The husband of a friend goes to the hospital for some heart work next week. We – my friend, her husband and I – are the same age. She and I forgo the sentimental rubbish, the dishonest palliatives, and joke about illness and death, and agree that suffering seems a grimmer prospect than extinction, though neither of us awaits it with mirth. She is, rightly, scared.
I began thinking of useful observations regarding mortality (so many are useless) that I had read of late. The older one gets, the more extravagantly such observations seem to proliferate. This one comes from an interview Oliver Sacks, the psychiatrist, neurologist and author, gave the Dutch journalist Wim Kayzer. It was included in A Glorious Accident, published in 1997:
“When my mother died of a heart attack, I’m afraid my immediate thought was: Fucking plumbing. I got annoyed at the notion of a blocked artery putting an end to human existence. It seemed outrageous. I have many patients in their nineties, sometimes in their hundreds, many of them religious, who sometimes say: `My life has been full. Lord, I’m ready. Nunc dimittis.’ I can’t quite imagine that. I’m not ready yet, though I don’t know what would happen to me if I became ill. This poor friend of mine – who is sort of a twin, we were born on the same day – was in the middle of his best work ever, he was a geneticist. He got cancer of the stomach, and that was it.
“I don’t know how reconciled he was. He seemed deeply sad all the way through, although I think there was also a sort of resignation. The sort of death I like the idea of most is Pavlov’s. Pavlov used to have these sudden tremendous bursts, these hurricanes of energy and creativity, when he would get the whole lab going. Everyone was full of creative excitement and the world seemed to be created anew for him and for them when it happened. When he was very ill and tossing and turning in a final pneumonia delirium, his face suddenly changed and he cried, `To work!’ with this wonderful creative look. Then he fell back dead.”
In A Stroll with William James, which I remember staying up all night to read when it was first published, the way some read mystery novels, Jacques Barzun writes:
“James’s heroism, then, was both of the public and the quotidian kind, which is not spectacular, barely describable, except perhaps in the admirable words of William’s sister Alice: `the only thing which survives is the resistance we bring to life and not the strain life brings to us.’ In William, the last record of fortitude is the remark of his final days that his death `had come to seem a very trifling incident.’”
Given our innate egotism, the courage to accept the inevitability of death – one’s own and others’ – seems super-human, even inhuman. But we have the testimony of many to suggest it’s possible. Both Sacks and Barzun conclude that the stance one assumes toward dying seems inextricably meshed with one’s manner of living. Passion, a consuming focus of meaning and interest – love and work being the obvious candidates – appears to be essential. Courage, I suspect, doesn’t exist in an emotional vacuum but is necessarily linked to a nimbus of other qualities in our character. Later in his interview, Sacks says:
“Sometimes in periods of severe depression, people appear to me to be automata. I can no longer imagine intention or vitality or autonomy. Similarly, in this mood, if I look at poetry, I see a sort of mosaic of words, but no meaning. The poem doesn’t let me in, because I don’t let it in. Even at our most cognitive and intellectual we have to be informed by passion, by all sorts of passion, whether a personal passion or the Einfühlung of which Einstein speaks. Basically I think we all need to be zoologists. After all, we are all forms of life.”
In 1971, W.H. Auden dedicated a poem to Oliver Sacks. Here’s the final stanza of “Talking to Myself,” addressed by the speaker to his body:
“Time, we both know, will decay You, and already
I’m scared of our divorce: I’ve seen some horrid ones.
Remember: when Le Bon Dieu says to You Leave him!,
please, please, for His sake and mine, pay no attention
to my piteous Don’ts, but bugger off quickly.”