This post is dedicated to the memory of my sister Donna, who died on this day in 1964. What follows was my submission for an intended book project that never happened, a collection of essays on the subject of immortality. Whatever its literary merits, for me it turned out to have a lot of cathartic value.
I don’t know exactly when I began to fear death – particularly my own – but I know I was young enough to wake up my mother at night and ask to sleep in her bed because I’d gotten myself upset by thinking about it. I can easily recall the scene and the feeling. I would be lying on my back in bed and imagining I was in a casket. Then the door closes and I’m plunged into total darkness, never again to see or speak or think or be until … never! The cold, hard thud of finality is what sprung me from my somnolent sarcophagus.
I had a sister named Donna who died when I was only one year old – she was just seven when she succumbed to leukemia – and I’ve wondered if the intense mourning in the household and my own neediness at a time when my mother was sad and distracted left any trace of trauma in my young brain. I have no memory of Donna and was otherwise unfamiliar with death. The first funeral I went to was my maternal grandmother’s when I was ten but surely that was after the start of my death-obsession.
When I was younger, the world seemed safer, thought I know now it wasn’t. Back then, kids went wherever they wanted without having to tell their parents, as if pedophilia hadn’t been invented yet. I recall summer mornings when the mosquito truck drive through the neighborhood spraying insecticide into the air. I used to hold my breath when it passed slowly down my street, then I’d gingerly stick out my tongue to see if I could taste the poison. By any modern measure, it seemed that grownups back then were trying to kill their children. After all, our pajamas were flammable, second-hand smoke was second nature, and seat belts were vestigial annoyances that were rarely employed.
Still, the only real threat I was vaguely aware of was from the Russians, which was kind of hard for my Three Stooges-influenced brain to fully grasp. Why, then, was I so concerned with my own demise? Maybe it just didn’t make sense that humans break down and die. My family (on my father’s side, anyway) was blessed with longevity. My great-grandmother danced the hora at my bar mitzvah and to this day, at age forty-eight, I still have a few great aunts and uncles. I grew up knowing old people who could still work, reason, move, and beat me at Crazy 8s.
But I also knew that as mortals, we age; slowly yet irreversibly we decompose. Our skin gets lined and spotted, our hair thins, our backs stoop, our legs lose their bounce, and our brains retain less and less of the myriad details that kept us so engaged all our lives. By the time we die – hopefully, some time after our allotted three score and ten years – we are a shriveled shell of what and whom we had been. Even from the most optimistic perspective it is an unpleasant eventuality.
I had been told that immortality was impossible, but I didn’t know why a perfect God would make disposable people. Of course, I know and understand more now than I did as a kid, but I often wish that I didn’t. For example, as a kid I didn’t know that the planet itself is doomed.
In about five billion years (give or take a few billion), the sun will have consumed its own fuel and will begin gradually to burn out. Everything that relies on the sun for life will die. So even if someone were immortal by the frame of reference of we finite beings, at some point life of every kind will cease to exist. And even if someone were supernaturally immortal and could survive independent of the sun, what would be the point? You couldn’t see anything.
Thus, immortality itself is a finite concept, because someone who somehow can live for billions of years is still living on borrowed time. I didn’t know that back then, but when I first learned about reincarnation (through the 1973 novel The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, which my mother owned) I immediately became a believer, for no other reason than it gave me hope that death was a generous comma and not an unforgiving period.
And yet reincarnation seems to make so much sense. At least the Greeks thought so. Five centuries before Christ, who is believed by many to have experienced some kind of life after death (not the kind of material we covered in Temple Beth Avodah Sunday School), the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote, “For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard of that what is should be utterly destroyed.” In other words, nothing can come from or return to a state of nothingness. If it exists now, it has always existed and always will. Death cannot, therefore, be a finality; nor is birth an actual beginning.
As I have neither the intellectual capacity nor the courage to challenge the idea, I cling to a belief in reincarnation. Who can prove me wrong? For all we know, Abraham Lincoln today is a coal-colored cormorant deftly plucking fish from Charleston Harbor.
(Personally, I’ve long sensed that in a past life I was a commercial fisherman. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced a strange familiarity whenever I’m by the ocean, listening to the lapping currents and the scavenger birds flying overhead. Certainly the smell of salt water is something ingrained and primordial as we are salinous creatures ourselves. But I remember being transfixed by an oil painting in my grandparents’ house of a vacant fish pier, the grey, weathered wood standing over the cool ocean water while an aging sun gradually makes its way back to the horizon. It wasn’t any great piece of art, just the kind of serene scene in a frame you’d expect to find in the home of grandparents, but it somehow spoke to me. Looking at the painting, I heard the creak of the wooden beams and felt the late-afternoon chill of the briny air. I’d been there before, I thought.)
