Friday, January 12, 2018


--- Notes on life and death ---

We call such things as life and death "opposites," but this is not altogether a satisfactory name.... In fact life and death are not opposed but complementary, being two essential factors of a greater life that is made up of living and  dying just as melody is produced by the sounding and silencing of individual notes.

Alan Watts

It doesn't feel like philosophy to me. We know, without doubt, that we die - that death punctuates a life. What we do with that knowledge - how we interpret it, determines how we approach death. It's a personal decision.

What happens after death? Philosophy needs evidence if not facts. If a person has the evidence, they can't communicate it in any persuasive fashion. If they have no evidence, then they approach the end without certainty. But we're not talking about afterlife here.

When my father died, he died a good death - he taught me to die a good death. He didn't say, "I'm going to a better place," although he might well have had reason to believe so. What he said was, "this body doesn't work right anymore. I'm tired and old and ready to go."

Alan Watts was a Zen Buddhist. He believed in reincarnation but whether he believed that persons continued after death with their essence isn't certain to me. In the quote above, he says nothing about what happens after the song. Yet, again, he doesn't approach death as a bad thing.

So, the experience of death - the adventure of death - that's what I'll talk about here. Americans seem to avoid the topic vigorously. If it bothers you, just skip this blog. That's a good thing about blogs - you can skip the ones you don't like. But for completeness sake I should at least give the nod in it's direction.

And how timely! An intimation of death doesn't have to be a near death experience - it just needs to be something to remind you that you will, one day, die. Many say it's a valuable experience. As for Horace, Robert Herrick, and many other poets, it reminds you to make the most of life while you have it. It underlies my two tenants for life.

Fill your life with things that matter (value density) and for me that would be my relationships and active lifelong learning.

Live so as to minimize the number of regrets at the end.

As you get older, intimations of mortality come more frequently. There are many opportunities to revisit old familiar illnesses, but much more often, there are new concerns and each one makes you think - is this the one?

December 7, I took buses to Broomfield for an eye doctor appointment. It was a very cold and dry day and I arrived early enough to eat lunch. Generally, I like cold and dry and the short walk invigorated me, but it also triggered my immune system and a serious bronchitis. That would not have been so bad - I was quite familiar with bronchitis, a lifelong acquaintance - but there was something else, a very profound fatigue. I didn't understand that and, two days later, checked myself into the local hospital to see what was going on.

I wasn't dying. But a visit to my general practitioner placed me on bed rest until a next appointment and there I am now. I haven't been very active on the blog lately - here is the explanation and the excuse. Did I ever think I was dying? I don't think so, but I have certainly been reminded that I'm closer to death now than I ever have been before. I do look forward to washing dishes again and returning to the trail.  This one isn't going to stop me.

My father came out of the depression and went into the Army. He was a mortar Sergeant and one of the first wave of American military in the Philippines during World War II. I never realized how some of his personality was associated with "Sarge" until much later in life.

He survived the war and came home with a, then, lethal dose of amoebic dysentery. Luckily, his home town doctor knew about research being done in Atlanta, Georgia that would save his life.

After that, he supported a family, meaning he followed the jobs. My take on macho in his generation, and my take away was:

A man does what a man has to do.

And watching my mother, I came to the conclusion that the exact same rule applied to "real women."

Between us, I think my father and I have done most kinds of jobs. Neither of us have walked on the moon, but he has walked on an amphibious lander with bombs exploding around him, and I have walked on a lay barge with the sea exploding around me. I can see some similarity. In both cases, a wrong step can get you killed and there are some situations where you really don't have much choice in the matter.

My father was known as a person who would give you the shirt off his back, literally. If he knew of some one who needed something he had, he would give it to them. He knew that he would come through it anyway and he knew that they might not. My take away - I'm responsible for others well-being, and I can get through anything - confidence and philanthropy I learned from my father.

My brother was with my father when his doctor told him that he had lung cancer. I am told that the initial reaction was very transient. After that, he said that he was ready - he was tired and his body didn't work well any more. I saw very little change in his daily life style. We did a lot of the things that he enjoyed - gem and gold hunting - and he continued working with his hand. In my memory, he didn't stop (barely even slowed down) until a couple of weeks before his death.

He became close to one of the orderlies while he was in the hospital. The orderly told him that he would be transferred to a Hospice facility the next day and he said, "Don't worry about it. I won't be alive tomorrow." And, sure enough, he died five minutes before midnight. I was holding his right hand and my brother was holding his left. At the very end, the cancer took his voice. It didn't seem that bad - maybe it really wasn't to him.

Even his funeral was amazing. It was supposed to rain all that week. An hour before the funeral, the sun came out and stayed out until an hour after the funeral - and then the weather took up it's regular programming.

He gave me his name - Payton Bailey VanZant. He lived well and he died well. I hope he gave me that also.

                       V

 When I die, I'll die the proud death.
 To this I will commit myself
 And graciously I will concede
 My body to the earth.
 I will not fear death.

 But as I live on this earth
 I will neither fear life.
 And will search it for it's best
 And live to my extent.

 On the low plains with the wild and free
 On the high plains with my God.
 By this I will live my life
 Until death sets me free.

From The Werewolf
(Confessions and Dreams of a Functional Werewolf)
by Wolf VanZandt
January 16, 1977