A necessary end

I was 25 years old before I realized I was afraid of death. One night I was watching the Oscars at a friend’s house and had a seizure, the kind they used to call “grand mal” and now call “tonic-clonic.” I don’t remember it at all — you lose consciousness for this kind of seizure and recover it gradually after it’s over. The first thing I remember is being loaded into the back of an ambulance on a stretcher, being asked urgently by the EMT what year it is and who was president. (According to my friend, minutes earlier I had been answering incoherently: “Clinton? Ronald Reagan?”)

If you haven’t done it, let me tell you that riding in the back of an ambulance, strapped to a board, with a couple of EMTs hovering over you and checking your vitals and with the sirens blaring is a really fucking terrifying experience. Terrifying enough to make you even worse off than you already are — when I got to the ER, the doctor told me my blood pressure and heart rate were through the roof and I should really make an effort to calm down. What I was too polite to say was, “Maybe if you stop sticking needles in me and talking to me like I’m about to die, I’ll consider calming the fuck down.” Instead, the doctor looked at me very sternly and told me that he would release me, but that a seizure was just as serious as a heart attack and I needed to follow up with my doctor.

It took months for me to get the right appointments through my HMO to get a diagnosis. After my second MRI, my neurologist called me. It’s generally bad when doctors call you right after they get the test results. “Let me tell you first of all that it’s not a tumor,” she said. Oh shit. She said I had an AVM, a blood-vessel malformation in the brain that had a one-percent chance per year of bleeding out into a massive hemorrhagic stroke. (This is the thing that killed the fictional Nate Fisher in Six Feet Under several years later.) She had already made an appointment for me with one of the area’s best neurosurgeons.

At this point, some background. I wasn’t a glowingly healthy golden child growing up, but I’d never had anything seriously wrong with me. Also, I’d been told all my life that there was a wonderfully baroque and potentially joyous afterlife, so death was more of a speed bump than a stop sign.

A couple of years before the seizure, I’d realized I was no longer committed to the Mormon faith — and that I was actually better off leaving it, for various reasons I’ve talked about elsewhere. A few weeks after I made the decision to leave Mormonism, I was thinking about death and immortality and realized I didn’t believe in an afterlife at all. It seemed so unlikely, and so obviously an exercise in wish fulfillment.

I also realized at that moment that I didn’t remember ever having a really strong belief in the afterlife. It’s what I’d been taught, and I’m sure I’d talked as if I believed in it, especially during my two years as a missionary, and I really hadn’t posed it to myself as a live question. But a bit of reflection told me I’d had serious doubts for many years. (It came as a relief to admit this to myself.)

But even though I’d quietly, subliminally doubted that I’d live on after death, I hadn’t been forced to confront the fact of death until I was told I had a potentially serious medical condition. As it turned out, my neurosurgeon took a look at my MRI films and told me I probably had a less serious type of malformation, and a later test confirmed his diagnosis. I’m only slightly more likely to drop dead tomorrow than your average Great Whatsit reader, and medication is keeping me seizure-free. (Still, you don’t really ever want to have to use the phrase “my neurosurgeon.”)

The real issue was that I had learned that my body could fail in catastrophic ways. I couldn’t ignore the plain fact that should have been obvious all along: every single person who has ever lived has either died or will die within a few decades, and there’s no reason to think that I’m any different.

This thought terrified me. At first I thought I was afraid of the pain of death, but I really don’t think a painless death would be much better. And I regret that death will end the ride, so to speak, and I won’t get to see any more of this crazy life.

What terrifies me, though, is the moment of letting go. Or maybe that’s not even it. I console myself by telling myself that the moment of death will be very much like my seizure: I probably won’t see it coming, and in any case I won’t remember it at all, since I won’t be me any longer.

Maybe what scares me is just the idea of an end, a point beyond which I am not allowed to imagine carrying out the projects of my life. I know that many people transform their knowledge of death into a motivation to savor each remaining moment, to carpe the diem and all that. I haven’t.

A White Bear writes that she is “not particularly scared of death in the abstract, never [has] been.” But she hasn’t chosen this fearlessness — she doesn’t quite explain it, but it seems to have something to do with “psychotic optimism.”

I, on the other hand, am quite scared of death in the abstract, although I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m scared of. I also don’t think I’ve made a choice about this. I do hope I can get rid of this fear, but I suspect the process is going to require confronting a lot of things about myself that I don’t want to face: fear of not amounting to anything, of being forgotten, of being alone. Is fear of death a fear of myself?

