I’m looking forward to death
Looking forward to death
Looking forward to death!
– Dead Kennedys
No one doubted the sincerity of a young Jello Biafra as he bellowed and barked the lyrics of “Forward To Death.” We punched the air and sang along, reveling in our nihilistic knack for outraging the normies.
Punk in those days was about turning everything good on its head, and it was hard to imagine something more negative than celebrating death as superior to life (this was before martyrdom-seeking jihadis got in on the act). When you’re in your teens or 20s (full disclosure: I had already crossed over into my 30s, but sure wasn’t acting like it), death is such an abstraction that you might as well be singing about snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.
Forty years later, though, it looks like the still-very-much-alive Jello Biafra might have been adopting an artistic posture rather than expressing actual intent. Turns out the same was true for me.
As a melodromantic (sic) youth, my thoughts routinely turned to suicide; it was my default solution to any tragedy or inconvenience. But like Jello Biafra, I talked a good game but wasn’t prepared to follow through on it.
Oh, I did make a couple of almost ludicrously halfhearted attempts to kill myself, and my lifestyle in those days could be seen as suicide on the installment plan, but while dozens of friends succumbed to substance abuse, violence, accident, or illness, the longer I went on living, the more sense it made to keep doing so.
Eventually, of course, I won’t be up to me. My older set of grandparents lived into their 70s, my younger set into their 80s, and my parents into their 90s. That could mean I have a sporting chance of making it past 100, but my youthful (and middle-aged) excesses might argue otherwise.
Having reached my early 70s and creeping up on my mid-70s, that should give me somewhere between 0 and 30 years to look forward to. I can keep whistling past the graveyard under the assumption that it’ll be the upper figure, but even if it is, 30 years is not what it used to be (any older person will tell you that time goes by far faster than it did when you were young).
So I’d better get cracking then, right? Get everything done while I still can! But what exactly is “everything” supposed to mean?
I want to enjoy my remaining years, of course. But how? My interest in attending all-night raves has diminished and I have definitely decided against taking up skydiving. Study and travel are two things that appeal to me, and though it’s not always enjoyable in the conventional sense, my greatest satisfaction comes from doing productive work.
I’ve got a list of projects, mostly involving writing, storytelling, or music, that would fill the next ten or twenty years even if I worked something like 24/7. That’s not going to happen. I don’t want to come right out and call myself lazy, but let’s just say my work habits could use some improvement. It’s as true now as when I was a teenager.
There are books – at least two or three of them – that I feel I need to finish writing, and dozens of articles and short stories. Soon, if not already, I’ll have to accept that some of them will never come to be. Then I’ll have to begin carefully picking which of them should have priority.
How much does it ultimately matter? Of all the billions of words that have poured out of all the pens, typewriters, and mouths since the beginning of time, how many are there that the world couldn’t do without? Yet even non-essential words can greatly enhance the quality of our lives. If everyone had thought, “Oh, what does it matter,” none of them would have ever come into being.
No matter how infinitesimal a role my story might play, I still have to try to tell it. I’d feel like a leech and a parasite if I didn’t. I spent much of my life being, in my father’s unfiltered terminology, a bum. I started making up for it in mid-life, but the world has been exceptionally good to me, and I’m not sure I’ve contributed nearly enough in return.
The last couple of decades have marked the first time I truly enjoyed life. I’ve written a couple of books and started two others, traveled to a couple dozen countries, acquired at least the rudiments at least the rudiments of several new languages, and learned more than I did in all my previous years of work and study combined. But there’s always more, so much more.
I’d like to think I’ve reached a happy equilibrium, that I could go on like this forever, but we know it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes long ago, when I was so busy I barely had time to think, I’d dream of a day when I’d be old, and could kick back and catch up on all the movies and TV shows and books I’d missed out on. Now that I actually am old, I’m like, “Who has time for that? Maybe when I’m really old, like in my 90s.” But who am I kidding? Provided I’m still compos mentis, I’ll almost surely be doing the same things in my 90s that I am today, with even greater urgency.
The off chance that something I write or say might be of lasting importance to the world that comes after me feels like sufficient justification for my creative work, but what about the several hours a day I to devote to practicing and studying eight – no, I guess at last count it was nine – different languages? I’ll be lucky if I ever become fluent in any of them, and some of them are from countries I’ll almost certainly never visit again.
It seems both futile and ridiculous if I dwell on it, so I don’t. A guy could have a worse hobby, at any rate. Besides, when I was less than half this age, I had similar thoughts about my university studies. What if, in the middle of filling my head with all this knowledge, I should get run over by a truck? Would everything I’d so painstakingly learned disappear in a puff of anticlimactic smoke?
