Saturday, February 8, 2014

And When I Die...

I started fantasizing about my death when I was a kid. In my childhood finale fantasy, there would be no cause of death, only hordes of mourners, weeping in unison, practically raising the roof of the world with their collective wailing. Good grief. Great grief.

Every person who had ever done me wrong -- fake friends, mean teachers, mocking siblings and parents wielding belts as disciplinary tools -- would reconsider: Why weren't they nicer to me when I was still with them. Once they cried out all their tears, they'd have to figure out how to carry on without me. It was like a scene straight out of what Dorothy Zbornak dubbed "Blanche: The Miniseries" in the episode of The Golden Girls in which Blanche Devereaux told a possibly tall tale about the time she faked her own death as payback for some imagined wrong that her entire hometown had committed against her.

When you're twentysomething and below, it's easier to romanticize death and/or regard it as an agent of revenge. Back then, it was still more theory than impending reality, so it didn't feel morbid at all that I was working out my funeral playlist in my head. Track one: "Time to Say Goodbye" by Sarah Brightman without - I repeated, without -- Andrea Bocelli.


My romance with the version of death sung by Sarah Brightman began several years after I saw a dead body for the first time during the summer of 1991 when I was a 22-year-old reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. My editor sent me to a lower-middle-class Charlotte neighborhood to report a double homicide, and there it was, sprawled out on a front porch that didn't look so much unlike the entry to my childhood home. Oh, God, I remember thinking. Why did he have to be black?

Even now, when I think of that lifeless body in repose, I can see images from the death scene that I conjured in my head after the cops gave me all the details (which had something to do with a drug deal gone bad): the dead man running up to that very spot before being hit by a bullet and falling in a heap to the ground, flat on his stomach. Twenty years later, the pre-death sequence that I never saw is more vivid than my memory of the corpse. Sometimes it's in slow motion, like the instant replay of a televised sports match, but usually, it's blink-and-you-miss-it fast.

It would take another decade, the passing of several friends, and September 11 to snap me out of my death fantasy for good. Once it was behind me, there was no going back. Nowadays, "Time to Say Goodbye" doesn't have quite the same mythic ring that it did in 1997 (it's been downgraded from haunting to haunted), revenge is a dish best served on Sunday nights at 10pm ET on ABC, and the death of every famous person leaves me seeing visions of my own future.

My initial horror over Philip Seymour Hoffman's recent passing had less to do with the fact that we'd lost a great actor, or the family he left behind, than it did with his relatively young age: He was 46, only two years older than me. Thought I hate to admit it, I felt a wave of relief wash over me when his cause of death was quickly announced on People.com. On the long list of things that could possible lead to my dying young(ish), a heroin overdose is not one of them.

That's one of the main differences between the young and the slightly older and wiser: how they react to death. Before it was all about the effect and the aftermath -- not in the religious afterlife sense but in how life would go on for everyone else. Now it almost completely revolves around the cause and what will go down in the home stretch (a development that's reflected in how I now remember that corpse in Charlotte). In 20 years, I suspect I'll me more focused on what, if anything, comes next (for me, not for everyone else).

Among my current death concerns, sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. Not so much how it would feel -- though I have a fairly high threshold for pain, I'm not about to start courting it - but how I would react. Would I keep it to myself? Would I tell a few friends only? Would I shout it from the rooftop, albeit a virtual one, by posting it as my Facebook status update? More importantly, how would other people react? Would they "like" it or send me private emails of condolences and/or encouragement? Would lurkers who delude themselves into thinking we're in touch because they read my status updates finally reach out to me?

Most importantly, and reflective of where my head is at 44 years and nine months, I think about what kind of illness would be killing me slowly, or quickly, and what my treatment options might be.

All that might be moot since I've pretty much convinced myself that I already know how I'll die, and unfortunately, it's not quietly and peacefully in my sleep. On the plus side, it's not prolonged and painful either. If I know myself, I probably won't even see it coming. The last thing I hear will likely be Vrooooom...!

Considering the reckless driving that's rampant in Cape Town, where to be behind the wheel is to regard pedestrians as people on a sidewalk might regard ants crawling between cracks in the pavement, there's probably more chance of it happening here than anywhere else. I've already had a few close calls, one as recently as yesterday during the cool-down walk home after my morning run.

I'm pretty sure I was in the wrong - in Cape Town, apparently, the person on foot always is -- but has it ever occurred to these people that if you have enough time to honk your horn, you probably have sufficient time to slow down enough to avoid hitting the clueless pedestrian who is too engrossed in the song on his iPod ("'Til I Whisper U Something" from Sinead O'Connor's Faith and Courage album) to look behind him to check for approaching cars about to turn left when he's crossing the street?

When my life flashed before my eyes, in those final 30 frames a second, there were no flowers, no urn for my ashes and no hysterical mourners. The only thing I saw was an angry driver stomping up and down, cursing the day I was born and the day I had died because my ambulatory incompetence had made him miss not only the green light, but now his morning workout, too.

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