ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
FEAR OF DEATH,
OR THE LACK THEREOF
March 17, 2014
Most people are afraid of dying and will openly admit it, even knowing that it makes them appear childish and weak. The concept of death scares the shit out of most people. Many people try to never think about it, ever, as though denial will cause it not to occur, although there is absolutely no validity to this theory. And no matter what they say or think, everybody still knows that death is most certainly inevitable, even to the most thoughtless of us.
I do not fear death in the slightest. Death is my friend, my constant companion, and therefore I embrace it. I refer to death as “Dude.” Death refers to me as “Dude,” too. Death will absolutely not take me by surprise, I can assure you of that. Shit, what was that behind me?
When I was young I was afraid of death just like everybody else. When I was six or seven and I came to realize that my parents would eventually die I was horrified; it wasn’t possible, not to my parents, they were too tall to die. As I sobbed my mother consoled me, saying that death would come for all of us sooner or later, and hopefully it would just be later. God knows why, but I bought her silly story and calmed down. My mom and dad are now eighty-two and eighty-three respectively, and death has not taken either of them yet, forty-nine or so years later. Neither of them is in particularly good shape, and both suffer with the familiar maladies of old age: loss of memory, the inability to walk very well, easily broken bones, and, of course, diaper rash.
I just heard on NPR yesterday about the Toledo Zoo’s one-day-a-month feeding of the big cats with real meat. Generally, lions and tigers get an industrial grade of Cat Chow, of which, like my three cats, they surprisingly never grow bored. But once a month, as a treat, they feed the big cats baby cows (often referred to as calves). This feeding is open to the general public and many parents and children, often quite young, attend. Nobody is ever horrified and everybody pushes closer to get a better view. And the same scene plays out over and over and over again among the small children and parents.
“What’s the tiger eating?”
“A baby cow.”
“But why a baby cow?”
“Lions and tigers like baby cows. It’s the food they eat.”
“I’d never eat a baby cow.”
The parent laughs in the child’s tiny face. “Of course you would, you just ate a hamburger, schmuck!”
Thus children learn that not only do things die, but we intentionally kill them and eat them (the Japanese enjoy eating animals while they’re still alive, like lobsters, which, as Jew, I find doubly disturbing—it’s still squirming and it’s traife). It’s a crucial lesson, but not a hard one. Kids all get it because it’s right there in front of their eyes in the lion’s and tiger’s cages, to the obvious chagrin of the calves.
One of the most common ways children learn about death is from their pets, which damn near always die before them, particularly invertebrates, but of course, pets with vertebra as well. If a child has a pet fly, this lesson could occur within twenty-four hours. My good buddy’s ten-year-old son’s fish of long-standing, like five years, died recently. The little boy was crushed. His six-year-old sister comforted him by suggesting that he wrap the fish in paper towel, put it in the freezer, then take it to school the next day. Instead, a short funeral service was held over the toilet, then, like Osama bin Laden, it was buried as sea.
Horror movies are all based on the fear of death, often coming suddenly in unexpected ways. Many horror fans would truly like to believe that after their demise they’ll become zombies and get to continue to perambulate, gather in groups, make friends, eat brains, etc. Proof to the contrary is consistently ignored. Having attended quite a few horror conventions, I have personally witnessed young men and women parading around with cleavers, knives and axes embedded in their flesh with blood oozing out, acting like absolutely nothing was wrong. I have no doubt they were actually in the gravest of pain and were simply showing their mettle and fortitude for everyone else’s peace of mind, and for this I sincerely thank them.
So, as I shuffle off this mortal coil, must give us pause; does any of this ridiculous shit mean anything? I think not.
I believe that we all live in a delusion that our existence actually means something important. That were it not for each of one of us individually, the world would fail to live up to its potential; that each of us is as meaningful as every other human being who ever existed, from George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein to Ludwig Von Beethoven. Obviously, this is a fallacy.
Whether or not I was ever here effects damn little in the scheme of things. No, the world would never have gotten to watch my silly movies or TV shows, but I sincerely doubt that the planet would alter its orbit in the slightest.
Therefore, since I am so well aware of my unimportance, it’s impossible for me to believe that I’m essential in any way. But that’s not why I’m unafraid of dying.
I have a choking disorder that causes me to choke or nearly choke on damn near every bite of food I take. And since I have a tendency to eat, or at least attempt to eat, several times a day, I am constantly reminded of the exceptionally thin, red pubic hair-like thread that separates life from death.
Asphyxiation, or suffocating as some folks insist on calling it, generally begins within forty seconds of stopping breathing, and death can follow in as little as two to three minutes. As TASA (the Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys) describes it, “Lack of oxygen, either partial [hypoxia] or total [anoxia], can cause death. Normal room air is approximately 21% oxygen. Impairment of cognitive and motor function can manifest at oxygen concentrations of 10-15%, loss of consciousness at less than 10%, while death usually occurs at less than 8%. For example, although hypoxic endurance varies, a person can lose consciousness in 40 seconds and die within a few minutes at ambient oxygen levels as low as 4-6%.”
