Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “After 60 years the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it.” While John Oxenham wrote: “For death begins with life’s first breath; and life begins at touch of death.”
A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. You think you know yourself? Perhaps you only think you do. Do those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves; or do they, as we often insist, know jack? Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself: At that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?
Darker than any of J. Conrad Guest’s previous novels, while also more humorous, it portends not only a search for the meaning of life, but also seeks to determine why we are as we are: prewired at conception, or the product of our environment?
I exhaled, fought to draw yet another breath – one more in a lifetime of breaths – heard my own death rattle, and followed the light. Muted voices, although the words meant nothing to me, and the sound of someone sobbing thrummed softly in my ears. A hand on top of mine – warm, soft, delicate… connecting me. Feminine. A woman’s hand. Someone I knew. Who?
The light darkled to a black blacker than the blackest night, and the voices and sobbing faded. Disconnecting, I heard nothing, not even the ringing in my ears that had become familiar to me in my old age as my blood pressure inched ever upward. I might as well have been deaf.
I had conquered the Great Divide. A general feeling of indifference, which I’d associated with the acedia others had come to associate with me while I lived, washed over me.
In living, I had feared death; yet in dying, despite the crushing weight of far too many regrets, which had become a sort of leitmotif in what had become my anything but Wagnerian life, I feared I hadn’t lived enough.
Fear of the unknown, or an instinct for survival?
In death, I was relieved to have left behind the hardship, to no longer hear the rhythm of my heart counting down its finite number of beats, to feel the burn of my blood pushed, seemingly against its will, through plaque-hardened veins.
I waited for what could’ve been a moment, a month or a millennium, suspended somewhere between belief and disbelief. No glimmer of light illumined me or my surroundings – if it could be said that I was in fact somewhere, or anywhere – nor did a sound vibrate against whatever essence my being had become.
It occurred to me that, while alive, I had often questioned, especially as I felt my time growing shorter, the definition of death; yet I had never truly alit upon a faith of what I might find on the other side. To me, the hereafter was what I’d left the comfort of my easy chair to seek in another room only to realize I’d forgotten – What am I here after?
No white-haired, bearded and robed divinity waited to judge me for the life I’d led, the choices I’d made, the sins I’d committed, my far too few successes, far too many failures, the little good I’d accomplished, the hurt I’d inflicted upon others or had inflicted upon me by others the result of my choices – “You choose the women in your life who hurt you,” a voice whispered to me in the void, from during the time I walked among the living. Always accountable so that others could deny their own answerability. Nor had any of my loved ones, family, friends, or enemies – those who’d preceded me to this dark place – greeted me upon my arrival.
I waited again for what could’ve been a moment, a month or a millennium.
In life, as I tired of living, tired of the aches and pains both physical and emotional associated with the aged, I became convinced that once I left the world of the living, I could not be coerced into making an encore appearance.
I wasn’t born a futilitarian. Is anyone? It just sort of grew on me, like that fungus that afflicted the toenail of the great toe on my right foot a few years after I broke it – the toe, not the foot. Shattered it actually, an injury that impressed the doctor who told me, after viewing the x-ray, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Yes, in life, I always did things in a big way.
At best difficult, life is born to end in death – the ultimate failure. With few successes, still fewer moments of happiness here and there interspersed, no matter how hard one tries, failures are paramount. Death is life’s only true reward – or so I concluded. A paradoxical thought I’d often, in life, punished myself for having. I didn’t want to believe it; yet it had become a sort of mantra to me. But at the end I was old, alone, lonely, frightened, dying, and unlike Oscar Wilde’s literary creation, I had no portrait in my attic to hide the shame of my transgressions. If I could see those sins mirrored before me during my morning shave, surely anyone could. But by then my universe had become miniscule, with me at its center, a second childhood as Shakespeare would say – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. I was so preoccupied with self that I couldn’t see that the world around me had no time or concern for an old man dying: no country for old men. Directed by the Coen brothers, and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Woody Harrelson. A dark movie, yet it won four Oscars, including Best Picture. But not best hair for Bardem.
For that reason alone, I should have sought God.
But his seeming absence from the world and, particularly, from my life, that he never whispered in my ear at those times I needed most to hear words of acceptance, encouragement, assurance, left me doubting. Believers say he never turns his back on anyone, so maybe I just wasn’t listening. Still, those footprints in the sand Mary Stevenson wrote about? I was convinced they were mine alone. They surely weren’t deep enough to account for the burden God chose by carrying me.
Do we believe, or simply want to believe, that something more must exist after death to give living, life’s suffering, meaning, or something to which to aspire or win, as the Bible teaches? Is it simply ego that prevents us from accepting that dust to dust means just that?
