“All men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
Socrates is mortal.”
The logic appeared conclusive: he was dying. He was a man, and as with all men, he was mortal. Mortality was a necessary and inevitable function of the predication “life.” It followed conclusively. There would be no getting around it this time. Was it a matter for a hypothesis? Logically, it would appear so. Yet seeming was not being. Yet being was seeming. Yet just because it seemed not so, did not intend his mortality to end any other way than in death. Perhaps that was the only way it could be expressed. There was no evidence that he was dying; there was no evidence to the contrary. There was no contradiction in this. And only by contradiction could the proposition be disproved. Had there been but one man who had never died, he could make the case that death is not inevitable. But how would that man know it? How could he have known it? No, not the past tense, the past tense was reserved for those moments that were no more. The man who had never died would need to know it still. But how? Only because he was not dead yet. But that would be true this day. Tomorrow…. He might know he was not dead, he could never know if he were immortal. But all that was hypothesis.
But he, the empirical self, still breathing, still thinking these thoughts, was not dead yet, and yet he knew he was dying.
He wondered: ‘but what if we were all immortal? Would we ever know that?’ It seemed cruel to think that the hope of ever-continuing life originated in the knowledge of inevitable death. But the human mind was so good at playing tricks with itself. Yet in exploring the possibility of being anything at all, it could only run into the conclusion that it would eventually disappear into nothing.
In the early morning hours of January 29, 2002, I stood by the hospital bed on which the body that had once housed my sister lay. A respirator had been forced down the trachea, and the chest rose and fell with mechanical regularity. The tongue protruded. I had already opened the eyes to find them glazed, the pupils dilated. Still the nurses were optimistic.
Except one, the nurse who actually provided care to the body. Like myself, she was a Licensed Practical Nurse; she did the grunt work while the Registered Nurses assured me of my sister’s imminent recovery.
After I had been standing there for some four hours, she came in again, as she had every hour, to inject the body with some medicine. I don’t know why then, but suddenly I had the alacrity to speak to her before she disappeared. “What medicine is that?” I asked her in all innocence (my experience was in geriatrics, I knew little about intensive care nursing).
“This keeps her blood pressure up, ” she told me.
“And without that?” I insisted, as she was trying to back out of the room. Like most nurses, she had been trained to lie. Nursing’s real art, beyond following medical orders and common sense, is deception. But occasionally the truth comes out. ‘The will to truth’ may not be simply a philosopher’s passion, as Nietzsche argued. There may be a pathology for it, an urge that can never be completely denied. The nurse stood there looking at me with a blank face, and her lips moved of their own accord.
“Then she would not have any blood pressure.”
This sank in. It was clear. There was nothing in the body that could keep it going without mechanical and chemical assistance. The nurses had simply been delaying until some doctor could find the time to explain it to me.
My sister. She had been dead long before I reached the hospital. I had been delayed in my proper mourning process by the cheap dissimulation of health care toadies playing for time, perhaps to draw a few extra pennies from Medicaid before letting the body rest. But the heart of my sister’s body could no longer pump blood without chemical inducement injected into it, the axillary muscles attached to the lungs would not expel carbon dioxide and draw in air without the respirator. The body ‘lived’ only through scientific engineering. My sister was no longer living.
As ‘power of attorney,’ I immediately insisted on seeing a doctor and on signing the documents that would prohibit further intervention of this sort, if the body failed upon release from the injections and the respirator. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is achieved medically or scientifically by prevention a corpse from following its natural tendency to decompose. At last allowed to say my good-byes, by the time I reached home, the telephone was ringing with the Hospital’s announcement that my sister had been legally declared dead.
Modern medical ethics had once again proven not enough, not in time. Chaucer’s contempt for the medical profession had been once again validated. We have come a long way since the 14th century, but there was no explaining that to my sister anymore. (Glancing over the matter now, I am again reminded of the main reason I left the nursing profession. The honest nurse, I later found, was disciplined for allowing me the right to know something about my own sister’s health.)
My sister and I did not much love each other; she had severe psychological difficulties, more than I care to discuss here. But I never wished that she should cease to exist. Yet, this is what happened.
My sister had severe diabetes, which she refused to care for properly. I suppose she thought she could not die.
My mother never did accept the fact of my sister’s death. Until the last, when I visited her she would talk as if my sister were about to enter the room. I think she had rather it had been me. I think sometimes I wish so, too.
I was far away when my mother died, and there were no decisions for me to make in the matter. Somehow for me my mother didn’t died. She simply – ceased to exist.
I saw my sister’s body, dead. It was nothing but decomposing matter. Every sign that said ‘humanity’ was gone from it. However we could analyze it chemically or mechanically, there was no grasping that body, as a whole; no understanding of it as anything that could be called ‘human,’ or even ‘once-human.’ What could that mean? Could we swing back time and see it breathing on its own again? That was a moment in the past that could never be repeated. Reverse time, and the body would still lay there, decomposing; it was just matter.
I do not think it is truly possible to see another person die. I think there are two entirely separate temporal continuums, one in which the person lives, and the other where we are forced to admit we share a universe with whatever’s left behind – the dust, the ashes, the clay, the matter itself. So all we witness is the null-point between two times, two existences, one inhabited by the other person, another in which the other person simply – is not.
What is this witnessing for, anyway? or is it just a condition we suffer through – again and again… intervals counted before existence ends….
He lit a cigarette. The harshness of the smoke always reminded him that he was killing himself, but the irritation of his upper respiratory system insisted that he was still alive to feel it.
Through the window, he could see the sunset. He hated upstate New York. In Nebraska, the sky suddenly blazed a deep crimson as the sun slipped under the mountains to the west. On the Pacific coast, the horizon itself was just one gigantic ball of flame. But in Rochester the dusk fell like ash into a dustbin. It was pretty dismal.
The thing about sunset: It signifies the end of day. Not universal days, not all days. Just this day, this one day, this one day when he was still alive.
He thought about checking his pulse, all those other little ‘signs of life’ they write about in biology textbooks. But he remembered his sister’s body had a pulse that last day, and she was dead. There was no empirical evidence that he was still alive, other than that empirical evidence concerning other possibilities were still present to his consciousness. What good was that? What good was that?
– This fly I swatted at so carelessly (or was it really ‘I,’ or merely my living body responding to an irritant as living bodies do?) – well, it’s dead. This fly I killed, is not anything anymore. It startled me, my hand lashed out to swat it, it’s not there anymore. Those tiny black flecks are not ‘fly;’ taken all together, they are not ‘fly.’ The fly is no more.
Is every meditation we have concerning death, only a meditation on the loss of the existence of another that once lived? Why can we not meditate on our own demise, in and of itself? We cannot know it; yet we are certain of it….
That word, ‘demise,’ it sounds so – gradual. as if we could slip into the grave, a little at a time – ‘just up to the neck, please, let’s see how it fits.’
Once communities knew how to let the dying go; these days, we have ‘do not resuscitate’ orders. The doctors have to be ordered to stop the charade of providing services that no longer do the patient any good. But some will go to any measure to keep the show going, hoping that Zeno’s paradox is an ontological reality – every moment divided into other moments, infinitely, keeping the door open to eternity –
But when it closes shut, it’s all at once. And there is no resuscitation. The condition of mortality defines our humanity.
Socrates is mortal.
“Where is my death in all of this?”
Originally, notes written shortly after my sister’s death.
In memory of Mary Ann.