The question I now consider is, is reincarnation the same as immortality? Could immortality be not the absence of death but rather the repeated return from death? A coward, it is said, dies a thousand times before his death. Perhaps that is true of immortals as well.
In the meantime, a clue as to the genesis of my death-obsession occurs to me. I was born on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. My family always made a big deal out of that, as if it were some kind of omen that I, too, would achieve greatness some day. I was given pennies because they bore Lincoln’s likeness, which of course was very exciting to me (they neglected to tell me that his likeness adorns the five-dollar bill as well). As soon as I could read, I sought out Lincoln biographies for children, which were plentiful. In short order, he became my hero.
Now, in the life of any true Lincoln nut, one experiences his death innumerable times: in books, in movies, in plays, in classes, in one’s imagination. Lincoln’s reputation, his belovedness, his whole hagiography, began with his death. It remains one of the most tragic moments in American history and was certainly the most shocking death of its time. (“Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and so desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system,” wrote Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, William Seward, on July 15, 1862, exactly two years and nine months before Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet.)
As a child, learning about this giant figure I somehow was cosmically connected to, the assassination was my favorite part of his story. I couldn’t wait to get through a Lincoln book so I could “enjoy” the death scene; in fact, I eventually began to read the last chapter of Lincoln books first, and only at the end would I go back and read from the beginning. To me, the skill with which the assassination was described was the key marker as to the quality of the book overall.
Quite possibly, then, my first obsession with death was specifically with the death of my hero. It’s a reasonable suggestion that immersing myself in his violent death had an effect on me. When my older daughter was five or six, my wife bought her a book about Lincoln as a kind of a daddy-daughter gift, and the picture at the end of the book gave her nightmares for days afterwards. It may not have affected me the same way because of my already-established fascination with the subject, but the horror of that scene may indeed have filled me subliminally with a dread that would occasionally take hold of me in the quiet darkness of my bedroom.
Lincoln himself is well known to have been a melancholy soul so obsessed with death – chiefly his own – that he dreamed of it. One can’t help but be sympathetic to his preoccupation; after all, he lost his mother when he was a young boy and his sister as a young man. Only one of his four sons lived to adulthood, and two died in his own lifetime, one while in the White House.
And yet surely Lincoln, of all people, has attained a degree of immortality. Though he was reviled by some in life and died horribly, he quickly attained angel wings and ascended to the highest level of human honor and worship. Marking the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. … He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together … and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
When Lincoln wrote in the Gettysburg Address (1863) that “The world will little note nor longer remember what we say here,” he clearly was wrong. Yet Lincoln was not unmindful of the fact that the war provided him a platform from which history would view him and, for better or for worse, remember and grade his performance. “We of this Congress and this administration,” Lincoln said on December 1, 1862, in his second annual address to Congress, “will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."
Lincoln’s use of the phrase “latest generation” seems to suggest a belief that humanity would in time die out; that there would be a final generation to witness the end of days. Though not a faithful adherent to any religious doctrine, Lincoln by all accounts was a spiritual person who believed in God and, as many did in his day, knew his Bible and quoted it often. In the midst of a calamitous Civil War, it was no great feat of the imagination to have apocalyptic visions, yet there is no evidence that he believed in life after death or an eternal life among God’s chosen.
For Lincoln, then, immortality was something held in the collective memory of the people rather than a limitless state of being in either the physical or unseen worlds. In his day, memory was no small thing, because even though his was not strictly an oral culture lacking the tools to print and distribute news, it was still a time when the most learned and popular men had the ability to memorize and recite extensive quantities of facts and stories. At Gettysburg, Lincoln read his two-minute address off of two sheets of paper, but preceding him was the pre-eminent orator of the day, Edward Everett, who delivered his two-hour speech from memory, with no text to guide him.
Lincoln himself had memorized countless jokes, stories, and Bible passages, with which he entertained friends and visitors. His father, though functionally illiterate, was also an admired storyteller. Currency took all forms on the frontier, and a man who could regale others earned a reputation money couldn’t buy. And though a man’s own memory ends with his death, the stories he shares in his lifetime are like dandelion seeds strewn in the wind; in other listeners’ fertile minds they may take root and continue to charm and so endure beyond the limits of individual mortal minds.
