August 07, 2013

Reflections on a Death

So much must have been written by better writers than me about death that it is probably superfluous for me to try and add anything on the matter. But of course I will go ahead and add my two cents worth.

After all, everybody has babies and everybody wants to experience the 'joys' of parenthood and sex and so on.

Probably we won't all perish suddenly and unexpectedly when something happens at the center of our Milky Way with the supermassive black hole though those black holes do spin at crazy rates and generate a huge amount of x-rays which are no good for living beings like us.

We are probably lucky that the Sun is about 30,000 light years away from the center of the Milky Way. We live in the boondocks or the suburbs.

The threat of a nuclear Armageddon in a third world war has pretty much disappeared as well. So, we'll all probably live out our lives and slowly fade away.

So the question that arises is: what is the right time and manner to do so?

My drink-buddy died a few days ago. He was 65. But did he know that he was going to die? He seemed to be losing weight and was pointing to some health problems he was having. He probably shared stuff with me that he did not share with his family.

I did not have any inklings that any of this was near. No fore-warnings. He was apparently somewhat sick for a few days before things went downhill quite suddenly and he died in a few hours. He was just a retired guy from the private sector who had no current income and was dependent on an unemployed son and employed daughter-in-law's income plus the rents he received from owning the house where I live.

He managed to take care of his drinking habit with some difficulty thanks to fellow alcohol users such as me but I am nowhere near as heavy a drinker as he was.

It's all a conundrum without a solution.

Did he think/worry/reflect about his possible impending death? I sure hope anyone and everyone who is over the age of 50 or 60 does worry about their mortality. It would be childish not to do so.

And yet his death showed how un-inevitable death really is. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton get a bunch of repairs to their hearts which will keep them alive for decades. Even much older people like Dick Cheney and Manmohan Singh get things done to their heart chambers to keep those old hearts ticking away.

My uncle's heath problems were nowhere near as dire. It's all a matter of having the necessary financial muscle to be able to afford the required medical procedures. I know both uncle and his family must have avoided going for costly procedures when his minor ailments hit him hoping that it would go away or get cured with minor treatments. Then of course the minor problem becomes a major problem and things can worsen catastrophically.

That raises a question: was his death "good"? I am objective enough to pose such a question as a "theoretical" one now but am not heartless enough to have asked him this question point blank. So, we never discussed "death" as such. But he must have realized that he was a "burden" at the end of the day on his family and clearly he was having problems with his family which probably means they thought of him as a burden to some extent as well.

Of course, when he died, I saw much voluble and voluminous crying by the ladies but I am suspicious of such overt displays of grief: it seems more a 'performance' than fact.

The Indian way of grieving follows certain set rules and those rules are being followed now and it's a very "social" way of coping with grief that was created during the days when people lived in small, tight-knit communities in villages. It's effective as far as it goes in the Indian context.

I wonder if people have any "premonitions" about their impending death or in a case such as my uncle's, when do they sort of "figure out" that this might be the END and that they are not coming out of it alive. What thoughts go through their mind as they reach that conclusion?

Of course, when you have some sort of painful last days preceding death, then you might be more occupied with the pain itself and might not care about death; you might prefer death to the pain. What joys keep an old man alive in old age? Uncle enjoyed his whiskey when he could have access to it. He would do it eagerly at my place during the winter months.

He was not an "intellectual" or anything of that sort; so, he even watched cricket. Life essentially turns into a waiting game or like some sort of aimless meandering. What would he have accomplished if he had not had the minor ailment which led to a major one which led to his death? He would still be there today and be doing his routines of passing the time during day time.

May be he would have seen grandchildren produced by his son. Who knows about that? That is in the future. Even I don't know what is going to happen to his remaining family in the future. Uncle would have continued with his habit of occasional drinking when the opportunity presented and generally whiled away time.

I am not pontificating of course about how one should spend one's time on this Earth. It's just the utter randomness of it no matter what. If an old man happens to be more educated or retires after a more hectic or engaging career (I am not really sure what word to use here), even then what does he do?

May be they will be more 'engaged' with the news or current affairs or reading books related to their field or literature or be part of some 'activity' of some sort but all of that is ultimately random. You will pursue them and your morning walks or golf or tennis or whatever other routines you may have or choose ... or smoking a cigarette or enjoying alcohol ... and then you will die one way or another. The longer one lives, the frailer one becomes as the body slowly disintegrates.

How many years is enough? What is the right time or age to die? 67? 75? I met an old lady belonging to my grandmother's generation who is pretty ok at 87. She will probably hit 90 easily ... that's an age which is completely unthinkable for a person like me with a fairly unhealthy lifestyle. But I do not suppose there is anything that I would want to be accomplishing at that age.

Of course, one can keep busy till 90 or 100 if one has a set of wide-ranging interests. But living is no fun if one is not healthy and the body aches in three different places or if one has other health problems such as a creaking knee cap because all the 'juice' has run out or high blood pressure or failing eyesight or hearing.