14 responses to “A necessary end”

  1. PB says:

    I relate to so much in this post it is kind of weird. I also have suffered from seizures although for undiagnosed reasons, lost the faith that supposdly sustains you through such things and fear death with a heart racing phobia that makes me look both ways and then one extra way for good measure. I love your questions as to why. They are thoughtful and as in any reflection of one’s mortality, vulnerable. I think I fear being forgotten the most. All this energy, all this effort to change and be nice, poof, who cares. It makes the quest to create almost urgent–at least the art, the words, the whatever will be there, won’t it? And then I see the bargin bin at the bookstore and wonder. I vacillate between Ayn Rand and Ozymandias–will the building matter or not? No wonder I allow myself to caught up in the moment, the future is . . . just a maybe. Carpe diem indeed.

  2. Rachel says:

    Nice post, Dave. I had no idea you had this condition, and am now belatedly, uselessly worried about your past close calls. Hey, I don’t want you to die either!

    As for myself, I think I fear pain more than death, which might be a sign of weak character. Would I be one of those brave souls clinging to life in the face of near-hopeless odds? Probably not, and it makes me ashamed when I see how hard others fight.

  3. Tim Wager says:

    It seems logical that overcoming the fear of death is one of the drives that sustains religion. It’s not just the promise of a better life than the one on Earth, but the promise of *something*, *anything* beyond that moment of letting go.

    When I die I know that, no matter how much I actually do accomplish in my life, there will be so many things I’ll regret leaving not done. That and all the music, movies, books, art, whatever, that I’ll miss. It’s very pretty indeed to think that there’s a place where I could go and still be in the cultural loop. Show me a religion that promises me that, and I’d be tempted (don’t ask me, though, actually to give up any earthly delights for the promise).

    Thanks for these meditations, Dave. Keep taking your meds, please.

  4. bryan says:

    When I die I know that, no matter how much I actually do accomplish in my life, there will be so many things I’ll regret leaving not done.

    When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams mended fences and struck up a correspondence late in life, one or the other of them said to the other (I can’t remember which it was): if there’s not an afterlife, the nice thing about that is that you won’t be around to resent the fact. Same goes with regrets, I suppose. Now leading up to a lingering death may be another story.

    Religion doesn’t necessarily remove the fear of death, but it does seem designed to rationalize it.

    Dave, I thought this was one of your most gripping simply for the prose.

  5. Becks says:

    This is a great post, Dave. Having recently had my invincibility shield pierced as well, it felt very timely.

  6. Lane says:

    Hopefully we live in order to relax into death. That seems kind of poetic, if you’re into poetry.

    One of the big problems is the psychc self can remain very young. So “you” stay alive longer than your body. I really wouldn’t’ mind just living so long you graudually fall asleep and pass away.

    My maternal grandma just wound down. She had done everything she had wanted. She also outlived most of her friends and in the end, we sometimes think, she was impaitent for death to come.

    Who knows really.

    One thing is for sure though, a big wild ass religion, with inscence and all these gods and secret rituals and all that is WAY more death therapy than some people need.

    Let’s also remember that in the United States the concept of freedom of religion is also a freedom FROM religion. Anyway, very interesting.

  7. bryan says:

    a very jeffersonian sentiment indeed.

  8. Lane says:

    also the hope of continued existence depends on a pretty high regard for ones self while living.

    Being in touch with yourself loathing can be like a nice brisk tonic. “Well when I’m dead a lot of people will be rid of the burden of having to live with me.” I mean THAT isn’t that bad of a think to think.

    Who do I think I am, that I should go on forever?! Even I don’t like myself THAT much, and, as some of you know, I have a pretty high opinion of myself.

  9. Snowden says:

    Man was matter, that’s my secret.

    Fellas, for as good as these last posts have been, you are bumming me the fuck out.

    I love you and wish you all the best.

  10. Lane says:

    That’s REALLY FUNNY!

    Thanks.

  11. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Dave, your refusal to acknowlege our current President seems the height of lucid rational response to me.

    Lane, you are a big deal. Not everyone can be the East Coast Ruben.

  12. Lane says:

    In New York it’s Rubin.

  13. or reuben, if you like kraut and russian dressing with corned beef on rye.

  14. nicole says:

    I am also afraid of the moment of letting go — which means, am I very uptight and therefore must be in control all the time? But really, for me, I think it’s a fear of the unknown that is at the heart of it. I’m glad you were OK after this — we were all worried about you when that happened! Trips to the ER are never fun.