Now, At The Hour Of Our Death

This is a long read, but it is also one of the best essays you’ll read all year.  Kate Roiphe examines how writers confront their own mortality.

Particularly fascinating to me is John Updike’s hope that he can somehow avoid the inevitable:  ““God save us from ever ending, though billions have. / The world is blanketed by foregone deaths, / small beads of ego, bright with appetite.”

My answer to him, which is my answer to all of them, which is the answer of the ages, comes from Sir Thomas Browne, “Hydriotaphia,” Chapter V:

“Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento‘s, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.”

By all means, read the whole thing–both Browne’s little book, and Roiphe’s searching, personal, meditative essay.

Our mortality fascinates us because, in all of our living and growing and knowing, it is the one thing we cannot know.  Not by accident was the forbidden tree of knowledge planted by the tree of life in Milton’s spotless garden, to serve as both a deep ironic symbol of and a grim joke regarding the uneasy human condition:  “So near grows death to life, whate’er death is, / Some dreadful thing, no doubt; for well thou know’st / God hath pronounced it death to taste that tree,  / The only sign of our obedience left, / Among so many signs of power and rule/ Conferred upon us. . . .”

“Some dreadful thing,” indeed.  Adam had no idea.

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2 thoughts on “Now, At The Hour Of Our Death

  1. Thanks, John, for sharing this amazing essay. All these years later, I am incensed that a nurse would tell a sick child she was too old to need her mother!

    I cannot remember where I have read Roiphe before; I know I have, and I know it meant something important… (I am going to do a little searching to find out.)

  2. As a writer of amazing essays yourself, I knew you’d be pleased with it. Katie Roiphe’s mother, Annie Roiphe, is an essayist herself, whose work was occasionally anthologized for the college classroom in the 1980s. That’s where I first bumped into both their names. Both are feminists but both, like Milton, are fiercely independent. Katie Roiphe does a great job here of balancing her own closely-held views of death with those of her even-more-famous peers. I got something out of every writer she features. I knew about Hitchens’ attitude toward death; I did not know (at least, I don’t remember knowing) Sontag’s fight against it.

    Every human must face death in the way suited to him or her. As anxiety-ridden as I often am with two elderly, uncertain parents sharing their house with me, their lives are a blessing in one unforseen way: I am learning how to grow old, and how *not* to grow old. Or, as the poet Richard Hugo once wrote in a poem, “When your father dies / Take notes, somewhere inside.” I take those notes every day. Some of them please me; some don’t. But my one great wish is to die with my faculties intact. I do not wish to pass away having lost most of my memory and most of my ability to function. I simply don’t want to be that kind of a burden on those who care for me and love me. I *believe,* based on the way I’ve lived my life thus far, that there’s a pretty good chance I’ll die in my own bed, in loving surroundings, and with most of my marbles intact. I’ve used my mind; I haven’t abused my body with smoke or drink like Hitchens. There’s a chance. But who knows? I want first of all to get some work done: a novel or two (I will be a late-bloomer). If I can do that, I’ll face my end bravely, I hope, in whatever way it comes. Although my comments in the post point to death’s mystery, which does intrigue me, I’m less interested at this point in immortality than you might think. I suspect that when my time comes, I’ll simply be ready for a rest. But yes, I will miss terribly all those I have loved. That hour of my death will be most painful and I see no way to avoid it.

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