Vital Signs

"I Had Always Been Skeptical…"

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  “Everything is ready now.” Had I then and there said yes, the next step would have been the moment of truth. Truth undoubtable and irrevocable. From Socrates and Plato through the entirety of the human tradition, a secure belief has been that a verdict will be rendered upon the life concluded. And in that last moment is an instance of perfect freedom in which one is asked to submit to judgment. Perhaps that is presumption, perhaps an unwavering faith in the mercy of God. That, too, is for God to judge. It is simply that the message did not require that the judgment be now. It could be delayed for a time. In that, too, I was granted freedom. I was given permission to think it over for a time. Or so I understood the message.

It would mean leaving my body behind, for clearly that devastated body with all its tubes and wires and clamps wasn’t going anywhere. That was a sadness, since I was very attached to my body. Well, I thought, this body would be going to an undertaker, probably to the one around the corner on Second Avenue. I had long ago made up my mind that I did not want to be embalmed. A funeral Mass the next day and then into the ground to await the resurrection, that’s the way I wanted it. I mentioned this to a priest friend who told me it would not be possible. The cardinal, he explained, insists upon presiding at the funeral of every priest and often he is in Rome or otherwise prevented from getting there for several days. So embalming it is, then. I know it sounds odd, but I thought I owed my body an apology for this further and egregious indignity.

There is nothing that remarkable in my story, except that we are all unique in our living and dying. Early on in my illness a friend gave me John Donne’s wondrous Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The Devotions were written almost a year after Donne had almost died and then lingered for months by death’s door. He writes, “Though I may have seniors, others may be elder than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever.” So I too have been to a good university, and what I have learned, what I have learned most importantly, is that, in living and in dying, everything is ready now.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Basic Books (c) 2002, a member of the Perseus Books Group. 

 

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