I’m new to this whole blogging thing: the closest I’ve ever come to doing something like this has been a sporadic series of diaries and journals over the years. So: I thought it somehow fitting to start this off with something I wrote a year and a half ago. I found this a couple hours ago in a long-forgotten corner of my hard drive, completely forgotten.
Without further ado, I present A Sketch of Dying, from Alex Penland of 2013.
Winter comes and locks us all indoors.
It’s been sudden this year, and we’ve been spoiled. All through December, the weather’s been warm and inviting. Iowa’s felt like late fall at the worst. But come January, Winter pounced like a cat on a mouse, and we felt our cheeks crack and our freedoms break, and we slunk into the cold darkness. Now the ground is white and the sky is grey and my car has frost problems on the insides of the windows when condensation from the heater freezes. It’s horrible.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Death and friendships, death and how life leads up to it. I keep imagining those final moments, the last few seconds your entire life leads up to. I wonder how I’ll spend them. I think of Oscar Wilde, lying in bed, his brilliant mind infected and turning against him; how he must have ached for the grace and wit that he polished all his life, and how they abandoned him. I think of Giles Corey and the unbearable pressure on his chest, how it must have felt as his ribs cracked, as his lungs ached. I wonder what it felt like to expel his final words from airless cavities: “More weight”. I read about car crashes, think of my own hands turning at the wheel, the burst of adrenaline, the scream rising in my throat only to be silenced by collision. Or wrecking in an airplane, from 36,000 feet: a jolt of turbulence that never stops, just gains speed, breath leaving your throat, oxygen masks fallen from overhead that there’s no point in donning, and suddenly the front of the cabin rushes at you in a great tearing roar and there’s–
This is nothing new to me. This is how I’ve thought since I was a young child. Partially it scares me. When I’m lying in bed in the dead of night, imagining myself in a small space in a small apartment clinging to the surface of an unimaginably huge world, tumbling in a perpetual fall around an even more unimaginably huge sphere of fire. It scares me then. But it works in reverse too. I look outside the window at the grey-slated trees sprouting from the ground, and I don’t see death there. Life’s just hidden at the core of them, fresh and green and waiting. I see death in the air, in the brush of energy that comes in biting wind and bright reflections off snow. It’s there and then it’s gone.
Because when I experience something, it is. It exists to me. When I cease to experience it, it is not. It ceases to be. That’s death, all there is to it. When I cease to experience, I cease to be. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I want my last moments to be good.
I remember when we put my dog to sleep. She was old, and her kidneys were failing, and she was very loved. We agonized over it, waited until we were sure it was best for her. She wasn’t in pain, my dog; we were doing her kidneys’ job for them, and–in the words of the vet–at her best she simply felt “blah”. But she was never going to be happy again, never going to feel good. And her problems were going to make things worse. We didn’t put her down because she was hurting. We did it because we were given a choice: let her have her last moments while she was all right and among loved ones, or have her last moments be a whirlwind of pain, blood, possibly vomit and blindness. It was a choice between serenity and panic.
Those last moments were lying on the front porch. I stroked her ears and sang softly to her, held her close as we waited for the doctors to show up. When the vet came, her head was in my lap, and aside from a startled moment at the needle entering her skin, she went peacefully. It was a beautiful day. It was one of her favourite places to be. I would love a death like that: surrounded by those I love, at peace. It was beautiful, and sad though it is that ending is a good memory of her.
I remember when a friend of mine died, when I was young. According to those who were there, she was playing a hand game at summer camp, with a fellow camper. One moment she was included in things. The next she was falling. Then she was gone. She was a close friend, one of the few people back then I truly loved, and I don’t remember the last time I ever saw her. Now, when I say goodbye, I’m sure to tell people I love them. I never leave a house in an argument, never go to sleep after a fight. Not without resolving it. I can’t. I’m too afraid to. What if I never see them again? What if they die? What if I do?
I remember when my great-grandmother died, and we were at dinner with a friend of mine. I was maybe nine. My friend cried, and I didn’t. I wondered if something was wrong with me, because I didn’t feel sad. All I could think of were the happy stories I knew of my great-grandmother. My mother had refused to tell me the worse, as the woman had grown older and her memory betrayed her. I was aware of that. In my mind, the woman who had died was a stranger; my mother’s grandmother was someone I had only met when I was very little.
I remember death. It’s peppered my experience of life from an early age. And I remember death before that as well: I experienced nothing for all of time before my birth. It wasn’t so bad. That doesn’t scare me. I have more experience with being dead than anything else; a loose, free eddy of energy, molecules, time. I’m not afraid to cease to be.
What terrifies me is the act of dying.
We were spoiled this winter. The snow outside right now is hardly even a few inches, less than a foot. The past few winters we’ve had feet and feet of snow, enough to cancel classes and make the child in me squeal in delight. Today, all it does is keep me in the apartment: confined to my small room, typing, putting off homework assignments as I get lost in my words.
In a few months, though, it will be spring. The ground will thaw, the world will dampen in humidity and melting snow. It will rain, but the air will be warm and the sun will leak through the clouds. There will be transition. Grass and leaves and weeds will grow, dandelions sprouting their yellow heads and lace-sphere seeds, and we will venture outside. I have plans to travel the world in the summer, Greece and England and perhaps, next year, the Middle East again, or Hawaii. I will graduate, and I will cease to experience Iowa, and my room, and the confinement of the cold. I will cease to be present here. Things will change. I will travel. I will live. I will age. Eventually I will cease.
I like this post for a number of reasons. First: they were right, this writer. They’ve ceased. The person who wrote this snippet of procrastination is dead. They changed: the winter ended. I went to Greece for two weeks just as predicted; I tried to go to Israel and England last fall and was stopped by the attacks on Syria. In that year and a half I’ve gone through half a dozen potential futures. I’ve dated men– new to the Alex of 2013– and broken hearts. I’ve re-evaluated my LGBT identity, my (non)religious identity, my physical identity a thousand times. I’ve lost at least 20 pounds.
I can no longer imagine being the Alex of 2013. And I’m sure the Alex of 2016 will look back and say the same thing about this. (So hello, Future Alex.)
Second: I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately, too. I think everyone my age does, to some extent. I’m 23, I’m a new adult, and suddenly I realise it’s a straight shot to mortality from here. No one’s going to shove me through the upcoming milestones that make the ride worth it. Love, family, careers, leaving an impact: that’s all something I’m now responsible for. No system, no parent, nothing is going to push me through those things the way they pushed me through growing up.
And I’m okay with that. I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
The third reason I like this piece: it reminds me how much I do not miss Iowa winters. God. I love snow but consecutive weeks of subzero temperatures? Not for me.