That’s the title of Atul Gawande’s latest book. A best seller on more than one list. A couple of days ago, drawn by Kottke’s sobs on twitter, I watched the PBS documentary too. Gawande leaves the impression of a man who seems to know what he does even if, at times, he claims the opposite. He seems to be an Old Surehand of sorts. Which does not make the matter simpler, or easier to come to terms with (if at all) but helps, nevertheless. In the show, his story builds on the unfortunate fates of a handful of people (each nursing their own type of cancer). These people disappear like soap bubbles: now you see them, now you don’t. One day they declare they still have to take the kid to Disneyland and a couple of weeks later the only thing left of them is an image, a blurred face. You see them hoping, trying to stay positive, willing to have a fight and win it. And each time their enthusiasm invariably collapses. Hope is lost, being positive means opening your mouth to ask for water, having a fight is replaced by taking a couple of steps to the toilet and back. Some of them get thinner and need help getting into their slippers, others don’t even have the time to go through physical changes.
Mankind was and is being built on the ashes of scores of people who died anonymously. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncle and aunts, friends and acquaintances – gone. Just gone. Never to return. Never to walk on the face of the earth again. But perhaps dying is not the worst there is. Perhaps forgetting is what makes their disappearance to be as cruel as it seems to be. How, though, could one remember all the people who need remembering, who need to be brought up in discussions and memories, in thoughts and stories in order to preserve their exquisite even if dismal status as human beings who used to walk among us? How could one be mortal and still be?
What does matter, in the end? Getting well again is not an option – there are no miracles. Nothing matters here. The path you find yourself to be on is leading you, unavoidably, towards the end. You did not choose it, and you are scared by its abruptness and loathsomeness. You cannot simply jump back a little and try again, you cannot fool anyone or anything. Bottom line – you are going to disappear. Your chair at the dinner table will remain forever empty. Your side of the bed will be left without a crease night after night. Nobody will have to wait for you to put your shoes on, or to walk a little bit faster, or to talk louder. Nobody will ask you for a story, for a comment, for an idea, for a kiss. Your children or grandchildren will keep thinking you are gone somewhere, perhaps on vacation, perhaps to the summer house by the sea, or to the bearded uncle who lives far, far away. They will ask about the time you will come back, get angry the moment they are told again that you will not return and then… slowly… they will begin to forget. Just a little bit at first. Perhaps only the birthmark on your left cheek, or those words you used to say at the end of a good movie. The kind of tea you used to drink or the way you made your sandwiches or answered your phone. Then, a little bit more. Your face, the color of your eyes, that gesture you used to make when you were startled, how you smelled, the touch of your hand, how smooth it was, how rough. The objects associated with your person would gradually slip away from the universe of those you loved and who loved you. Your books will get pushed more towards the back of the shelves, your clothes will be given away, your old wristwatch will be packed into a box and stored in the cellar, your pen – where is your pen? Nobody knows that anymore; nobody asks that anyway. Then, life tramples their lives around. If they’re lucky, they get out OK, if not… But you? You already ceased to be important. Just a whiff, a hint of fresh homemade bread one picks up walking through the city in the evening. A feeling… As if without direct association, summoning a botched reaction to a version of yourself so diluted, so fainted that it could have been anything: a tree, a laughter, a phrase in a book, a piece of music. But looking at it this way, you are actually back in the world. Forever, even if… incognito. They will all think they are their own masters and will never even suspect that you are in everything. From their blood and hair color to their tears and giggles.
They seem to have forgotten it, but they are you.
What matters then is this exchange, this barter – they take a bit of you, of your words or deeds, of your gaze and, in return, you give yourself back to the world, each atom, each shiver of energy. Yes, you are afraid to die but your heart jolts with silent joy when you see yourself in those around you. They don’t need to do anything special to show it to you: your grandchild only kisses you good night as he always does, the tree only shakes its leaves as it always does. They don’t expect anything but you are there already. Each day a little closer. Each day a little farther.
What they call dying with dignity is simply dying. The rest is just graceless, uncouth anguish.
Biutiful! Isn’t it!
To meet your grandfather and walk with him through a forest in the winter. To hear the snow being crushed under your feet. To talk about owls and share a cigarette with him, this handsome guy, younger than yourself, this… grandfather! Sobbingly biutiful! Could there be something more human, more intimate, more emotional?
I just remembered this movie now and that knot in my throat is making its presence felt again. Don’t know who wrote it but it’s true about this Inarritu/Bardem feature: it is one of the best films you never ever want to see again. Whatever you do, never ever see it again!
In the end, what matters is the proximity of the others.
(pic by ken hermann)