Sunday, 16 August 2015

An atheist reflects on death

I’ve mostly tried to keep my personal life out of this blog, because that’s what I use Facebook for. But this post was prompted by the recent, unexpected death of my friend Brent. Brent had cerebral palsy, which in his case limited his movement to his head and one arm, slurred his speech, and also affected his cognition. (I never heard the official diagnosis until his funeral on Wednesday.) We met through a volunteer outfit called FriendLink about eight years ago; since then we’ve had a weekly appointment to visit museums and art galleries and libraries in town to look at art or books together. I think he preferred the art, which allowed us to move around and meet people rather than sit in one place as we would with books. Brent was a sunny, sociable person who would say “Hi” to just about everyone we passed.

But he was also sensitive. He could tell if someone had had a bad day, and it would distress him. He would worry, if I coughed or sneezed, that I was “sick”. He commented on death and dying from time to time. Once I remarked that my cat was at the vet, and this reminded Brent that his dog had not long since gone to the vet and then, as he put it, gone to Heaven. He cried. Sometimes, he had questions I couldn’t answer. This past April there were WWI-related exhibits everywhere, and Brent asked me two or three times “Why do they have wars?” I doubt I’m the only person who’s been stumped by that question. Museum displays are often about people who lived a long time ago, and sometimes it would bother Brent that they were dead. He would say things like “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “Oh no, that’s terrible,” or “How did they die?” – the way one speaks of people who have just recently died, who still have people mourning them.

He was right, of course. Most of us partition off the people of the distant past in our minds. They were people, obviously, but we don’t think of them as people people. Well, when I say “we”, it differs between cultures – the dead seem to be much more present to Māori than they are to Pākehā, if my limited cross-cultural observations can be trusted – but there comes a point when we shrug it off. That was the olden days, what do you expect? But the reality is that every name fading in a dusty genealogical manuscript, every fragmentary human skeleton dug up from under two metres of sand, had someone somewhere who grieved over either their stilled body or their absence. Everybody has somebody to say goodbye to them. (Fortunately the dead cannot suffer from our dehumanizing them, making this probably the most benign instance of that disastrous human habit.)

The last time I saw Brent he was in hospital, but that wasn’t all that unusual given the impact his disability had on his health, so I was not remotely expecting the phone call the following morning telling me he had succumbed to a suspected stroke or heart attack some time between eleven and midnight. This kind of bad news takes a long time to go into your head. For those first few minutes I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling, because Brent’s departure left a gap in my mind that no feeling filled – though it did gradually fill up with grief over the rest of the day. I guess when people say they’re “blindsided” or “dumbfounded” or “numb” in the wake of tragedy, that’s what they’re talking about. And there is some part of my mind that still doesn’t quite believe it, thinking of things to talk about when we meet up as usual on Thursday. After all, that’s what I promised him the last time I saw him.