Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Full of Sound and Fury and Signifying Nothing...

I have read that it is impossible to dream one's own death.  Because we have nothing to compare it to, no reference.  We dream that we fall off a tall building and awake suddenly as we plummet to the earth.  Why?  Because the brain has no conception of what might happen when we hit the ground.  I know I certainly can't envision it, get my mind around it.

Of course, the religious folk have all sorts of fancy and euphoric pictures of such a thing.  I envy them on one hand and scoff on the other.  I have actually heard sermons, back in my days as a drug and alcohol counselor with the nefarious Salvation Army, about sitting on clouds, listening to harps, strolling down streets of gold, playing Scrabble with Jesus, whatever.  Of course, those people are biblical literalists.  Mind-boggling as that may seem.

In any event, I have a couple of close friends at the moment dealing with the painful and inevitable death of their parents.  One is literally sitting beside his mother on her deathbed and the other is navigating the red tape of trying to get his mom in a nursing home.  I can't imagine the weight either of them is carrying.  The best I can do is offer moral support.  It seems hardly enough.

My own mother died quickly and violently in a boat accident twenty three years ago.  I was spared her decline.  At the same time, not being prepared for something so tragic, it took me nearly ten years to adjust to the circumstances of her death.  Ten long, self-destructive years.

About a year ago I read an article on Woody Allen in GQ or Time or one of those magazines.  In it, Allen said he worked not to create art, not to try and best his last film, not to make another brilliant film, but rather to keep his mind occupied so that he wouldn't dwell on the fact that he is "hurtling toward the void."  He said, "If any of us knew how quickly and inevitably we were all charging toward nothingness, we would all be too frightened to even get out of bed everyday."  Wow.

Allen is an avowed atheist.  I can certainly understand his overwhelming fear.  Plus he's in his seventies and knows that time is not on his side.  That interview has stuck with me.  There are much smarter people than myself that have pondered the mysteries of death.  Anything I might add to the subject would be sophomoric at best.  Nonetheless, any thinking person has to muse on it now and again.  It's natural to do so, I think.  It separates us from the beasts, as Karl Rogers wrote, this musing over our demise.  Hemingway was obsessed with it in his own way.  So was Faulkner.  Hemingway all but predicted his own suicide, in fact.  He wrote of living quickly and boldly as a lion in the wild, dying young and violently in the midst of natural selection, having lived a free and eventful life, no regrets, rather than dying old and passive as a lion captured and pacing in a cage in a zoo.

Teddy Roosevelt spoke of striving to be "the man in the arena," demanding every ounce of excitement life could offer, striving to do great things, even impossible things, rather than living in the shadows of the great, the ambitious, and dying without accomplishment or challenge.

It's easy to write or speak of such a thing.  But I would think the tune changes as the inevitable end approaches.  Shakespeare calls death, "the great, undiscovered country."  That's as good a description as I can think of.  He wrote of death eloquently and reverentially, more so than anyone I can think of, in fact.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The last line, especially, I find haunting.  "Signifying nothing."  Puts things in perspective, alarmingly so, in fact.  Is that why I write?  To try and counter that truism?  I don't know.  To leave a legacy beyond simple memory?  Is this the basis of procreation itself?  The instinct, paternal and maternal, to leave something of ourselves?  I don't know.  As I said, a lot smarter people than I have wrestled this demon.

Years ago I was driving from New York City to Florida for a gig.  I used to work in Florida a lot back in those days and the drive was not a new one.  In South Carolina, late at night, I crested a small hill and was horrified to see a car still spinning from a terrible crash that had obviously happened only moments before.  I was the first on the scene.  One car was on its back, the wheels still spinning.  The other finally came to a rest some fifty yards off in a field.  It was a moonless, pitch black night and I pulled my car up in such a manner so that the headlights shone on the crumpled car in the field.  The mind works unbelievable fast at times like this.  I remember sitting in the car for just a split second before getting out to see if I could help.  In that split second I calmly thought of what my reaction was going to be if I saw a dead body.  Odd thought, but there you have it.  I ran to the crushed car in the field first.  No one was in it.  I looked around and saw a lump off in the distance.  I knew it was a person.  I trotted over there and, sure enough, the guy was dead.  His eyes were open, staring, clearly gone.  I couldn't see anyone else.  So I ran to the car that was on its back. That guy was still in the car and hurt but alive.  This was before cell phones, remember, so I couldn't just call 911.  Fortunately, a trucker with a CB was pulling over at about the same time and he had already radioed the incident in.  We simply had to wait.  While doing so, I wandered back to the dead guy in the field.  I looked at him for a long time.  A long time.  Surprisingly, the State Police were there in just a few minutes and took charge.  I was ushered back to my car.  Asked about what I knew.  Waited a while longer.  And eventually was told to just go on.  Through the years I have often thought of that dead guy laying there in that field.  He was about fifty, maybe older.  Balding.  Some cuts on his face and head, but not grossly so.  Eyes open.  Looking straight into the stars on that clear night.  I remember wondering if he had a wife.  If he had kids.  If he had a good life.  And now it was all, in an instant, gone and irrevocably changed for whoever knew him.  A billion, trillion images and memories and accomplishments disappeared in an instant.  So this is it, I thought.  This is what happens to us.

I have never spoken or written about that incident my entire life until just now.  It somehow seemed more private than anything I can think of.  Staring at that dead man was something so personal, I felt, that to tell someone about it seemed unspeakably trivial.

"Hurtling toward the void."  A couple of decades later when I read that line from Woody Allen's interview I immediately was standing in that field again and looking at that man.

I have often tried to imagine what my own mother's last thoughts were before the accident.  I can't.

My heart aches for my two friends dealing with the death and decline of their own parents.  It is, I suppose, part of a life cycle too sad and hopeless to even contemplate.  Some days, when I do think back to that anonymous man in the field, with his glassy eyes staring at the sky, it is, in fact, hard to get out of bed and go about the myriad mundanities that make up my life.  And I think, 'that guy did it.  Every day up until his car crashed into that other car, he got up and made coffee and brushed his teeth and read the paper and kissed his wife and maybe did a little fishing on the weekends and maybe laughed at a dumb joke and maybe bought some new sneakers and watched TV and followed the local news and had his in-laws over for dinner.  And after all that, he ended up tossed and bloody in a weedy field in South Carolina and none of it counted for anything.'

We put a brave and hopeful face on this 'hurtling toward the void' business.  To do otherwise would simply be too depressing.  Or we don't contemplate it at all.  We steadfastly refuse to let something so crippling into our daily thoughts.  That's probably for the best.

See you tomorrow.