Last night, in a characteristic bout of insomnia, I reached for my magazine stack and found myself reading one of Christopher Hitchens’s last Vanity Fair columns, from the January issue. He knew he was near death. “So far,” Hitchens wrote, “I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion.”
Yep, that’s right. We’re all dying, right now. Even the youngest among us have already buckled into our roller-coaster cars and begun ratcheting up the slope from which we’ll rocket down through a wild and wonderful ride that, even at its most thrilling moments, moves forward along a track that will inevitably end. There’s no going backwards.
The idea of death has been popping into my mind with unsettling frequency lately, I think because my family has started the long process of clearing my parents’ house out for eventual sale. That’s meant delving into my embarrassingly vast personal archive, looking at toys, papers, drawings, clothes, and other personal possessions that I haven’t touched in years.
The process has made the past concrete: instead of just remembering the years of “my childhood” in a diffuse haze, I’m remembering the specific hours of playing Transformers baseball and scheming to steal custody of my sister’s Cabbage Patch Kid and narrating mix tapes. It’s a reminder that time is, ultimately, finite—that I’ve done a finite number of things in my life so far, and that in the (hopefully) large but still finite number of years left to me, there are a finite number of things I will do. Sorting through her collection of unread paperbacks in the attic, my mom talked about the moment in her life when she realized that she would never have time to read all the books she wanted to read. “That made me so sad,” she said.
Should we be sad that death is coming? It’s hard not to be a little creeped out by the fact, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in dwelling on it.
My understanding of what youth and age mean changed completely when my grandmother died. By the time she died, Grandma was, by any definition, old: 90 years old. Her life had taken her from girlhood to young adulthood to middle age to a long and productive old age, and her health had weakened significantly in her last year of life, but it struck me that the difference between my grandma as a girl and my grandma as an old woman was nothing compared to the difference between my grandma alive and my grandma not-alive. Even at 90, when alive she was still a part of the world, her mind intact even as her body failed. Then, suddenly, she was gone forever.
If you’re not dead, you’re alive. It’s as simple as that. Whether you’re 5 or 15 or 45 or 85, you’re here among the living.
Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living, and though few have written so articulately about the experience of dying, I wonder whether even Hitchens was ever really able to wrap his mind around the true meaning of death. Can any of us? Can you really imagine a world where your consciousness—your memories, your personality, everything inside your head—is really and irrevocably gone? Like Hitchens, I’m an atheist, but I understand why the concept of an afterlife is so intuitive. Death has got to be like sleep, right? You wake up, shake it off, and go about your business?
I know this is where I’m supposed to say something hopeful like, “Well, I guess some day we’ll all find out!” I don’t really believe that, though. I expect that when I’m gone, I’ll be gone for good. I’m trying not to think about that, though, because it really freaks me out.