Contemplating Death and the Fragility of Life

This post is part of the Overcoming Anxiety series.

The ancient Stoics believed that to live one’s life to the fullest, to truly appreciate those you love and your own life, contemplating death was necessary

One evening while driving home, when I was sixteen years old, a large oak tree caught my eye in the distance off 727 about a half mile out of Phenix from Red House way. Almost instinctively upon seeing the tree, my foot pressed the accelerator and the car veered across the white line into the dust and grass, angling the driver’s side of the car into the solid gray trunk of the oak and running straight into it, head on, and the aftermath that ensued. The sirens howling. The wreckage.

Physically, none of these actions took place. Mentally they all occurred in succession.

I never would have done it. I knew that much. But I thought about it. Even years later, whenever I would pass the large oak on the side of the road, I would glance at it and be transported back to this day of passing contemplation.

CONTEMPLATING DEATH

It wasn’t a suicidal thought. At the time, I thought maybe it was, and I asked myself why did this thought arise within me. Why did I visualize bad things happening to me? Why did I visualize losing the ones I love?

“Do you ever have these thoughts,” I wanted to ask one of my friends back then, but I never did.

***

The ancient Stoics believed that to live one’s life to the fullest, to truly appreciate those you love and your own life, contemplating death was necessary. Said Seneca on the shortness of life,

“You live as if you were destined to live forever. No thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.” [1]

Perhaps this, the contemplation of death and frailty of life, has always been set to automatic pilot for me. Better now than when it’s too late, when I am unable to reverse course and change direction.

***

I’ve never felt understood. I’ve always felt alone.

Even in a sea of friends at a party as a teenager I used to feel as if I was stranded on an island with only myself, my thoughts. From The Proud Highway, by Hunter S. Thompson:

“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.”

I wanted to think when everyone else wanted to drink. I wanted to be in love when everyone else wanted to have sex. At least that’s how it seemed. Maybe they were all thinking the same things as me. Maybe we were all so alone, together, not knowing it, and the way not to feel so alone was to gather around with red cups and pretend otherwise.

Writes Seneca,

“We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases.” [2]

By night’s end, I always found myself in the same place.

Back in Phenix at the basketball court across the street from my house. One o’clock a.m. Pitch black dark of the night. Alone. Slight chill in the air. Perfect weather for a hoodie. Just me and the stars. The universe.

No matter where you are, you still see the same sky. Were you looking up at the stars with me then?

Countless times I fell asleep there on the cold blacktop, on my back just staring up at the stars, being alone, together, with the universe.

***

“You put up this wall,” she said to me. “I can’t get through.”

I was sitting by myself on the back porch at the cabin where my band Anti-Lou practiced.

“What is this?”

She mimicked a hand formation I did in which I stretched my fingers across my face.

“I don’t know.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.”

***

I never answered save for “I don’t know,” because I didn’t know.

***

Sometimes the answer would try to reveal itself, but always in the form of a question: “Is this all there is? This can’t be all there is.”

CONTEMPLATING THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE

If anything, our actions, words, and thoughts, as a culture, demonstrate how terrified we are of death.

We shoe away death as an inconvenient truth until it’s forced on us.

We push away the thoughts because they create a level of uncomfortableness within us we think we can’t bear. Even those who hold great faith in their religion let the thought of death paralyze them with fear.

We’ve put hope in beating death by prolonging it. We won’t beat death.

***

Sometimes I think about my dad dying in a hospital bed at Duke University.

Of course he wanted to beat leukemia, not just for him, but for his family.

“I would like to go home and die.”

I’ve always wondered if he thought that, but never verbalized it.

“I just want to see my dog and try to eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream, even if the look and smell of it makes me want to puke. Let’s go home.”

My dad couldn’t foresee the future, and if anything, the future seemed to contradict what would happen only a few days later.

He had just received word that his brother Rodney, who shares his birthday of October 26 but was born seven years later than he, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.

