Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Tasteless Joke of Fate

Once, a young student stifled my instinctual and unshakable belief in the afterlife -- when I had mentioned my inability to grasp the idea of oblivion -- by pointing out the feeling of being under anesthesia; the complete absence of the perception of the passage of time that one experiences before and after an operation. It was an eye-opener, even if I wound up still believing, in the end, after some real intellectual trials.

Now, I'm given very solid reasons to question the idea of the state of existence, itself.

Dementia. Many of our elder parents and grandparents fall victim. They lose themselves. They can't think; they can't express themselves. People we know to have been brilliant, creative and sharp-witted, often take their last bows on life's stage not to applause while juggling knives and playing concertos, but in a state not knowing how to accomplish such simple tasks as buttering their own bread. Sometimes, their personalities change, altogether. A mother we know to have been patient and kind might accuse a son or daughter of vile transgressions; she might throw a sandwich across the room -- a sandwich that was lovingly made. A father who was a guide on every difficult front becomes one who needs guidance, himself -- maybe even to get from the bathroom to a chair.

Are we so fragile that we can spend a lifetime establishing ourselves as a certain type of person; of working and accomplishing and failing and loving and lying idle and crying and cheering and sneezing and then fall victim to a tasteless cosmic joke; a pulling out of the proverbial existential rug? What do any of us mean, if this is the case? Is it worth even living a life that can be erased by a coating of goo in the brain that causes the synapses to misfire, or by a slick of blood after a stroke?

Rembrandt: self-portrait. 
We all live life  trying to figure out who we are. But are we who we are, if that identity can be stripped from us in a half-minute?

It's terrifying, and some of us have had to watch loved ones fall. How do we see through the veil of confusion -- through to the person we knew? Is it possible?

None of us knows if  or when dementia or Alzheimer's is going to strike. But, if it does, there's only one thing we can hope to have done: leave something behind.

Hopefully, after the afflicted are gone from this world, their loved ones will ease back into a memory of the vivacious person they once were. And if there is anything significant left behind (writing or art or video or an effect on the lives of other people...) we can at least have some solid evidence that who we were is more enduring than the person we became at the hands of a jesting fate.

It is hard not to be angry at a God or a Universe or a Fate (or whatever you believe) that so casually is able to backhand us into submission; that so cruelly can put our loved ones through a hurricane of emotions and doubts and frustrations over the span of our last days; a power that does not seem to care a jot about our human dignity... It really is.

To my boys and wife: whatever happens -- if it happens, this collapse of the mind -- I, here and now, defy that cruelty. Here I am. Not here I "was." Here I am. This is your father; your husband. It's in black and white, preserved for as long as the letters remain. Forget the rest as soon as you can. It was all a brief illusion, even if it felt like an avalanche around you hearts at the time. Read this at my funeral. (Print it out now, so you don't forget. Of course, I hope you don't need it -- that I will be a first class, competant annoyance to you way into my nineties...)

And tell all present that it is just as I said: this attempt at wiping out who we are that the Fates amounts to nothing more than a tasteless, soon-to-be-forgotten joke. There is more of us on the past side of the fulcrum than on the present. We are who we were, or who we remain. In that, we are stronger than fate.


  1. We are not bodies that have souls. We are souls who have bodies.

    Dementia or any other disease can't harm who we really are. And you are right: the memories will be of the former, not the latter years. We will hold the soul, the essence, in our minds and hearts long after the body has gone.

    Think not of the cruelty of fate and the earthly, the palpable. Focus instead on the divinity in each of us. That's the truth, and it will remain beautiful.

  2. I don't think our state before death is really a good way to sum up how easily life is taken from us. Isn't the point in dying, you know, not being able to live anymore?

    My thoughts while reading this are best summed up in saying "we're not defined by how we died, but how we lived" -- and you upheld that statement in highlighting how you are right now. But even in old age, if you forget how you lived, or forget how to live, other people won't.

    I think you've placed enough of a mark on history's infinite scroll that you could easily say on your epitaph: "Who died?".

    1. I absolutely love that epitaph, Alexis. Fantastic!