Indian Winter. That is what I call this strange in betwenness that is neither Winter nor Fall. A grey sky hangs over yards of brown grass. Even the evergreens seem tired, worn out from the waiting. Friday—my birthday—we went to two separate nursing homes to visit shut-ins. The smell of death was in those places. Men and women robbed of nearly all dignity sat or lay in inhuman postures or positions. One woman was so curved as to seem not to have a spine. Her face drooped, her hands gnarled and twisted. And it strikes me that such places have become the modern catacombs—more even than a graveyard: for in a graveyard, the bodies have given up their last breath and, whether Heaven or Hell have received them, God only knows—their bodies return to dust, for from dust they have come and to dust they have returned.
But what of these catacombs of the living, these half-way houses for bodies that have not been allowed to rest, to die with dignity? I watched part of a PBS special on becoming old and dying (link here). Again and again, I read the ignorance on the faces of young men and women who knew nothing of the subject. The act of dying has became a private matter; and once so, it was shuttered off to the catacombs. We lost that knowledge—knowledge of the markings of life’s end, of what the body does when it can go no further, when light falls and night comes. In the matter of death, we are like savages attempting the manipulation of machinery of which we know nothing: Push this button. Pull that lever. Yes, give another surgery, another injection, one more machine for breath and food until life becomes the result of manipulation of electronics. We actually medicate to the point that the body can no longer naturally end its own continuance and long after the heart, lungs, limbs and inner workings of the body have died once, life remains—twisted and distorted by the interventions of ignorance.
Mistake me not! I despise that expression of medicine called Euthanasia—for it is God who gives life, and surely it is God who takes it away. But what of the woman who, one-hundred years ago would have died already, sustained by unnatural means and “is more machine now than man.” Or Mr. Tipton, for whom the only break in the rolling hours of boredom is the opportunity to sleep, and “to sleep perchance to dream,” and in dreams to walk once more a youth unhindered by decay and age. But even this is taken away by troublesome nurses—for in his daytime sleeping he is more prone to pneumonia—till every joy is denied for fear it may induce the body’s decay all the more quickly.
Our ignorance of death is corrupted the more because of our general uncertainty of the afterlife. If—as the movie The Fountain purports—life is but a cycle to be unbroken in life, death, and rebirth; where is hope? So a tree grows from the decaying flesh of a buried human and from that tree, fruit, that feeds hungry children who grow, age, marry, give birth, grow old, and die; to be put in the ground again to fertilize the harvests of men till we have all become cannibals of some generation past. And if—as Rand purports in her Objectivism—when life becomes the measure of motion between the terminui of production (as the main derivative of purpose) and consumption (as the natural terminus of production); what happens when neither production nor the possibility of it remains? Where is hope? Where then is the meaning of life?
Take every joy, you sustainers of life, and let the fear of death drive your continuance. Forego life’s every sweet and blessed delight—pure intimacy baked in the constancy of fidelity; sweet moderation of indulgent tastes and culinary delicacies; sunsets and the clouds of vicious storms; rainbows and the devastation of floods; a freshly mown lawn, a loaf of warm bread, a cup of coffee, and these graying days—and you may live another week or month, a prepaid year at the end of life. But at what cost? Tommy forwent a walk in the snow with Lizzie today in hopes that tomorrow he might save her from cancer; there may be a fountain, or Tree, of life. But wisdom is not born of long life, else every old man and woman should be wise. And how do we sacrifice the beauty of the present in vain preservation of a memory that will be faded tomorrow?
Let man examine his end and consider the journey. For tis better to come to the end of life with recognition of lacking than with the presumption of wholeness; for if whole, heaven has nothing more to offer and hell may be thy home. But if lacking, then whether days be long or short, and whether the hours of life passes like a cheerful hour or whether a stormy night, we long for what this life cannot, will not, should not promise. Eternal life awaits, but not in a tree or production, but in a dignity of a Lord who calls out, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give thee rest.”