Author's Note: When I wrote this, I was not thinking of the controversy stirred up by Brittany Maynard's decision to end her life on November 1st, ending her struggle with a terminal cancer diagnosis on, as she understands it, her own terms. While this piece does not speak to her situation or the ethical questions involved, it does speak in a different key to a question that, ultimately, confronts all of us.
I couldn't sleep the other night. Went downstairs with a book that I wasn't enjoying, or at least a book I was experiencing in a different way, not an ordinary way. Death With Interruptions, by José Saramago, begins by announcing that "the following day, no one died" (1). Death seemed to have vanished, without warning, for the first time in recorded history. But it wasn't so simple (it never is): the people who were not dead were still alive but at the point of death, just to one side of the irreversible plunge into a state of putrefaction.
This created problems... in particular for the church, or at least it was first in line to object: without death, the church reasoned, there would be no resurrection, and without the resurrection, there would be no church. Religions in general registered the news with alarm. So also did the philosophers, but they were perhaps more sanguine in their assessments.
Those who tended nursing homes and hospitals were aghast. As the nearly but not quite ever dead continued to pile up, spilling out into the corridors, where, they asked, would they be put, where might they be housed? Visions of entire metropolises built for the exclusive use of dead, or not quite dead, definitely not living, began to form in their minds. Only the insurance industry seemed to know how to make a profit from this turn of affairs.
In his novel, No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy has one of the characters, an old man, remark, "There isn't much good you can say about getting old. But maybe one."
"What's that?" asks Sheriff Bell.
"It don't last long," he answered (author's paraphrase, 281).
It don't last long unless the quiet relief of death somehow vanishes, leaving the almost dead, definitely not fully living, suspended here, in this place for the living.
In Saramago's story, it turns out that, just over an invisible border, in another country, death operates as usual. The subsequent chapter turns to a poor family with a very sick old grandfather and a near-to-death but not dead son. The grandfather can still speak and demands to be taken by cart and mule to a country where he can die. And to take the grandson, who cannot speak, with him . . . also to die.
Family, mother of the boy, resist but finally relent. They do what they would not do but, under the circumstances, choose to do.
Most poignant, perhaps, is the mother's struggle. She won't. Or she can't. Or it violates everything in her. Like asking a god of life to become a god of death.
She goes, finally, taking her son. They place the old man and the boy in the cart.
Then a peculiar scene: Getting closer to the border, they can no longer use the cart, the terrain becoming difficult, so they decide to lift the old man onto the mule.
But they can't. Strangely, his thin, gaunt frame, seems too heavy. They can't lift him. But then, according to the narrator, something "extraordinary happened, a kind of miracle, a prodigy, a marvel. As if for a moment the law of gravity . . . had begun to work in reverse, pushing up not down. . ." (37). Mysteriously, the grandfather levitates up and into his son-in-law's open arms, where he rests on the forepart of the animal, his son-in-law holding the old man from behind.
The mother carries the boy.
It was strange. And it was sad. A fresh sorrow, tears and final irretrievable kisses, small gestures of affection.
Like the way they finally chose to put the grandson in the grave they had dug. At first they put the little boy's now lifeless body beside the grandfather. But it didn't look right. It felt wrong. The son-in-law stepped down into the grave, picked up the boy's limp body, laid it atop the grandfather, on his chest. He wrapped the old man's arms around the boy. And so they were buried.
It reminds me of an ancient couple discovered by archaeologists, their skeletal remains buried together. Pictures showed them, a husband and wife, still holding one another, their bony hands clasped together. Succumbing to death, relieved perhaps to not defile life by a living that is more dead than alive, but in some way not surrendered to death. A quiet embrace, bones inter-locked, holding a memory of love as it once was lived.
I go back upstairs, ready to sleep. Our 4-year-old son has scrambled into our bed and is lying alongside his mother.
I hear him breathing. . . .