The stars in the universe had aligned.

And then the sky came crashing down in the middle of the night on May 21, 2009.

***

I don’t want to be embalmed and preserved underground until time breaks the seal and enters. I don’t want an overpriced casket marketed to my loved ones after my death in a time of vulnerability, nor my body placed in a suit and tie I’d never choose to wear except when mandatory. I don’t want someone to look down at my body on family night and say how good of a job the funeral home did with the cosmetics.

“He looks so good. They did such a good job.”

My dad hated real ties. He had this blue clip-on tie he always wore when he had to go somewhere important that he was buried wearing. His camouflage UVA hat sat on his bald head. Even with the embalming chemicals, you could still smell the cancer.

“I would advise against an open casket for the funeral,” the funeral director said to my mom prior to the viewing at family night. “Tonight is okay, but the bruising is starting to show and there isn’t much we can do that we haven’t already done.”

***

Keep my death simple. Cremate me. Take my ashes to the basketball court across the street from my childhood home in Phenix and sprinkle me about on the proper side of the court which faces the road leading up the pool hill. Let my ashes hit the ground and be one with the memories of my childhood.

It may sound silly to some, but it’s not silly to me. The court has always been my sanctuary. It was the church where I went to pray, my house of God to the open air. I sat here on the hillside the night I learned my friend was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I stood here the day my dad left this world and I slammed the ball into the rim until my fingernails split and leaked blood, until my wrists were bruised and purple and ached so I could feel pain. I wanted to feel physical pain.

My request is a simple tombstone or headstone. You can choose to leave flowers or keep up the area, or not. I’ve always found it difficult to keep my face shaved in a timely manner, hence the beard, so I understand.

I am not at this grave. It is just a marker. I am within you, the person you knew and loved. Think of me on a walk sometimes. Long walks are good. They slow the mind.

***

If I think deeply on this subject, it is not so much that I was contemplating death that evening as a sixteen year old boy driving home in my car, my eyes straying to find the large oak tree in the distance on my right. I was contemplating life’s fragility, my own.

Thinking about death and dying does not equate to wishing death upon yourself.

When you place life and death into perspective, it answers the questions we ultimately seek.

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose, my mission?
  • Who are the people I truly hold dear and do they know and do I act like it?

***

When I was in kindergarten I once got in trouble during recess. For what, I can’t remember, though I do, in what I recall, know the merry go round, of which Phenix Elementary had perhaps the most terrifyingly fast merry go round on the east coast, was involved. My teacher made me stand on the dashed white line as punishment. I remember staring down at the white rubber toes of my Chuck Taylors contemplating death.

I had gotten into minor trouble and somehow this led me, through humiliation I can only ascertain, to think of death.

The impetus had likely been the death of the lady next door, my elderly friend, who, if I remember correctly, died on my fifth birthday, October 19, 1986. Until that time, I had not known death.

Would anyone care? Would life move on? Who would miss me? Would the little girl who I liked in my class, who was running around in the field as I stood there on the dashed white line, come to my funeral?

***

When I was fifteen years old, a girl I had been infatuated with all summer and was now seeing, lost her dad to cancer. After the funeral, she stood along the sidewalk with her friends at the Catholic church in Farmville, Virginia. I was with my mom who had driven me to the service. I passed by the girl and gently put up my right hand to wave and make eye contact. Later I would hear one of her friends say of the exchange, “I can’t believe he didn’t even hug her.”

I was oblivious to the magnitude of what she was going through at the time. I was shy and didn’t hug her because I was with my mom and too embarrassed. It seems silly, and is, but I was fifteen.

A few days later I went to her house. Before leaving, my dad stopped me in the hallway.

“You’re not wearing that shirt,” my dad said.

It was a Green Day shirt that said on the back “Eat Your Parents.”

“It’s just a shirt,” I said. “It doesn’t really mean anything.”

