“Death ain’t the worst thing,” said the old man in a hospital gown, connected by tubes to an oxygen tank on the next chair. I sat across from him in one of the anterooms of the cardiology department. His face was red and Audenesque, his eyes watery as though he’d been walking into the wind. He spoke in a broad Texas drawl, one I suspect he can turn on and off at will. Here, so close to death and things even worse, he turned it way up. He’d been in oil but looked like a cowboy, like Tector Gorch as played by Ben Johnson in The Wild Bunch.
I felt like an apprentice in this shop, new to the protocols and etiquette of worrisome diagnoses. I’ve always known the arrogant complacency of those enjoying undeservedly good health. Once in a study hall in seventh or eighth grade, the knowledge of my mortality was revealed to me. That sounds a little portentous, but one moment, I knew nothing; the next, a little door opened and has never again been closed. Before, I dwelled in prelapsarian innocence; after, every thought was shadowed, though I’ve never lingered on the morbidly melodramatic. I was rereading Tom Disch’s About the Size of It (2007) and found a phrase in “The Dot on the i” that perfectly mingles dread and comfort: “a democracy of dust.” Dread, because it means nullity without appeal. Comfort, because we’re all in it together. No one gets an exemption in this draft. Disch enlisted voluntarily on Independence Day 2008. Not unexpectedly, Samuel Johnson is our reliable guide. He echoes Disch in The Rambler #48:
"Disease generally begins that equality which death completes; the distinctions which set one man so much above another are very little perceived in the gloom of a sick chamber, where it will be vain to expect entertainment from the gay, or instruction from the wise; where all human glory is obliterated, the wit is clouded, the reasoner perplexed, and the hero subdued; where the highest and brightest of mortal beings finds nothing left him but the consciousness of innocence."