Yesterday was my husband’s thirty-sixth birthday. He has lived a third of his life knowing he has brain cancer.
At some point in all of our lives, we have an existential crisis. A moment where we wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I’m going to die. One day, I’m going to be dead. Everyone I know and love will be dead. The sun will expand and consume our planet. It will be as though I never was.”
This is a typical existential crisis, and most of us learn to deal with that existential terror. We lean into religion, or logic, or work. or school, anything to help us focus on being alive now. On living in the moment. On accepting that the world is sometimes terrifying and always flawed and that somehow we must continue our daily lives as though we weren’t helplessly hurtling through space on a rock we can’t control towards the inevitable heat death of the universe.
Once you have been diagnosed with a terminal disease, the existential angst changes. Death is an immediate concern. Whether or not you will live out the month, or the year, whether or not there’s any point in buying green bananas, these are a different set of questions. The fact of death becomes inescapably real.
One could easily argue that my husband and I have spent our entire adult lives facing those questions. One could argue that the moment we shifted from prolonged adolescent naivete into adulthood was Mike’s diagnosis.
There are things you might not expect to change about the way you look at the world once you realize you’ve cheated death for the 4,000th consecutive day, but you can’t help it, it affects everything. Your whole worldview is altered by the awareness that you are temporary, that life is temporary, that nobody– NOBODY– has any clue how many more minutes they have ahead of them.
Last week, my children decided it was time to discuss life’s greatest unknowns. Why are we here? Why do we die? What is death? What happens after you die? Typical dinner conversation with three bright and insightful children.
Without hesitation, Mike and I answered these questions.
Well, that’s not quite true. We started with a digression into semantics, explaining the different possible questions “Why are we here” could refer to, from “at the table eating hot dogs” to “how did we come to exist on this planet” to “what is the purpose of human existence’ (it was this last question that really interested them). Of course, they got answers to all the possible questions.
We are here at the table eating hot dogs because last week when I made hot dogs you asked if we could have hot dogs again, only this time with oven fries. (Please eat your oven fries with your mouth closed.)
We came to be on this planet through an astronomically complicated series of events, most of which have reached scientific consensus, beginning with the formation of the universe and continuing through the accumulation of matter that is our planet and culminating in hundreds of millions of years of evolution leading from single-celled organisms to the vastly complex animal life of which we like to consider ourselves the culmination. (We’re pretty arrogant that way.)
Because of what is known about this universe, one could assess the likelihood that in the vast infinity of space, there are additional universes. There may be infinite universes. This could be the best possible one, or the worst, there is no way to know because space is huge– really really big– and in the vastness of all that there is, we are tiny, insignificant, petty and unimportant. And whether or not there is any higher power or greater intelligent being, our awareness of our smallness can mean there are only two purposes to our own existence: 1, to be happy, to make the most of what we have and appreciate our existence and never take it for granted; and 2, to help the other creatures in our sphere of existence do the same.
We die because we are made of matter, and all matter must come to an end. We die because all living things die, at some point, and the longer we live the greater the burdens of living grow. We die because, when we’re ready to die, it is a comfort to no longer be afflicted by pain, or hunger, or exhaustion, or worry, or grief, or responsibility, or the care of even our own bodies. We die because we must, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Death is the end of our ability to interact with the world in a way we, the living, are able to understand. Death is when our flesh begins to return to the soil and the air, and who we are is no longer attached to physical existence.
When you die, your flesh begins recombining with oxygen to become composted into the earth. Sometimes this is done through decomposition, sometimes through cremation, and rarely through being eaten by other things, like sharks or bears or other people. But the parts of you that make you who you are, the electrical impulses in your brain, do not die the same way. The first law of thermodynamics is that energy, like the electricity in your brain, can neither be created nor destroyed. That means the electricity in your brain and nerves that make you more than an animated meat suit wandering through the woods doesn’t stop when your bodies stop. It means that energy is either released or transformed. Maybe it goes flying out into the infinite universe, maybe it changes and becomes something else, there is no way to know. People all over the world have many different beliefs about what happens to this part of you, about whether it’s your “soul” or your “spirit,” and what it can do when it’s not attached to your body anymore, but nobody knows. Those beliefs rely on faith, not on fact, and anyone who tells you that their answer to this question is absolutely right and that you must believe it as well or you will be tortured for an eternity is not worth listening to on the subject.
Then we discussed reincarnation, and the difference between religious conviction and religious persecution, and then Mike surprised me.
He was explaining the difference between a belief and knowledge, and with a voice of stunning calm he said, “I don’t believe I will die, I know I will. I know someday I am going to die. And that’s okay. It’s not scary, it just is. And knowing that means it’s easier to remember why we’re here.”
The children accepted this calmly, without followup questions about when or how, and I eventually sent them up to bed with their questions satisfactorily answered, and the promise to speak more another time about reincarnation beliefs specifically.
But I am still dumbfounded by this moment. This moment when my terminally ill and yet also completely healthy husband announced to our young children, “I know I am going to die.”
He has always impressed me with his bravery and nobility in the face of his disease, but this was something more. This was preparing his children not only to face their lives under the constant threat of death that is the curse of human intellect, but to face his death.
Sometimes, I can hardly face the concept of his death. Somedays, I catch myself prepping for it like some kind of incoming hurricane. Each time the children have asked me about his disease, I have sandwiched answers and explanations between platitudes about how well he is, how healthy he is, how they don’t need to worry about Daddy dying.
But Mike just came out and said it– “I will die.”
He did not say tomorrow. He did not say in ten years. He said it as truly as I know to be- the final truth.
We are all going to die. But he doesn’t let that stop him from being the most wonderful father on the planet. It doesn’t stop him from being a dutiful husband and incredible best friend and all-around spectacular human being.
And for all the high minded ideals I can try to impart to my children, there is no greater teacher than example. And there is nobody I can imagine setting a better example on how to live a life of meaning and purpose and joy in the face of a potentially infinite and uncaring universe than the man I married, their father.
For his birthday he gave me, as he has given me so many times, the gift of perspective and understanding.
Yesterday was his birthday, he has hurtled headlong on this rock as it travels around the sun, around our solar system, through the vastness of this universe.
He makes me happy every day. He is instrumental in my finding meaning in life, in everything I do.
And whatever is true of death and life, I believe all of existence is better him being a part of it.
Read more about our kids and big questions here: You Need to Talk to Your Kids About White Supremacy
Read my most recent post here: Tahlequah’s Dirge
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