And to begin to deprive death of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.
– Michel de Montaigne (1580)
For most of my life, I was one of those lucky men who lived in an essentially deathless world. For me, death happened to those distant in bloodline or geography or both: grandparents, great aunts and uncles, a boyhood friend, a college classmate I read about in the alumni magazine who came to an untimely meeting with a bridge abutment, the strangers whose deaths permeate the daily news. That death comes to every living creature was one of those brute, abstract facts that seemed personally irrelevant.
Then my father died. I was in my forties and on a business trip to New York when one early morning the phone rang in my hotel room, and the first shield against death that all children instinctively hide behind – our living parents – began to shatter.
It must have been my mother who called, for who else would have had the nerve to convey such news, and it must have been the hotel room phone, as this was before the age of cell phones’ ubiquity.
I can’t remember the particulars of the actual conversation, try as I may. She must have told me in the first sentence or two that he had died, but what words did she use? Something about a thoracic aneurysm. He’d been feeling faint and then collapsed suddenly and bled out in seconds (though she would never have said this). He was eighty-six, she a few years younger. She was a carefully poised and deeply reserved woman, so she might well have said that he’d “passed away” rather than bluntly said that he’d “died.” I don’t recall, nor do I remember what I said in reply, though I’m sure I responded like the elder son, soothing and competent in my lawyerly way. She must have been weeping, as she could not have expressed the fact of his death to me otherwise, but that too is lost to me.
So it was all over before I arrived on the scene, my father’s final illness brief and offstage, his remains tidily cremated, the memorial service arranged at the local Presbyterian church, my daughter flying in to Columbus to join me and my brother and our wives, and me with really nothing to do but check to see that his will was in order and think of something to say at the service.
My father and I were hardly estranged, but nor were we casually intimate in the way of some fathers and sons; there was a distance between us as awkward as it was unbridgeable. He was a Scot, and kept his fatherly emotions on a short leash. His own father had died before he’d had a chance to see how this parenting thing might be done, and his young widowed mother had foisted him and his little sister off on an uncle in America who, from their perspective, must have seemed rich. As a result, I thought, of this patchwork upbringing, my father held his mother in thinly-veiled disdain, but fetishized all things Scottish. Lest we forget our cultural origins, he kept a big map of Scotland, subdivided to show the myriad clans’ territories, on our family room wall. Peering at it, we were given to understand that the McWalters were a sort of a subsidiary clan of the Macfarlanes, whose own rather sparse and scattered precincts could be vaguely traced on the map.
My brother and I were rather difficult little boys, and regularly gave our father cause to unleash his harrowing temper, which he would express, remarkably even to us at the time, without ever uttering a single obscenity. Which is to say he was often loud and volatile, but never vulgar. There are worse things to say about a man.
My charge as spokesman for our family at his memorial service was, in essence, to skirt the sentimentality that would have made a liar out of me and a caricature out of him, while somehow evoking and honoring the better angels that we all suspected had been trapped inside him by his time and circumstances. Already my mother had repressed most of the last 20 years of their rather fractious marriage, during which she’d increasingly assumed the mantle of caretaker and disciplinarian (he would have liked to drink a lot more than she’d let him). Her memories were now re-focused on early scenes of his courtly pursuit of her, his thwarted artistic pursuits, his love of Shakespeare, and his natty wardrobe. She remained fixated on these images of him for the rest of her life, an act of hagiography that I found almost as charming as it was preposterous. Not that these things weren’t true of him, but so much more had been edited away.
As it happened, I navigated the passage between sentimentality and fact with the aid of a line out of one of my father’s favorite poems, Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life: “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.” He’d taught me to spout this as an uncomprehending toddler to the hilarity of guests, and I thought it a fine symmetry to put it back in his mouth when he had nothing more to say, in front of a lot more guests. What did it mean to me now? Not much more than it had when I had no idea what those words meant. We honored my father, and went home.
Much later, it would dawn on me that we should have had bagpipes.
This first adult experience of death was remote, brief, and sanitary. It had more to do with fulfilling certain roles within my family than with any personal fate of my own, and gave me little pause in my headlong rush through my own adult life. It caused no perturbations in my personal religious or philosophical beliefs.
My mother’s death would be something else entirely, but that was years away.
That death comes to us all is the most obvious and yet elusive fact of life. Sermons, bestsellers and movies offer conjecture (or more often, certitude) on the nature of an afterlife. A small library is available to instruct us on how to respond to the deaths of others; how to grieve, how to comfort those in grief, how to come to terms with the mortality of those we love. There is a smaller but still voluminous subset of survivors’ manuals and memoirs that address what it is like to struggle against death and disease, or describe some temporary triumph over them. Yet oddly absent in current discourse is any sustained attempt to address the question of how to deal with the fact of our individual deaths and the end of the self that is each of our known universes. This missing dialogue about our “ownmost death,” as philosopher Mark Johnston puts it, requires a sustained secular forum.
[to be continued here and in “Befriending Ending and Other Essays,” available this fall on Amazon.com]