So then. Lincoln and I share birthdays. We both also share an obsession with death. He was an exceptionally gifted writer who by his words and deeds has attained immortality. I am a writer. Am I so in order to achieve immortality? Certainly there is a strong appeal in the idea that something I write may be read and, with luck, enjoyed many years after my death. Maybe it will receive some sort of posthumous honor. Ah, but therein lies the rub. I don’t want a posthumous honor. I don’t want a posthumous anything. I want to remain prehumous. After all, the longer I live, the more time I have to try to achieve something worth remembering.
At the end of her book on Lincoln’s peerless leadership qualities, Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “The ambition to establish a reputation worthy of the esteem of his fellows so that his story could be told after his death had carried Lincoln through his bleak childhood, his laborious efforts to educate himself, his strong of political failures, and a depression so profound that he declared himself more than willing to die, except that ‘he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived,’” as he had related to his friend Joshua Speed. In the end, though, Goodwin notes that Lincoln’s “deathless name” was and will be “revered and sung throughout all time.”
And maybe that’s where the truth of my death-obsession really lies. My fear of death perhaps is tied into my fear of failure, of passing through life unknown and unappreciated. Mind you, I don’t need to be anyone’s hero. I just want to be remembered, and to be remembered you have to become known and to become known (outside your own small circle of supporters), you have to accomplish something, and if you’re a writer accomplishing something means publishing something and publishing something good, really good, something that could only have been written by you but is so universal that it is felt by others, others who will appreciate it, be touched by it, be touched by you, and thereby remember you.
And yet, so what? If I live forever in memory but not in body, does it make any difference? I would have the recognition I crave yet not be able to experience it. On the other hand, suppose I were to be offered a Faustian bargain whereby I could live forever yet never achieve anything that would make me notable. Would endless days of being no one special be preferable to doing something of consequence and letting history write my name for me after I’m gone?
Back to reincarnation. Let’s say I produce a work that becomes famous after I’m dead. Sometime later, I am reincarnated. If my work is truly special, I will be likely to come upon it in my next life, assuming I come back as a human. Let’s say I do and I read it. Would I recognize it? If so, would I dismiss it merely as déjà vu, or could it spark something in my subconscious so intensely that it would be an inescapable conclusion that I was that writer in a past life?
I guess I won’t know any of this until I die. And I guess I have to have faith that it won’t then be too late.
What I do know is that it was only when I became a father that I had an inkling as to the enormity of the loss my parents experienced when my sister Donna died. Knowing now how precious a child is, how much of yourself you invest in their well-being, how they consume your every thought and every nanometer of your heart, I feel terrible guilt over those times when I told my mother – only a few short years after her first-born had died – that I was afraid of death. How brave she was to try to comfort me. How kind she was to let me into her bed so I could feel safe.
And how, nearly a dozen years ago, did I repay this maternal tenderness? By deciding, along with my father and my two other sisters, that after Lewy body dementia had destroyed my mother’s mind, immobilized her body, and taken away her ability to swallow, it was more humane to suspend nutrition and hydration and let her die than to insert a feeding tube and keep this pathetic and increasingly unfamiliar mass alive a while longer. It was the right decision – she had suffered increasingly over a period of ten years, and would experience only more suffering in her limited future – but a difficult one. We consoled ourselves with the thought that my mother would finally be reunited with Donna. There was no intellectualizing as to whether that was something that could actually happen. We needed it to be so, and so to us it was. Same as my belief in reincarnation. There’s no cost or consequence to believing it to be true, and so I continue to believe.
If physical immortality is impossible, as it seems to be, perhaps the best we can hope for is that, as in a relay race, one person hands off to another the truth – and true value – of another’s life, words, and exploits. And that person, nearing the end of his or her lap among the living, hands off to another person, and so on and so on, through the generations, an ongoing cycle of remembrance and regeneration that keeps the eternal flame of memory lit for as long as life on earth extends.
In that way, a child may someday understand with equal clarity and respect the character of a great statesman such as Abraham Lincoln, and that of his or her great-great-grandparents. Because immortality need not be reserved for those who were well-rewarded in life. Immortality is itself the reward for living a life in the presence of others willing to carry that memory forward. Just as I carry the memories of my mother and Donna so that their names live on in my heart.
I didn’t know Donna while she lived, but my children know of her now. And what my mother suffered, both through Donna’s illness and her own, is redeemed by the example of her love and the peace she found through death. Which may, when all is said and done, simply prove that life eternal is no match for love eternal. And that, perhaps, is an idea I can live with.