“It’s insensitive,” he said. “She just lost her dad.”

Even then it didn’t fully register. No one knows what it’s like to lose a parent until it happens to them. Then they get it.

***

When my own dad died over a decade later, the girl sent me a message telling me how sorry she was that I lost my dad. I can’t remember how I replied, other than it was probably longwinded and to say, “Thank you, and I am sorry about your dad too. I had no idea what you went through then. I’m so sorry.”

I’ve never said this to her, but I’ve always wanted to tell her I wish I had hugged her that day in 1997. I never knew how much a hug could bring healing until I needed one that Thursday in 2009.

***

“Let your every action, word, and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment,” said Marcus Aurelius in Meditations.

Contemplating the frailty of life and trying to touch the heartache you would feel should the fragile life cease, brings into focus that which is important.[3] Why are we so scared to touch the pain, to bring it all into focus?

***

The large oak tree has since been cut down. Somehow, most of the memory, the preciseness of it, remains intact.

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###

Notes

Most of this was originally written on October 26, 2016, on what would have been my dad’s 67th birthday.

[1] Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

[2] “What Is Important in Life?” Traditional Stoicism, 20 May 2016, www.traditionalstoicism.com/2016/03/20/what-is-important-in-life-day-7

[3] Arthur C. Brooks. “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.” New York Times, 09 Jan. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/opinion/sunday/to-be-happier-start-thinking-more-about-your-death.html?_r=0

Photo: Dyogi. “Oak Tree on a Country Road.” Licensed under CC-BY-2.0

12 Comments

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  1. Have to admit having some of the same thoughts over time. Finally came to the conclusion that contemplating death helps deal with death of loved ones when the time comes, somewhat. Also, totally agree on being dressed up and put on display after we die is so morbid. Also so hard on the family to stand by a casket and have people parade by trying to comfort you, very exhausting. Well written!

    1. I agree. It takes time before you can confront it, but once you’re ready, really thinking about death and its relationship to life, and being able to reach out and touch it without a sense of terror or despair, is freeing.

  2. Great read dude. Yeah man, I can relate somewhat to what was written. The older we get, the more life is put into perspective, with the fact of “what if” and death. It’s funny, my dad, which is 75, was telling me, “you know John William, when you’re young you don’t think about getting old. Then one day you wake up and your old.” That talk was mostly about regret and not living for what’s really important in a mans/father’s life. Life is perplexing; we have control of our life, but we are not in control.

    Btw: have or can you answer the questions of life and purpose with confidence and assurance? Not being condescending, just in know many that walk through life and it’s truly not discovered.

    1. Your dad is a wise man. The dichotomy of control is an interesting concept: (1) what we can control, (2) what we can somewhat control, (3) and what is entirely out of our hands (no control). I think many, myself included, find ourselves trying to control #2 and #3 while neglecting #1. By asking ourself what constitutes #1, we can lead more fulfilling and soul satisfying lives and nurturing our important relationships, such as family, faith, and community.

      Can I clearly answer what is my purpose with 100% confidence? No. But I think it involves my relationship with the universe and listening when it speaks, and it speaks often.

      Also, as someone who once worked in construction to another familiar with the trade, you’ll appreciate this I think: http://www.everystudent.com/wires/greatest.html

  3. This is written the way I think, and feel I can’t verbalize for fear of people not understanding and thinking I’m crazy.
    Thank you for this.

    1. You’re most welcome. I completely understand the feeling you describe. As I was writing this, I could sense someone reading it once it went live, thinking, “I hope he’s okay.” I am definitely okay. More than okay. Thank you for reading and for sharing your feelings too.

  4. Thoroughly engaging and so real. The way you capture life and it’s complexity and heartache and truth, well it’s astounding, really. Thanks.

    1. Much appreciated Lori. I do what I can, and figure if I fail, there’s always next time.

      By the way, get that blog up and running 🙂 Blank space to be filled. Let loose.

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