
Vol. 8, No.2, Spring 2012