When I was young – or, at least, younger than I am now – I didn’t fear death.
This feels like an outrageous thing to say. I mean, death is the thing to fear, right? The ultimate cessation of one’s life, right? The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns – that kind of shit, right?
I mean, no matter what we think lies on the other side, I’d say the general majority of humanity seems to agree that once your heart stops a-knockin’, some significant part of your sentient self stops a-rockin’, and will never, ever, ever do so again. Post-death, there is some permanent division between who you are and the mortal realm, though some believe this division to be more permeable than others.
But about nine years ago or so, I thought I had death pretty figured out. I did so mostly by paring down the things I didn’t know about it.
I didn’t know when it was coming.
I didn’t know what was on the other side.
I didn’t know the final termination point of the general human species – the “Big Death,” I guess.
And what was really nice about these questions was that I found it quite easy to resign myself to never knowing the answers to them. I found this a hell of a lot easier than some other people seemed to. But me, after I thought about these questions over a period of time, I actually found all this unknowability to be a relief – because once you accept that you’re never going to know the answer to a question, it means you can stop giving a shit about it.
You just shrug. And a shrug, in so many ways, is such a beautiful gesture, one of the greatest gestures humanity has ever created: lifting up your shoulders to slough off some burden as if it was nothing at all! This world piles so much shit on us the second we draw breath, and a shrug not only frees us, it belittles those problems altogether, not only saying “I don’t care” but also “This problem is nothing to care about.”
That’s what’s so nice about shrugs – it not only frees you of the problem, it changes your perception of the problem itself.
Anyways, this was my approach to the bigger issues. A big, spiritual shrug. Do the most good while trying to be the happiest you can, or try to be the happiest you can while doing the most good. And for the rest of it? Shrug. What else can you do?
Looking back on it, it was easy. There were just a handful of things to give a shit about! Terrorism? Shrug. The economy? Shrug. Global warming? Shrug. Nuclear proliferation? Shrug! I trucked along as well as anyone could, I guess, doing my thing and taking the punches that came my way.
It felt so easy not to be in control. No, the hell with that – not being in control was bliss.
Maybe I’m misremembering it. Maybe I’m thinking of that time as being a lot easier than it was. And I’m sure that, if someone stuck a gun in my mouth back then, I’d piss my pants and beg for a few seconds more just like anyone else. But day-to-day-wise, I had gotten myself in a mindset that was relatively bereft of philosophical problems.
Then things changed. Because then this happened.
I tend to be a pretty detached person. Maybe “distant” is a better word for it: in every moment, there’s a part of me that’s separate, recording what’s happening to me but more or less indifferent to it. I don’t know if I’m like that because I’m a writer, or if I’m a writer because I’m like that, but I do think most writers have that weirdo little recorder in their head, taking snapshots of each encounter and experience to be processed and reused later in writing. Have a bad breakup? Break your arm? Hurts in the moment, sure, but that recorder is there, saying, “Hmm. Interesting,” and filing it away.
This is kind of how I went into parenthood, at first: a little clinically detached, like a NASA rover on a new planet taking samples. This feels somewhat monstrous to say, but it’s true: having a kid is such a complete change-up that for the first year or so, a lot of your time is spent just on orientation, figuring out what goes where.
I thought I loved my son. But some people are better at loving babies than others. Loving a baby was not, for me, a particularly easy thing to do: babies are essentially bigass potatoes with huge eyes that sleep and poop and scream. They’re almost wholly nonresponsive, passive, like a particularly delicate piece of furniture that requires just a ton of looking after.
For example, I have never had a particularly interesting conversation with a baby. And I did not have any particularly memorable ones with my son in the first year of his life. Mostly I would ask things like, “Why are you crying? What can I do to make you happy?” but if he responded cogently to any of these queries, I was unaware of it.
So for a while, I was okay. I could take care of a baby, even if the experience was not spiritually rewarding for me. It was a part of life that was more or less a one-way street, where you give and give and sometimes they smile or laugh, and you try and remember that that smile and laugh makes it all worthwhile. (Sometimes, it does. Other times, it doesn’t.) But here’s the thing about having a kid that people don’t tell you:
Eventually, you forget there’s a person in there. And when you realize it, it’s completely fucking creepy.
And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s astounding and a little unnerving when you have your first conversation with your kid, even if their part of the conversation consists of “yes” or “no.” It’s like having a conversation with an armoire: a month ago, this was kind of just a presence in the house. Now it’s goddamn talking to me!
This is why childless people are always confused when parents (especially parents with their first kids) are always fawning over every little thing their kids do. Ever wonder why why your co-worker rambles on and on and on about how their 2 year old busted out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that morning like it’s the second coming of Christ? Try imagining how you’d feel if your dog or cat did it, just speaking up or singing out of nowhere. It’d blow your fucking mind, right? That’s pretty much how I felt when my kid did that kind of stuff to me. Some part of my brain said, “HOLY CRAP, IT TALKS LIKE A PERSON!”
So over the past year and a half, it has gradually become obvious to me that, holy shit, there’s a dude in there, a person behind those bigass blue eyes. This potato was sentient, I realized: it had a personality, and it was watching and studying me just in the way I watched and studied everything else.
