Welcome to Mortality

Life is a terminal condition and death never takes a holiday, except that Terry Pratchett’s character named Death did once take a holiday (alas, not for the author).

I often think about that character. He rides a huge,  white, and very real horse named Binky and always speaks in capital letters, which seems only fitting for something so important that humans tend to pretend it doesn’t exist—at least not now. “NOT YET!” we scream in our own capital letters.

There’s been much publicity of late about the probability that the limit of human life is about 115 years. No doubt some people will set out to prove this wrong by taking pains to live yet another year or by perfecting the dream of putting people into stasis or freezing or whatever. Which reminds me to quote author Nick Lane’s rather chilling statement in Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution: “For every year of life granted by the gods of modern medicine, but a few months are spent in good health, the rest in terminal decline.”

Having recently passed my ninetieth birthday as well as having to cope with a good many of the less pleasant aspects of terminal decline, I have given some thought to death, which I’m sorry to say, will not come for me on Binky.

Terminally speaking, I have noticed more than I used to how much mortality is a favorite topic of many of our renowned poets and novelists, so that any god looking down at the human aspect of planet Earth would have to sigh and say that those critters certainly are a depressing work in progress.

It’s said that young children don’t really comprehend mortality, which explains why some of them kill and then are puzzled by the results. Other children see their parents die and if young enough, keep asking when they are coming back.

When I was a child, I was fortunate—I really didn’t know much about mortality. Relatives who died were all very far away, and I was told that if I buried my dead pet turtle in the ground, it would fertilize any nearby plants. I knew about the dead, kidnapped children in the newspapers and the classmates whose fathers had killed themselves after the 1929 crash. Nevertheless, lucky children who have not actually seen death tend to ignore it. This changed with the wars in China and Spain and then World War II, when we could become vividly aware of mortality not only through newspapers and radio but through newsreels. We saw people die.

And now here I am, in the late stages of that terminal condition called life, having seen many people die, having wept for lost loved ones, and having decided that while it is not possible to live forever (or even, heaven help us, to 115) it is possible to live many other lives, experience other realities, to ESCAPE mortality, at least temporarily.

There’s imagination, of course—mine or that of other people, but I’m not talking only about fiction. There is much in reality that makes for a fascinating escape. Take history, for instance.  After grinding my teeth over Shakespeare’s Tudor-induced portrait of Richard III, I was delighted to read that his actual skeleton had been found. Real people—not just fictional characters—do die, like the rest of us.

Not only kings die. Whole species die. It’s called extinction. Reading about it somehow brings home the larger aspects of death. When I go to the American Museum of Natural History, I always stop to look at the trilobites. There were once zillions of them, in interesting permutations of the same basic shape, and they went extinct in the great dying at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago.

Some species evade extinction. Most of the dinosaurs died 65 million years ago, but birds did not. It’s now thought that while even other feathered dinosaurs died, those we now call birds had two ways of surviving—by eating the remaining vegetation and small creatures in the shallows or by searching for seeds that had escaped the fires.

Then there’s the kinds of humans that may or may not have escaped extinction. We, obnoxiously proud Homo sapiens, are still here, and some do work to evade the extinction of our species. In the meantime, we have discovered DNA evidence in ourselves that shows that our ancestors bred with Homo species now called extinct. I am 2.7 percent Neanderthal, like a good many people of North European descent. In fact, it’s probable that every specimen of Homo sapiens alive today is a hybrid of one sort or another. Cheer up. Hybrids have vigor, they say.

So, are we coming to terms with mortality? I think it’s better to use the temporary escape of retreating into imagination. I’ve heard of people who cannot stand being alone with nothing to do. According to a study published a few years ago, these people will even administer electric shocks to themselves if given nothing else to do other than being alone with their thoughts.

I don’t understand this, no more than I understand why some people never tell themselves stories or care much for the stories others invent. Perhaps they are too busy making bucket lists.

I wondered about my own bucket list. I seem to have done many of the things I really wanted to do, including having a great love and publishing a few not so great books. I have seen the northern lights and a solar eclipse. I have even read and reread all of Terry Pratchett.

I recommend bucket lists, but I think they should change for each season of life. In the terminal season—er, when mortality really looms—it’s best to have a simple list, like managing the walk to the next doctor’s appointment.

I am reminded of the marvelous New Yorker story I saved but cannot find. I read it long before I got to the stage of the two men in the story, talking about all the things they’d planned to do but had to give up because they were now too old. As they talk, the conversation subtly shifts to the various things they have planned to do now. The title of the story was “Farewell, a Long Farewell, to Figure Skating.”

I also recommend getting acquainted with science fiction. Not the grim stuff but the cheerful assumption that the future might be better. I have lived happily in the Star Trek universe for fifty years. The future is, after all, “the undiscovered country.” and don’t we all like to travel?

Being able to retreat into imagination makes it easier to contemplate that for which there is no retreat. Well, somewhat easier. Try to enjoy your “now,” so you won’t be caught up in thinking of “then.” Don’t freeze your bucket list. Use it. Don’t wait.

And remember Pratchett’s conversation between a newly dead man and Death:

“It all seems very badly organized. I wish to make a complaint. I pay my taxes, after all.”


Somehow I find that comforting.