I know it has been a while since I posted anything. These last few weeks have been filled with a lot of changes to my personal life, and it has taken my focus away from [37G]. Most of the changes have been positive, but not all of them. I am sad to report that I recently lost my uncle Michael to cancer, only five weeks after his initial visit to the doctor to investigate a painful mass in his neck. He was riddled with cancer by the time the doctors diagnosed him, and there was no hope for treatment. He went fairly quickly, once we understood what he was dealing with, which is a small blessing. My roommate (a surgeon) has assured me that any lingering on would be accompanied by an extreme amount of pain, and I am grateful that he did not suffer such pain long. Michael was a sweet, loving, hard-working man who deserved better than he got in the end, but who bore the weight and pain with more dignity than I imagine I could muster.
I can’t say that I was particularly close to my uncle. He lived in Florida for the entirety of my life, though I did see him regularly while growing up while on family vacations. Our strongest bond came from the fact that I bear his name, and he always affectionately called me his ‘namesake’, something that has taken on new meaning for me following his death. Most of my grieving has been vicarious, as my uncle was the oldest of the siblings on my mother’s side of the family. She was the second oldest, and her struggle with his death has been the hardest part for me to witness. I loved the man in the way you care for any relative with whom you have infrequent contact, however pleasant. She, on the other hand, lost her big brother, while simultaneously inheriting the role of oldest sibling in the process.
. . .
This is the first time that I have had to deal with death in the family, and it has caused me to revisit my personal convictions on various matters, particularly my relationship with death. I have never really feared my own death, as I can’t see any good reason to. I subscribe to the school of thought best summed up (supposedly, at least) by Mark Twain, who said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Dying, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. The potential fear, pain, sadness, loneliness – these are things I fear. The thought of dying alone in a hospital - withered by old age and wracked with pain - is a truly terrifying scenario for me. This possibility is made especially painful for someone who lacks faith. There is no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel; the best an atheist can hope for is an end to such suffering. It is difficult to imagine how there can be anything after death into which someone can place their hope without gods to support the metaphysics required for a traditionally envisioned afterlife.
This isn’t to say that I want an afterlife. Personally, knowing that my life has an end is a freeing thought. I am thrilled that I am here and get to experience an infinitesimally small part of the universe, but I am completely comfortable with the fact that I only have a finite amount of time to bounce around my little section of the cosmos. Life is exhausting, after all! I certainly don’t plan on unnecessarily speeding up my departure from the world, but I do hope I can embrace my mortality when the time comes. I’d much rather meet death as an old friend than an enemy to be despised and feared.
My own death aside, my lack of belief does mean there is little solace to be had following the death of a loved one. I cannot hope for a future time when we will be reunited, or the possibility that I might communicate with those who have died while I still linger on. It’s not the happiest truth, but I have come to terms with the permanence of death and the finality of the goodbyes for which it is responsible. That being said, I do think there is something freeing in a concept of death that is absolute and irreversible. Life is for the living and a huge part of life is coping with loss. As the wise Kermit the Frog said in A Muppet Christmas Carol, “Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it.” I try to take comfort in the meetings and to accept the inevitability of the partings, however hard they are to bear when their time finally comes.
None of this is meant to do anything other than relate some of the thoughts I have recently had to you, whoever you might be. Tragedy has a way of reframing one’s outlook on life, and it has certainly done so for me. If there is one thing that has been reaffirmed over the last few weeks, it is the importance of those with whom we have not yet had to say goodbye.