(Author's note: You may want to buckle up or just get out of the car altogether, for what ensues is a grim topic: death. I've been told I think about it too much, talk about it too freely, and that it permeates much of what I write. I can't help it. Without death, there is no life.)
To me, every conversation is about death. 'How are you?' = 'I hope not dying!'. 'Good to see you!' = 'I'm glad you're not dead!'. 'What a beautiful sunset!' = 'We only get a certain number of these'. If it was always Autumn, the bright, burning colors wouldn't be as impressive. They are beautiful to us because they are unique, but also because we know what's coming next.
Ever since I was a boy, I have always imagined how I might die. Would I be murdered? Would I die in a car accident? Cancer? Heart attack? Pneumonia? Only in the past 8 or so years has suicide even occurred to me. And then at the funeral, would people cry? Would they laugh? Would they speak movingly about me, or would it just be another catered event? At various times, I've wanted each of these things. I have a little tin box that I keep in my closet that has a bunch of different keepsakes; among them is a mix-CD that I want played at my funeral. I am sure I want to be cremated too, not buried. I am a little fascinated by the Tibetan Sky burial, but I doubt I could coax any family members into going that route with my body.
The transience of all of us is shocking. All of these little moments that flit away, they'll never come back. They'll always be--you can't unlive a moment--but you'll never be in them again.
Americans, I think, have a bad relationship with death. We don't accept it. Humans in general don't cope well with death; we've created all kinds of religions and philosophies to make ourselves believe that we will come around again, or will continue on, or will return to a greater consciousness. We can't handle the thought of an end. To me, the thought that there is an end is a primary motivator. I can exert myself, and grit my teeth, and roll up my sleeves all day long because I know that someday there will be a respite. Not that life is awful; it's not. It's beautiful. It just never stops. It is constant work, and growth, and pain, and moment after moment after moment. I am geared for intensity, and all of my moments--my poor, wonderful wife will attest to this--are packed with it. I wouldn't feel I was respecting the rare gift I have been given--I am conscious matter--if I didn't proceed with great attentiveness.
Even after I realized I had become an atheist, I continued to listen to catholic radio, continued to read books by christian apologists, and continued to talk about religion with anyone who could stomach it. At the time, I thought I was just transitioning from one worldview to another, and might gradually outgrow my interest in the subject of God. It also occurred to me that I might be bitter, because I had dedicated my whole self for years to an idea that I had come to believe was a falsehood. Both of these reasons were contributors to my continued interest, but I also realize that it's often only with the faithful that a person can have a thoughtful conversation about meaning, which is ultimately a conversation about death.
My heroes all share my preoccupation. Woody Allen, Christopher Hitchens, Albert Camus, Kurt Vonnegut, Werner Herzog, George Carlin, HP Lovecraft, Hunter Thompson...death is ever present in their work. Conversely, because death is such an important topic to them, their work strikes me as being peculiarly alive. It's only when we truly embrace our fate that we can create anything vital.
So death is my theme. My pivotal moments all revolve around it. I carry the suicide of a friend around in a satchel on my back at all times. The knowledge of my own mortality spurs me on to be as effective, as aware, and as full of awe as possible. The time I spent as a hospice volunteer honed my ability to listen and gave me a priceless opportunity to be present for those who have had death touch them in the most intimate ways. Now I work with the homeless population of Cincinnati; death is ever-present everywhere, but the line between life and death is particularly evident in this field.
It doesn't go away when we force it out of our minds. It will always be with us, until there are no more us to be with. So why not embrace it? We have to be as bold in this life as we must be delicate. Shine the light everywhere, until the light goes out.
“In the hall of the house of death is a clock with a pendulum like a blade but with no hands, because in the house of Death there is no time but the present…it swings with a faint whum-whum noise, gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity.”-From the book 'Reaper Man', by Terry Pratchett