Faith, where God is concerned, is belief in a being whose existence can neither be proved nor disproved. That his existence can’t be proved doesn’t prove he doesn’t any more than an inability to disprove his existence proves he does.
I believed, while alive, in intelligence behind creation. The reality to which I referred as the universe around me, while faithfully believing my next breath was promised, didn’t just will itself into existence.
So I’d lived my life largely on faith: that each morning I left for work, telling the woman who was born to be my first and only divorcée I’d see her at the end of the day, is but one example of a faith in a limitless number of days. Why then was it such an insurmountable step for me to accept the presence of a greater thinking thing, even if he had more important matters to tend to than responding to my pitiful pleas for guidance, leniency?
In the wake of Shirley MacLaine’s claim to previous lives, I briefly considered reincarnation. To return to the living to make restitution? Come back as the opposite gender, born in another country to another culture, to bear a different set of hardships – forced to endure great oppression, to be tested by either poverty or great wealth, to be blessed with love, family and good fortune, or cursed with aridity? How could I hope to make amends for a previous life? How could I even hope to apply the lessons I’d learned if I had no recollection of my previous lives? How come, for that matter, anyone returning from a previous life claims to have been Cleopatra or Nero, or some other notable historical figure? Why does no one ever recount a former life as a Christian have-not torn asunder by lions to the delight of the Roman haves?
At worst, too New Age; at best, inherited memories from generations past, like facial features, addiction to substances – disease.
I grew sullen, choosing to disbelieve in a fifth season, rejecting the concept of transmutation instead of oblivion.
Still, a part of me yearned for a do over.
I waited for what could’ve been another moment, a month or a millennium.
I began to question the meaning of life, as I realized that death in and of itself is no reward for wrongful living, or living in general, only a release from a self-imposed purgatory the result of self-loathing, the product of self-judgment that we’ve failed to live up to standards set by someone else – either another human being or an anthropomorphic deity with little understanding of the hardship of being human, who sets impossibly high standards and, in his perfection, judges us against those standards while warning us against our judging each other; someone who blessed us with five senses, then filled the world with myriad wonders to pleasure those senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – a dog’s sense of smell is four hundred times more sensitive than a man’s; but is a cur, limited cranial capacity and lack of opposable thumbs notwithstanding, judged unfairly for losing itself in a world rife with smells that tempt?), but forbade us from indulging in the music that moves us to joy, the food and drink that sate our hunger and thirst (a voice from my past intruded: “All things in moderation”… the voice might’ve belonged to my father, a man more intent on passing down the wisdom of others than nurturing a son); the touch of a lover’s tongue to our lips, on our neck, in our ear, elsewhere, that moves us to ecstasy; the sight of a beautiful woman who inspires us to greatness or the launch of a thousand ships (“best to gouge out one’s own eyes than to admire beauty, because such approbation leads to desire and sinful thoughts”… the words of a savior passed down during a Sunday morning sermon, a savior who advised that attachment to all things worldly is but a barrier to achieving eternal bliss), a deity who sent a son, his own embodiment in flesh, to prove that temptation can be overcome, and to teach that before one can aspire to doorhood, one must first be willing to be a doormat.
I cursed myself for my overt blasphemy. These were not the thoughts of the innocent boy who, while in grade school, wrote in shaky block letters with great affection Mother’s Day cards to his loving mother, who believed Jonah was indeed swallowed whole by a whale and lived to tell the tale, that Job never lost his faith, that Christ walked on water, performed miracles, was crucified for no real good reason, and rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of God.
Yet what if it is not God who deems us worthy of a seat in heaven, but instead those whom we wronged in life? If that were true, then I was doomed to spend eternity on the outside looking in, nose pressed to pane.
Still, death, as I’d borne it these past minutes, months or millennia, seemed only to imitate my loathing toward living. Death – mine at least – was punishment for the way I’d lived. I wasted so much of my life waiting.
As instauration went – the renewal, the restoration of my spirit – this, in three words, sucked big time.
Maybe the Bible was right: had I spent more time worrying about my eternal bliss, lived in a more godlike fashion, I’d now be in a better place. But living mostly in a reactive fashion, I’d won little reward; while in looking to death as reprieve, I’d found no respite.
At that moment, a vibration reverberated throughout my being; because all my senses had atrophied over my guessed at millennia during which I’d heard, felt, smelled, saw, tasted nothing, it seemed thunderous:
“I am…” it said not with words, and I waited patiently, as I’d done for so long, for it to finish telling me who it was.
J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing. Backstop was nominated as a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, and was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course, “Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime.” He is also the author of One Hot January and January’s Thaw, both available from Second Wind.