When I was a kid, Good Friday meant an annual consideration of death, a full day to imagine what it means to be dead, 24 to 48 hours to re-live a famous death that lasted fewer than 72 hours. It took me decades and degrees in literature to better figure the metaphor and its metaphysical ramifications, not to mention its relationship to the Buddhist nirvana and the Hindu re-incarnation. From a spiritual standpoint, death is not permanent. In the science of memory, it’s only as permanent as remembering. Maybe that’s why people of Christian faith perennially observe death and “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?”, and re-birth.
The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
—Death in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief
Death has rarely touched my life directly. Perhaps that is somewhat a phenomenon, as I am in middle age. Perhaps it’s a middle age crisis that I am so woefully underprepared for this COVID moment. I read dark books; I watch post-apocalyptic shows and movies where death is all around. For the love of all that is wholly desperate, I even wrote a novel in which the narrator loses everyone close to her. Is it masochism that leads me to voluntarily experience these things? Morbid curiosity? Training for the inevitable? Whatever it is, I know nothing will prepare me for each time someone in my life dies. Or what the sky will be saying when Death comes for me.
Even before the pandemic, the topic of death was a frequent visitor to my mind. What would life be like, for example, without my wife? Would I remember her voice? Could I cope with the guilt of not remembering the many different laughs she has?
Now I try like hell to avoid catching my death, isolating and reaching out, checking in on my folks several times a week to make sure they are not risking getting caught. Read the headlines these days and death seems even more imminent, if that’s possible. Yet I don’t know how I’ll experience demise up close, especially when it is “untimely”—a stupid term, as all death seems to have terrible timing. Goddammit! Don’t you know I’m trying to live?
There have been what I guess could be called “timely” deaths in my family. In my teens, I touched foreheads at the home bedside of the patriarch, my legendary grandpa, a day or two before he gave up the ghost. In my twenties, I fed hospital applesauce to my mute grandmother, a complicated woman whose complexities were mostly unknown to me until well after she passed a couple days later. In 2010, after a late night in a Busan singing room celebrating Nic’s birthday, I delivered the sobering news of her grandmother, a woman whose passing seemed untimely because we only met once and she seemed to like me and really love my homemade guacamole.
As of today, death would have touched me even less if it weren’t for social media: people I knew ten, twenty, twenty-five years ago are now dead and, with few exceptions, I would know nothing about those high school classmates’ departures if it weren’t for the internet.
I went to a high school with a young woman who, seven years after we went to the Sadie Hawkins dance together, was found strangled in a DC park; a soccer star who got hit by a car; a young lady who lived down the street and was murdered in the front of the high school; a swimming star who overdosed.
I am, in all truthfulness, attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me…Please trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful…just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
—Death in Zusak’s The Book Thief
In my twenties I sometimes drank like I was immune to death; that alone probably aborted several spiritual re-births. But when you think you’re a barstool poet-philosopher who cannot be touched by death (who thinks that all the dead binge-drinking brain cells will come back to life; who thinks that brain-dead hangover hours will somehow be given back), you eagerly accept your first bartending job and all the free poison you could want. You got that job because a drinking buddy of yours worked at a bar with a fella who had recently died. Maybe it seemed normal that someone fifteen years older than you could die; it was certainly timely for your privileged 21-year-old self. However, many years after those days of immortality when you find out that a different bartender friend several years your junior drank herself to death, life and its maintenance started to take a different shape. Your ritualistic avoidance masked as self-reward was clearly selfish.
Pandemics have a way of reminding you that you have to now live long enough to capture as much as you can of your own voice in writing. Pandemics get you thinking about posterity, have you getting video of your wife laughing all those ways she does as you regale each other with your shared memories.