When you watch someone die, you cannot but be confronted with the reality of death and its ever looming presence in your own life. I am puzzled by questions: why? what for? and what am I doing here? I know these are not original questions—they have been posed and answers have been offered ever since homo sapiens noticed that everyone died sooner or later—and I accept that I have no answers. That does not protect me, however, from contemplating the wonder and the tragedy of human existence, especially my own.
As someone once said, “You’re born, then you get a job, and then you die.” The bitter reality is that this is true. We enter and leave the world gasping for breath, and, in between we strive and struggle to make a go of things: to be a part of a social group, to acquire goods, to feed, clothe and house ourselves, and we long to love and to be loved. And then it’s all over. All the other creatures are so fortunate: they don’t know that they are going to die, they just go about the business of living their brief lives.
As I watch my friend, who is dying at home, sinking slowly into oblivion, I contemplate what this will be like for me and for the people that I know. As a youth, and in middle age, death seemed remote, impossible. The Ash Wednesday mantra Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris (Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return) didn’t mean much to a ten-year old. Though not a believer any more, at the age of eighty I am keenly aware of the truth of that saying.
Life takes up a brief span of time between birth and death. What shall we do during that time? Again, I don’t know. I only know that my brain demands that I continue to learn and to experience as rich an intellectual and emotional life as possible. When that brain ceases to function is all the learning and experiencing for naught? Probably. The people who know me will undoubtedly remember for a while, and the possessions that I have lovingly collected will be distributed or thrown away. I will not have left much of a legacy, only a few things here and there, some good, some bad, and people may say, “Remember that guy who …. “
I don’t know what I’ve done so far or what I will do in the time I have left. I think I should do something to leave the world a tiny bit better than it was when I arrived here. Sometimes, given the forces that work against this, it hardly seems worth the effort. Meanwhile, time passes. Inexorably.