Personally, I’ve choked for as long as thirty minutes, but luckily could still breathe through my beautiful, aquiline nose. However, there have been any number of occasions when either my nose was stuffed, or my nose simply decided to close up in alliance with my trachea, so that I then could not breathe at all. As previously mentioned, this is not a situation that lasts very long. I’ve lived with this is ailment for at least thirty years and its only grown progressively worse over the course of time.
I seek no pity, nor even understanding. I don’t give a tinker’s damn if anybody gives the slightest shit at all. I barely give a shit anymore, either, unless I’m in the midst of choking, in which case I care quite a lot.
And yes, I have been to a doctor about this condition. The doctor in a case like this is an ottorhinolaryngologist, commonly referred to as an ears/nose/throat guy or ENT. Physically, there’s nothing wrong with me; mentally I am, apparently, a disaster. Just ask any of my friends or family, or even my cats.
As I stroll down memory lane I think back on the time, perhaps thirty years ago, when I was at my office in Ferndale, directly next to the office of Renaissance Pictures, makers of popular motion pictures, such as all things Evil Dead. It was evening and the only two people left at the office were myself and Linda Quiroz, the production secretary on Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except. I was seated at my desk with my feet up on the desk, leaning back in my chair and wolfing down a delicious York Peppermint Patty.
The peppermint patty, though sublime in flavor, cruelly decided to stop going down my esophagus and instead went down my trachea, which I use exclusively for breathing and smoking. Immediately, I began to choke. I choked so much and so hard that I fell out of my chair and on to my hands and knees on the floor and then, for whatever reason, attempted to crawl out of the office and into the hall. Linda flew into a panic, had no idea what to do, reached down, grabbed me around my midsection and began incorrectly performing the Heimlich Maneuver to my ribs instead of below my ribs. Linda’s a strong gal and had I not pushed her away, while still choking, she would certainly have broken one of my ribs.
I continued my pointless sojourn up the hallway on my hands and knees, gasping, gagging, horking and coughing, liquid pouring from my eyes, ears, nose and forehead. For no good reason I then began crawling down the stairs, perhaps thinking that if I could just get outside I’d find more oxygen there.
Soon thereafter EMS arrived to find me on my back on the stairs, thankfully already breathing of my own accord. They cleaned me up and split. Linda and I were both exceptionally pleased that the situation had had a happy conclusion.
In the preceding thirty-odd years this has reoccurred literally thousands of times. It happened to me the day before yesterday. And I nearly choke on every goddamned bite of food I take.
OK, big fuckin’ deal, right? We all have our crosses to bear and that’s one of mine, and it sure ain’t the only one. But what it has done for me is inured me to the fear of death. If you’re going to almost die every day of your life, you can either live in constant fear or not. I’ve decided not.
This certainly doesn’t make me superior in any way, and in fact, some folks find my fatalism off-putting. An extremely good friend of mine whom I’ve known for over thirty years, and who has seen me choke several times, once quite severely in a restaurant on my Thanksgiving dinner, recently told me that he doesn’t like my fatalism. I said, “What can I do? I nearly choke to death every day, how can I not be fatalistic?” He said, “Well I don’t like it.” I said, “Too fuckin’ bad.”
I have no doubt that if I were backed into a corner by grizzly bear I’d shit in my pants and begin valuing my life very highly. But nonsense like smoking cigarettes, drinking booze or ingesting cholesterol seems better than perfectly OK to me, they’re some of my favorite things. How can I care about stuff like that when I’m fairly certain I’ll choke to death? But, then again, I could be wrong. I often am.
The point is this, I think, even if I am diagnosed tomorrow with a fatal illness and subsequently become a complete coward, sniveling and crying every minute that’s left to me, at least I won’t be surprised. Something’s going to get all of us sooner or later, and every minute it doesn’t get you you’re lucky.
At a horror convention I attended in Meadowlands, New Jersey, there also happened to be a rabbi convention. Each beautiful, warm, summer morning I was there I got up early, as I always do, purchased a cup of coffee at the in-house Starbucks, went outside, lit a cigarette and began writing in my journal. The horror conventioneers eventually took up all the outdoor seating, but I had a whole table to myself. At some point two young, mid-30s rabbis came out, looked around, saw that my table contained the only seating left, and asked if they might sit down? I said certainly. This is the journal entry I made immediately after they left about twenty minutes later:
I just had a lovely conversation with two rabbis who were happy and joyous and attending some rabbi convention here at the hotel. One of them asked me, “Would you take a million dollars for your eyes?” Slightly horrified, I said, “No.” He asked, “Would you take ten million?” I assured him I wouldn’t. He said “You see how much you have.”