The commuter jet banked to the right as it sliced through the thick cloud cover, which pressed down on the city of Boston. The dreary morning suddenly flared to life as the plane burst into the sunshine above the clouds. The sky was a striking, cheerful blue and the clouds turned into a continent of rolling, white hills.
So it was odd that my thoughts were on death. It’s eventuality. How death is the end goal of every single life form. But I’ve been reading essays and literary criticisms about “Hamlet” lately and the play is filled with death. Hamlet – thoughtful, mournful and passive – manages to kill just about everyone in the story.
In my more reflective moods – like at that moment on the plane – I fear death. I fear losing the identity that I have spent my life growing into. I’m me. I don’t remember a time before me and I’m almost certain I won’t remember a time after me.
This life of mine – when it ends – will be washed away.
That’s a terrifying thought while barreling across the sky at thousands of miles per hour. How can it be that at some point I’ll never be able to hold my wife again or to feel the gentle breath of my two daughters against my cheek? Yet it’s going to happen. I can’t change that. No one can.
On the plane, I had a visceral reaction; a rush of blood to my head, heart banging against my ribs, and a hollowness spreading across my gut. I was nearing panic. So I closed my eyes and tried to focus on breathing. One deep breathe at a time. “Not today,” I told myself. “I won’t die today.”
That brought some comfort. As I fell into a tranquil state, I began to wonder how my own death would occur. Because we all will die in one way or another. Rarely, does this happen in a comfortable feather bed surrounded by loved ones.
Mostly it’s messy and unexpected.
Car wrecks on the freeway. Cancer invading breasts, lungs, and prostates. Falling off of ladders. Heart attacks while shoveling snow. Suicides and murders. War. Bombings. Household accidents.
What did the future hold for me? Would I die tomorrow? Would it be in five years? 10? Or, hopefully, 50?
I thought about my Uncle Eddie. Eddie was a former Boston cop who had been shot three times in his life.
The first time was on a beach in the South Pacific during World War II. A medic found him near the surf line lying face down in the sand. The medic noticed that my uncle wiggled his finger.
Later in life – when he was a cop – he inadvertently walked in on a robbery in progress at a cinema on Washington Street. He the ensuing gun battle he was shot in the chest and was in a coma for more than a week.
The third and last time, Eddie had retired to south Florida and was living with his sister. He had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. He waited for his sister to leave the bungalow for her daily chores. Then he spread a plastic sheet over the living room carpet, loaded his service revolver with a single bullet, and put a bullet in his head.
I sometimes wonder what my uncle was thinking in those final seconds of his life. Did those seconds stretch out for an eternity as he reflected on the life he had lead? Did he think about his two sons and his grandchildren? Was he in a peaceful state of mind – or was he afraid?
No one knows, of course. The only certainty is that my uncle died alone and under circumstances he controlled. Very Shakespearean, this death of my uncle.
The plane banks to the right again. The sun is bright, nearly blinding and the sky has become a washed out beach blue. The pilot announces our descent to New York City and we dipped towards earth.
My panic – my fear – has dissipated. Death seems faraway again and back as a plotline in “Hamlet” – an abstract rather than a reality. This, I suppose, is as it should be. Carrying death so close would make life impossible – unbearable. It needs to be distant so we can do things like shop, eat, shit, and sleep without the terror that this time may be the last time.
“Hamlet” is running through my mind again and a line from the play reminds me of my uncle:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”
But then the plane lands and I have meetings to attend, business to conduct, and death will have to wait.
Read about 10 Unusual Literary Deaths here
Labels: death, Essay, Poetry, Shakespeare