by Rhian Sasseen on June 7, 2012
Once I watched a man die.
This was six years ago in July, the height of summer’s sweat, and that man was my father. One sticky evening he arrived home diagnosed with cancer and a week later he was dead, a month shy of his fiftieth birthday, a month after my sixteenth.
So you see, I am not entirely unfamiliar with death.
I say this because lately I have had death on the brain. Boston is fast approaching the fetid days of summer and two weeks ago I read “A Life Worth Ending” in New York magazine and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. My family has been lucky to so far avoid the uniquely Kafkaesque situation that death and dying have become in America, but the Baby Boomers are fast approaching retirement and soon none of us will remain untouched. Diapers, nursing homes, dementia – where is the dignity in death these days?
Somewhere along the twentieth-century we lost our way. We began to worship youth, and the new, at the expense of all else – capitalism in its purest form. Somehow we are still lost, still refusing. When I think of the twentieth century I think of plastic. In the twenty-first century the plastic has disappeared from our bags and our clothing but is now being injected into our faces. And after that – after even poison can no longer hide the truth, the simple fact that the body is failing, collapsing in on itself – we enter a plastic existence, shiny and hollow and un-tethered from the basic realities of the human. Bone, blood, sweat. To grow old in America today means to grow into a husk, a shell, a nothing. A void.
Of course, the longer you live, the more you spend. The more money can be made off of you.
Americans choose life. On the right they march in anti-abortion protests and argue against the morality of assisted suicide, painting fabulist fantasies of death panels. On the left we eat kale and brown rice and do yoga and drink eight glasses of water a day. Smoking could cause cancer. No more heavy cream and cocktail hours – watching Mad Men, to the left-leaning dieter, can be like watching porn.
There should be nothing shameful in suicide. Not in comparison to the alternative, anyway – feeding tubes and open-heart surgery for ninety-year-olds. Resuscitation into nothing, simply being. A body without a soul.
This is not to argue against healthy choices. This is especially not to argue against health measures tied to class, such as preventative steps against food deserts and childhood obesity. I think Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program is incredible. What I am trying to say is that, no matter what, we are all going to die. We are supposed to die. All attempts to avoid such a fate are futile. All the marathons and protein powders and mantras of “your body is a temple” – no, it’s not. The only race that really matters is the race against time – the race, in our short lives, to prove ourselves. To accomplish something. To produce something of value.
A thousand years ago Pliny the Elder wrote that “true glory exists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read; and in so living as to make the world happier for our living in it.” This is my motto, my creed. To die having achieved – there is dignity in that death. There is no dignity in the modern decline.
I once watched a man die. It was fast and ugly – my father had not been a healthy man. But we said our goodbyes, we kissed and hugged and smiled bravely, and when my mother left his room – when my mother returned home at three a.m., exhausted – she was calm. “He was still, very still,” she told me. “He was at peace.”