To comfort myself, I developed a theory that I still cling to today. It’s simple Einsteinian physics: if matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and, as I’d observed countless times during my years in the mountains, all physical things were recycled into the earth, didn’t it stand to reason that something similar happened with energy, aka the soul, the mind, the life force, whatever you want to call it?
A lifetime of learning and experience would not be lost then, but merely transferred to wherever it might be useful. My capacity for memorizing Latin verbs might be picked up by one child, my knack for writing Chinese characters by a budding diplomat, my philosophical musings and political insights absorbed by a future President or Congress.
Farfetched? Maybe, but it’s got more scientific underpinning than the heaven and nirvana stories peddled by the world’s religions. I promise that if I can find any way of communicating from beyond the grave, I’ll let you know if my idea turned out to be true, or, alternatively, if the morbid Christian and Muslim fanatics had it right and I’m being spitroasted in hell.
One thing I don’t want is to be a nuisance to whoever has to tidy up my affairs after I’m gone. I’ve been downsizing, finding new homes for the treasures and artifacts I’ve accumulated. One thing I’ve learned from helping clear out the homes of others who’ve died is that about 90% of those priceless keepsakes are of utterly no use or value to anyone else.
A friend of mine’s mother left behind 14 large boxes of photographs, documenting 90 years of courtships, marriages, births, deaths, and the minutiae of life spanning most of the 20th century. Fascinating to leaf through, but no one, not family, friends, historians, anybody, would take them. Into the dumpster they had to go, along with almost everything else she had owned.
I don’t want to stick anyone with the task of sorting through my junk, so I’ve arranged to have my writing and photos digitized and stored in cyberspace for anyone who might be interested. The physical copies will go to a university library upstate. In the unlikely event that the library burns down AND someone or something shuts down the internet, it’s possible that my work will be lost to posterity, but if both of those things happen, you’ll have more pressing issues to contend with than keeping up with the legacy of Lawrence Livermore.
Ideally I’d like to leave this world as gracefully as my mother did. Three days before her 97th birthday, she called me, and we had a long conversation about my upcoming visit. Then she went to church with her friends, and on her way home, fell asleep in the back seat. Unable to wake her up, they took her to the hospital.
She opened her eyes again later that night, just long enough to tell my brothers to go home and stop making such a fuss over her. She told them to come back in the morning, and soon after they left, she went back to sleep, this time for good.
I always stayed with her when I came to California; this would be my first time arriving to an empty house. On the nightstand next to my bed I saw her Bible, and realizing that I’d need to pick some readings and hymns for her funeral. I picked it up and started leafing through it. Inside was piece of paper on which she’d written out exactly which readings and hymns she wanted.
Had she known she was about to die? She hadn’t been ill; in fact her doctor had told her only a weeks before that she had no significant health problems at all. But then why write out that list and put it in a place where I was sure to find it? I’d like to assume she wanted to make things as easy as possible on me.
I myself don’t have any preferred songs or readings. I’ve already specified that if anyone wants to have a funeral service for me, that’s their business and none of my own, so they can do whatever they want. It’s not like I’m going to be there to complain about it. My Aunt Olivia used to say, “When I go, don’t you dare waste money on some fancy funeral. Just lean me up against a lamppost out back and put a sign around my neck that says ‘Please take away this old rubbish.’”
She wound up getting not one but two funerals, but I think she would have been gratified that nearly all the money was spent on booze for the celebrants, and/or mourners. My mom, too, didn’t entirely get her way; though I used all the hymns she’d specified, my brothers and I threw in a guitar-strumming version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” that had the congregation rocking and clapping in their pews.
To this day I feel slightly guilty for deviating from her funeral program, and I expect that if she and I meet in the afterlife, I will hear about my transgression. But I’ll answer that funerals are for the living, not the dead, and hopefully she’ll see my point.
Despite the title of this piece, I’m not actively looking forward to death, but I’m not trying to run away from it, either. When nearly every day brings news of people your age or younger dying, you don’t need a global pandemic to remind you that the clock is ticking.
But there’s no hurry. If nothing else, I’m vain enough to not want to shuffle off as one more statistic in a mass extinction event. I’d much rather pass away on a slow news day, when everyone can concentrate their attention on me, even if I won’t be there to enjoy it.
But now I’m just being silly. The surest way – some might say the only way – to have a death that matters is to live a life that matters. I’m still working on that, and it may take a while.