My "commitments" to learning science or reading books or being acquainted with current affairs including advances in space exploration are not so strong. I think I pursue my hobbies with some underlying sense of detachment. I guess, it's like what Gandhi or someone had said: live everyday like it's your last and learn like you are going to live forever.

I know that's such a cliche.  The question is: what WOULD we do if we knew about our impending death in advance? How WOULD our lives be different? What would we choose to do differently? Steve Jobs tackled these things wonderfully in his Stanford commencement address. But, well, he was 'Steve Jobs' after all and not all of us are like him.

Only a few are 'lucky' like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and know what they are going to do with their lives. Most do not know what they want out of life or what they want to accomplish and just go with the flow and their dreams and destinations and desires are predicated upon their life's surroundings and circumstances. There are certain things most people do around the world irrespective of their wealth: such as having babies. Other materialistic acquisitions are related to one's talent or chance or luck or the society one is part of and so on.

There are way of dying which are, I think, still 'atypical' — such as from sudden accidents or various terminal forms of cancer. If we are unlucky, we die that way. Otherwise, dying is a slow process that happens in old age. But really, it seems to me that there is no 'proper' or 'right' way to prepare for it.

You just keep living and then you grow old and then keep living day-to-day some more and the world keeps doing its stuff and one day you die. The world does not stop of course. There will always be kids and young people who are full of life and possibilities and hope for the future.

Shakespeare probably put it best in comparing life's stages to the acts of a drama but really, I do not remember that much Shakespeare or even read much of his writings. I am okay with that; let literature lovers pore over The Bard; I am happy to learn a little bit of science.

And so how to end this reflection? What big life LESSONS can I provide? What insights do I have to share? Well, I may not be a 'big shot' but that does not prevent me from sharing my own 'wisdom.'

And that is that life seems random. Which inevitably leads to the Diana Athill quote which remains the best summation of "life" for me thus far. And I won't put that quote or those words here. They are quoted in the section where I describe myself on the home page of this blog. In fact, I think those words should be visible somewhere on this page even as you read this if you scroll up or down the page.

So read Diana's words.

All I have got to add to those words is probably this: the randomness of life makes people's various certainties appear moot. But then the realization about the 'end' comes only near the end. The kids and youth do not worry about an 'end' which is decades away most of the time. And that is the way it should be. "Decades"  constitute a vast stretch and stage and canvass of time on which one can paint many masterpieces.

We can and do accomplish a great many things in the "decades" that we are given even while we live those years one day at a time.

The mysteries of time endure. The imperfections of human memory make "time" and memory non-linear concepts. We might remember some experience from years ago quite well but forget events that happened a week ago. We remember the special stuff and forget the mundane ones.

But perhaps all of the foregoing that I've written so far is unoriginal. What unique insight or formulation can I bring to this unique and important question of death that all of us have to grapple with?

Let me try an astronomical formulation which is probably in line with my core interests. So I leave you with this idea of the individual human life being lived at many different planes simultaneously: We have our individual lives with our friends, family and acquaintances doing what interests us, then there are larger and larger sections of society comprising larger and larger numbers of people who are also doing the same simultaneously. We have the whole Earth with its seven billion plus humans.

Even as humans and other living beings live out their lives on this planet, the planet itself endures and evolves through eons of geological time stretching over millions and billions of years. Such timescales are clearly beyond the capacity of the human brain to comprehend in any real sense.

In our lifetime, our planet will have moved some 60 or 80 times around the Sun but in its own lifetime, the Earth's revolution counter is at four billion plus. I do not know if the Earth revolved or rotated faster in the earlier epochs.

A "year" is but a figment of the human imagination and a random duration that we have decided to define as a unit of measuring time: time itself is not divided into any specific duration or units.

And the Earth is but a member of the Solar System; even our star is merely living out its finite life.

The Sun will die one day. I do not know about our galaxy, about what will happen to it. But it has a 100 billion stars like the Sun. And there are 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe.

May be life arose elsewhere too: some crazy sentient life-forms completely beyond our capacity to imagine. We humans are the way we are but no reason why other intelligent beings will be anywhere like us. Or may be they will. Who knows? How accurate are the portrayals of 'E.T.' in Hollywood movies?

Astrophysics shows that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating contrary to conventional expectations of scientists. This points to a very long and bleak future: a future stretching ahead into billions and trillions of years and one where all the other galaxies that are present in the Hubble images today will all move beyond the visible range and our Milky Way will be a lonely galaxy floating in the vastness of space.

What a bleak vision but a fact nevertheless.

But that is really of no concern to our everyday human lives. Back to my uncle then. As he came back just a dead person in the back seat of a small car, I saw him from a distance. Was he calm or disturbed or happy to be dead? I do not know. But I was not particularly 'afraid' which was a discovery for me personally as I think the idea of dead people used to creep me out somehow and may be I am not the only person with that sort of feeling.

I did not impose myself on uncle's family of course. His family took care of whatever processes and rituals they went through and I went on with the routines of my own day and life. I was not even sad. I wonder if that makes me creepy.

But I think why I was not so sad is because perhaps I came to the realization that death, in the end, is just a part of life.

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