Probably around the time when he suddenly became infatuated with hiding and we started building blanket forts and pillow forts and all kinds of crazy crap, I started realizing that while I thought I had loved my son in baby-mode, this was a whole ‘nother thing. This guy was completely different, surprising and awe-inspiring in all kinds of ways, and I was amazed and completely in love with him.
I could sit and listen for hours hearing him ramble in his stuttering toddler-talk about this dragon that had come in the house and flown through all our windows. My day would come to a complete standstill whenever he turned over a bucket in our backyard, climbed up on top of it in his damn underwear, and started singing – badly, but with great pride and passion – at the top of his lungs.
Listen up, folks, I’m about to drop a truth-bomb on you, and it’s gonna sound lame as hell but it’s gonna be true: I have never loved anything in this world like I do my kid. That kind of powerful connection is completely off the charts. You can tell me all day long that your connection to your cats or your parakeet or your husband with his dumbass beard is the same, this intense, burning, profound love that can only be expressed in labyrinthine sonnets, but in my head I’ll know that whatever you’re claiming is love is watery beer in comparison to the feeling I have for my kid at any given moment. Even when he sneaks behind the cabinet in our living room to shit his pants in private. (He completely does this, if you’re curious.)
So at some point in time, I realized that the detached little recorder thing in my head was no longer quite so indifferent. I didn’t hear, “Hmm. Interesting!” nearly as much as I used to. As a matter of fact, it was working overdrive, recording everything it could and screaming, “Keep this! Don’t lose this! Don’t ever lose this!”
I wondered why the little recorder thing was saying that.
Then I realized that, at some point in time, this guy, this wonderful person who had just blossomed somewhere inside my son’s bigass head, was going to die someday.
I hadn’t thought about that before.
I tried to shrug. It didn’t work.
For a while, I could manage it. My philosophy of life – it’s momentary so make it good, and nothing, nothing, nothing else matters – was flexible. And I knew I was lucky, that we had it pretty good, and my recorder worked as hard as it could just trying to capture everything that my life was.
Somewhere around when he was one year old, I started singing one song in particular to him, a lot. The song was Shenandoah, the folk/sailing ballad from the 19th Century, and I suspect it was inspired by David Mitchell’s novels Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
The subject of the song is a little unclear – is it a Native American princess? A river? – but I’ve chosen to believe it’s the latter, a river. The song is beautiful and melancholy, but it’s not entirely unhappy. It’s a song of both loss and anticipation: something is gone, but it might come back.
And that’s the nature of rivers: they bring things to you, and they also take them away. And you have to accept that.
I sing that song because, I think, it’s my way to accept inevitable loss. One day, I will lose the things I am desperately trying to record in my head. I’ll be gone, or they will, or both. One day, these things will be forgotten, as if they’d never been.
No matter what you believe, I think this is a truth.
Slowly, I found myself singing it more and more to him.
I wonder now if I would have eventually become haunted by death in some manifestation. I think I might have. I think that somehow, I was looking for a symbol, an image or an idea to hang death on, a totem for me to be afraid of, a boogeyman to drive me to sleepless anxiety.
Because now I had skin in the game. I wasn’t detached anymore. I was invested. Suddenly I gave a shit about politics. Suddenly I gave a shit about the economy. Suddenly I gave a shit about Texas’s horrific, brutal drought, about the dead trees, about the wildfires, about the trickling rivers, about the buses with the huge blaring water restriction signs on the side about, about…
That’s right. I became utterly fucking haunted and obsessed with climate change, to the degree that it became increasingly hard to live my life.
It sounds a little ridiculous to say, but there it is. And this anxiety was totally invincible to shrugs.
Maybe it’s different because we’re in Texas. We have a forest outside of town that’s been consumed by wildfire and looks positively post-apocalyptic. Our water stores have been dwindling since 2011, and each year we have less water at the end of it than we do at the start. And Texas is, despite all these things, one of the states that is most loudly defying the existence of a phenomenon that threatens to literally kill everyone living in it.
People said, and say, “We’ve had droughts before! This is just the weather, guys!” But then I looked online and see that 2010 was the hottest year on record, and I thought… Well. At the time, I couldn’t think at all.
This isn’t a post trying to convince you to believe in climate change. I don’t really care if you choose to disregard NASA’s and the UN’s continued insistence that this is a big problem. (Seriously, you won’t listen to NASA? The people who put our asses on the moon and invented Tang?! What the hell!) I fervently – perhaps more than fervently, as I will explain below – believe that it’s going to completely fuck our shit up, and I tend to be pessimistic about whether we can do anything about it at this point. Maybe that window’s closed, who knows.
I try to think about how I would have felt about this before my son’s birth. I probably would have thought, in my clinically detached way, “Well, this century will certainly be interesting! Whether I like it or not, I’m getting front row seats to humanity’s greatest challenge.”
But now that I had my son, and now that I knew him, I thought, “HE’S GOING TO DIE, HE’S GOING TO DIE, HE’S GOING TO DIE, HE’S GOING TO DIE!”
