On death and living

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    DEATH is considered the ancient enemy of man. Today, nothing changes. Modern man still doesn’t talk about it.

    He uses memorial park instead of cemetery. He tries to banish death from his vocabulary and uses such euphemisms as “passed away,” “departed,” “gone on,” and “no longer with us.” What is death in the first place?

    Charles C. Colton defines, “Death is the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release, the physician of him whom medicine cannot cure, and the comforter of him whom time cannot console.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fi ll of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day.”

    William Somerset Maugham notes: “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”

    David Meltzer informs, “Death teaches us to live; it gives us a boundary to map our living within. Death’s hammer breaks through the mirror separating us from light.” Isaac Asimov is more direct: “Life is pleasant.

    Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” When it comes to death, there is no rich or poor, beauty or ugly, and healthy or sickly.

    “The sole equality on earth is death,” penned Philip James Bailey. John James Ingalls agrees: “In the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal. There is neither rank nor station nor prerogative in the republic of the grave.”

    But we look on death as a horror through which we must pass, the destruction that reduces us to nothingness.

    The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, written by Leo Tolstoy, illustrates the agony of a dying person. Other men die but not him. “I shall not be, but what will be?” he asked. “There will be nothing. Then, where shall I be when I am no more? Will that be death? No, I will not have it.”

    But such is the reality. We are born in this world, grow and die. No one can escape from that fact. Someone has said that the only person who needs to fear death is one who has never truly lived. And until you are in some measure prepared to die, you are in no condition to live.

    Death is an event embracing the whole of life. The prolifi c writer John Gunther and his wife Frances lost their 17-year-old son to brain tumor. Their experiences were recorded in Death Be Not Proud.

    Frances wrote: “Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life. Nothing, not even the birth of one’s child, brings one so close to life as death… It raises all the infinite questions, each answer ending in another question. What is the meaning of life? What are the relations between things; life and death?”

    But death is the price we pay for being alive. William C. Doane argues, “We are so selfish about death, we count our grief far more than we consider their relief whom the great Reaper gathers in the sheaf. No more to know the season’s constant change: And we forget that it means only life.”

    Such is the paradox of life. Everyone wants to live longer but nobody wants to get old. Everybody wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die. No living creatures ever realize that in this journey of life, no one has ever reached the finish line alive.

    Unless you experience what it means to die that you truly appreciate what life is all about. When he was 17 years old, Steve Jobs read a quotation that goes something like this, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

    At one of time in his life, Jobs was diagnosed with cancer. “I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months.”

    His doctor advised him to go home and get  his affairs in order, which is doctors’ code for prepare to die. “It means to try and tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months,” Jobs explained. “It means to make sure that everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your good-byes.”

    Jobs lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening, he had a biopsy and got a few cells from the tumor. He was sedated but his wife, who was there, told him that when they viewed the cells under a microscope, the doctor started crying, because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery.

    Jobs said, “Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there, and yet death is the destination we all share.”

    There is an old legend about a rich merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market. While he was at the marketplace, he was jostled by someone in the crowd. When he turned around he saw a woman in a long black cloak and knew it was Death.

    The servant ran home to his master and in a trembling voice told him about the encounter and how Death had looked at him and made a threatening gesture. The servant begged his master to loan him a horse so he could ride to Samarra and hide so Death would not find him. The master agreed and the servant galloped away.

    Later, the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing nearby. The merchant asked, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant and frighten him?”

    “That was not a threatening gesture,” Death replied. “It was just that I was startled to see him Baghdad because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

    “Even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little,” wrote American writer Robert Bolt. “And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh.”

    For comments, write me at henrytacio@gmail.com

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