My heart didn’t beat for an hour this year. Was I dead?
Three months passed between my heart attack and bypass surgery, so I had plenty of time to think about death. During that time, I often imagined the moment just before the surgery, just before falling asleep under anesthesia: what will my last thought be, having above me the menace that I may not wake up? Will I have any special revelations? Will I remember to entrust the people I love to God one more time? Will I be strong? Will my fear overcome me? Will I be decent? Will I remember to call upon the Theotokos to pray for my soul? Will I have it within me to go out with grace?
I’ve never shied away from talking about death. In fact, in my home, death, my death, is a topic for dinner conversation. I still remember my son’s somewhat troubled eyes when I spoke about it when he was still a small boy. I always wanted him to be prepared for my death, and for his as well. So “wise” of me… You never are prepared, as life taught me when my own father passed.
Still, I’ve always felt as if I was ready for my death.
Statistically, I had less chances of dying during the bypass surgery than I have of dying of COVID. Nevertheless, I had three months during which I prepared for death. It wasn’t really discussed–it’s odd, but death was much more a topic of conversation when it was more of a distanced possibility than when it was palpable. In my case, preparation for death meant separating myself from the others. Not so much physically, but emotionally. I realized at that moment that this was the reaction of those close to me. They were not preparing for death, but for my death, my potential death, and it is difficult to grasp the reality that your husband or your father may just as well disappear from your existence. You need time, time alone, to process all of that. Consciously, we were together; we made an effort to be together, especially during those times, but we also needed time alone.
Even more than that, you imagine more easily how life may be without you. And nothing matters anymore. During the last days of your life you no longer remember discussions you may have had with your wife, but you rather rejoice in her existence.
What if there’s no life after death? What if I don’t encounter my ancestors, and what if Socrates is not there to accompany me in the underworld and introduce me to Plato, Aristotle, and, yes, Dostoevsky?
It strikes me that it is irrelevant whether this idea, that there is life after death, is true or false. What may matter, though, is how I relate myself to it: what does it do in my life? There are plenty of other beliefs that may be true or false, that we fight about, without having any power to actually prove one way or another. Shouldn’t we judge them according to whether they make this life more or less beautiful? Beauty, a new criteria for truth; beauty, something that makes even death desirable. Why would I embrace a philosophy that brings me to the brink of the abyss of despair and gives me no tool to deal with it? And I hear Elder Sophrony of Essex: “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.” He doesn’t say drink tea and, when you are sick of it, go at the brink of the abyss. Life is life when you face nothingness. Funny, though, how I truly saw the abyss only when a complete occlusion stopped the flow of blood on one of my arteries. God bless the occlusion of my LAD, which made me aware of the brink and encouraged me to have a cup of tea.
Socrates says in the Phaedo that philosophy is preparation for death and dying. I think the imminence of death may also be a good teacher of philosophy as well. There is one thing to look at a tree and consider, abstractly, that it may belong to a world to which you don’t tomorrow, and one other thing to do so the day before going under the knife.
There was no great or heroic moment before I went blank under anesthesia. I remember being taken from one surgery room to another (I had another procedure done right before bypass) and being welcome by a nurse, who actually came to visit me every subsequent day I spent in the CVICU, bless her heart. There was plenty of light in the surgery room. Another lady told me she was my anesthesiologist and placed something on my mouth. “Thank you,” I said. “These may be my last moments when I am aware of my existence,” I thought. I think I wanted to think of my family and I wanted to pray. I had no time for that.
I woke up after eight hours or so, hearing the voice of a former student, now a nurse in the CVICU.
“It seems I didn’t die today.”
Am I know more prepared to die when time truly comes?