When Dostoevsky was a twenty-something, he stood on freezing Serbian tundra to face down the barrels of a firing squad. At the last second though, he and the rest of his liberal, intellectual insurgent group were pardoned; the sentence commuted to four years of hard labor. Having almost faced death, Dostoevsky would later attempt to describe what he felt as a result of his sentence being overturned through his writing. In The Brothers Karamazov, he introduces us to a manipulative, boisterous young lad who rescues his friend’s dog only to hide it for a week before returning it to make himself more the hero. Dostoevsky explains the same boastful boy’s behavior in a subsequent event, where he lies on a train track to prove his manliness. But when the train passes over him, and the boy gets up, he is changed: white-as-a-ghost, and someone entirely new.
Death is a figure so deeply transfixed in our existence that it’s a miracle that it does not readily consume us day in and day out. It should. We should be afraid of death, see it creeping around every corner, hear it creaking up the stairs at night. Instead, for the most part, we (luckily) can ignore it. We watch it on TV and feel desensitized. We drive in cars at high speeds and we say it’s fun. We smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy food and sky dive and brush it off, saying, “We’re all going to die someday.”
Except, every so often, death does its deathly dance around our lives and we are thrown into its shadow. We’ve ignored it for too long, let our guards down, and now it has us by the neck, and we’re sobbing and bartering and cursing it for sneaking up on us so stealthily and unfairly. In an instant everything clicks back and we see death for what it really is: everywhere, all the time.
What is this divide, or barrier, between tearing funeral pamphlets in our hands and buying motorcycles on a sunny Saturday afternoon? We need this divide, we crave it when it falls, yet, when it’s up, and we’re happy and safe and at home, we put on Donnie Darko and try to see if we can peak back over the wall. We read Dostoevsky and listen to Bob Mould, and we do our best to appear deep and emotional, with sorrowful diamonds hidden behind our eyes. Why not just say it? Admit it?
We’re as much obsessed with death as we are cognitively repressed against it. And it creates terribly awkward if not impossible situations to deal with. How do you comfort the twelve-year-old kid who lost his father in a freak accident at a Texas Rangers’ baseball game? Do you tell him the door will close one day and it will be like before? Do you tell him that now that it’s open it will never close again and he might as well start working on an epic Russian novel of his own? Or do you simply give him half-smiles and shoulder rubs and recite empty clichés until you feel so depressed yourself that you have to leave the room?
Somehow, in my life, I’ve been to maybe ten to twelve funerals, and exactly one wedding. I figure the odds will even out eventually, but I’m not sure if I can count on it. I’m paranoid that I think about death too much, or that I think about it more than is normal, more than is healthy, more than other people do. But that can’t be true. I know death is around me as much as you do. We all see it, and we all react to it, and we all feel the need to keep it in its place. Otherwise we’d all be catatonic zombies living in pods with vitamin-tubes and safety scissors.
My only wish is that I could come to terms with death. Better terms than the current ones, which were pre-arranged before I had a fair say.