“Well, you’re certainly not alone there, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father cheerfully. “Didn’t your man George Harrison have a song where he sang ‘nothing in this life that I’ve been trying could equal or surpass the art of dying’?”
Yeah, on All Things Must Pass.
“All things that live and feel must pass,” said the skeleton. “The miracle, of course, is that we live as though we and everyone we love are not fated to go the way of all flesh. We consider our own death only when we’re losing a loved one, or are sick ourselves, up against a life-threatening illness, or surrounded by dying people. Or depressed.”
Or standing, for example, in a ravine on the northwestern edge of Vishnivetz, with murderous, drunken haters banging drums and playing brass instruments out of tune.
“Yes,” said the skeleton, “there’s always that. There’s certainly no shortage of that in this blessed world.”
My sister and I once discussed the revelations you had during the days you lay dying, the self-reflection, apologies and regrets you expressed to me the night before you died. I wondered if you would have come to these things sooner, lived your last weeks or months differently, if one of those geniuses had diagnosed your fatal condition earlier, rather than in the ER six days before you died. I thought you likely would have. Your daughter was not so sure, she felt it probably would have waited til that last night, no matter how long you knew for sure you were on the Death Express.
“Well, you know, I wasn’t able to say anything to your sister of any consequence before I died,” said the skeleton.
You didn’t have any time with her alone.
“Not only that. It was just impossibly complicated. I felt I’d let her down, in many of the same ways I let you down, but it seemed she was clinging to the few times I was unequivocally on her side. When I paid the downpayment on her house, when I reassured her at the lowest points of her life. I don’t know, I wasn’t able to sort out my feelings enough to say anything of any consequence to her.”
Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. If you could have done it differently, you would have.
“Hah, the very thing you kept telling me that last night, as I was trying to make you my Father Confessor.”
Look, in our case, although we were adversaries, there was a long, rich history of at least trying to have an honest conversation.
“That’s debatable,” said the skeleton.
There you go. We had decades of debate, often angry and contentious, but a conversation it was.
“An attempted conversation, perhaps,” said the skeleton.
Whatever. We had a history of trying to talk past our differences.
“You did,” said the skeleton. “I was pretty much consistent fending off that shit, as you recall.”
My point is that we had a lot more practice struggling toward real understanding than you and my sister did.
“You don’t get a point,” said the skeleton, “have you forgotten how this works?”
There are times I wish I could forget more.
“Now you’ve said a mouthful,” said the skeleton.
Nothing in this life that I’ve been trying, could equal or surpass the art of dying.
“It’s not a bad thought to keep in mind, if you don’t get too morbid about it, I suppose,” the skeleton moved his lower jaw around in a disquieting way.
What the fuck is that?
“Nothing,” said the skeleton, “just going for a cheap laugh.”
Is it better to know you have a year to live than not to know?
“It’s better to know,” said the skeleton. “We only get so many years to get this shit right. Nothing focuses the mind like a good whiff of your own approaching death. Boswell quoted Samuel Johnson to that effect,’depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. Thus saith Jeeves. I found it to be very true, though I had far less than a fortnight to deal with the certainty of my own demise.”
If you had a year, with the knowledge of your fatal liver cancer whittling away your remaining days, would you have come earlier to the realizations you did just before you died?
“A $64,000 question, Elie, I have no fucking idea. How would I know?”
“A sense of fairness is a precious thing, Elie. I can see that so clearly now. A precious and very rare thing — simply being fair. You live in a world where everything is contested, every inch of moral high ground is viciously fought over. It’s hard to even see the extent to which that operates, while you’re swimming in a sea of it. Everybody wants to be treated fairly, but extending fairness– whooo, that’s one of the hardest human tricks. Reminds me of that great Mose Alison song ‘everybody crying ‘peace on earth’, just as soon as we win this war.'”