(It’s probably worth saying that, despite my clinical detachment in a lot of things, I am a very anxiety-prone person. Before big meetings, I tend to lose sleep and be unable to eat or focus on anything. So there’s that.)
This horrific, paralyzing anxiety grew and grew through the Fall of 2013. I intentionally sought out the bleakest possible reports on climate change. I flinched every time I saw the weather suggest the slightest hint of warmth. I researched green technology, trying to find some hope in that. And it all came to a head a few weeks ago, during the Polar Vortex, when Australia and most of the Southern Hemisphere had one of its most horrific heatwaves while our Midwest got pummeled with unbelievable winter weather, and everyone seemed to say, “Climate change? Nope!”
My brain interpreted this as, quite bluntly, “DEATH IS COMING.” And this was the refrain that echoed in my head when I woke up in the morning, and when I went to bed. I thought, “One day, this won’t be,” and I meant everything: my house, my wife, my son, our little bubble of contentment we’d been percolating around in for so long.
I couldn’t sleep. It became very difficult to feel the joy in things. It became hard to feel, period. Because my brain was being eaten up by thoughts of tremendous, catastrophic death.
Not my death. My son’s. I didn’t care much about losing my world – I’d made my peace with that awhile ago. It was the loss of my son’s world, my son’s opportunities, my son’s chance at a good life that was like a worm in my brain.
I found myself wishing that I’d been born in another time period. I found myself envious of the Boomer generation, who got so much and were now about to die and stick the rest of us with the check. I found myself furious that me and my family were going to get royally hosed just for showing up to the global party at the wrong time.
What bad luck we had, I sometimes thought, to be born now of all times, at the tail end of everything. What bad luck I have, to bring this perfect person into this world at this moment in history. I tried to shrug, and couldn’t.
What bad luck it all is.
One night, I couldn’t read to my son.
Just so’s you know, bathtime and nighttime is the Daddy Domain in our house. I bathe him, get him in his pajamas, and read to him, usually around 2-4 books, and then I put him in bed and sing four verses of Shenandoah to him.
But one night, I just couldn’t do it. I felt physically ill to be in the room with him, to be holding him. I felt like I was going to vomit putting him to bed, singing him Shenandoah, he so cheerful and innocent and blithely ignorant while my brain shouted, over and over, again, “DEATH IS COMING.”
I couldn’t bear it anymore. I didn’t want to take care of him or the house or myself. I didn’t want to do anything.
That was the night when I decided to tell my wife what was going on inside my head.
The crux, I deduced as I spoke to her, was not just climate change – as I’ve said, I’ve made my own personal, perverse piece with my apocalypse – it was that it was his apocalypse. His end. And I told her about this horrific disbelief I’d been carrying around inside me, disbelief that this wonderful, perfect person was one day going to be wiped off this earth and be totally forgotten. And climate change was the force that promised to do it soonest.
She thought for a long time. “Okay,” she said. “Well. Obviously now is not the time for this kind of thing, but… I feel like we need to have a second kid just to even you out.”
I stared at her. I couldn’t believe what she’d just said.
She explained: “Listen. You have obviously never become attached to a child before. This is your very first time to have this happen. You are the newest of new parents. And I don’t think you’ve figured out yet that he’s just a baby, that there are thousands of babies being born and dying every day, and no one has any control over that, including you. He could die tomorrow. And we need to be happy that we had him for as long as we did.”
That was probably the thing I needed to hear most just then. (My wife, as you might expect, is often my voice of reason. It was her idea to write this blog post, or example, knowing that this was often a way I dealt with shit.) For a lot of my life I’d been fine having absolutely no control, having the apocalypse hanging over my shoulder, not knowing what death was or when it was coming – I had accepted these things.
But I hadn’t realized that my own case and my son’s were the same. I’d thought he was different, or that he should be. And it was hard as hell to think about it for me, but we weren’t and never would be. We were both at the whims of the universe and whatever it wants to throw at us. And I had to accept that.
I’m not sure if I did. I’m not sure if I have yet. But I slept a little better that night.
I’ve written five books so far, and once you’ve done that amount, you start to see some things repeating.
For example, I guess I really like hallways. I also like tunnels underground. And I really like fires, it seems.
But I’ve noticed that the climaxes of my books usually involve something very similar, especially the first and the last three: there is the image of a lone person screaming a protest against the sky. Sometimes it’s not just the sky, but a god, or something like a god – but what’s the difference between a god and the sky? Especially when neither listens to you.
Maybe this is what I think the human condition is: shrieking and raging at the universe to pay attention, begging it to understand that this matters, and hearing silence. Or perhaps that’s who I am, at heart, underneath it all.
But there’s another theme in my books, or at least I think I’ve seen hints of it: the melancholy peace of submission. Not quite giving up, but accepting what is happening to you, what has happened to you, what will happen to you.
And what will happen to those you love.
Life is a series of acceptances. You accept who you are, what the world is, and what will happen to you. And sometimes, in my braver moments, I accept that not only will I die, but so will my wife, and son.
Time is a river, bringing things to us and taking them away.
He’ll die. Of course he will. It’s just a matter of time. And, like all of us, one day it will be as if he’d never been here at all.