I have never been one to focus on age. I believe it a waste of the limited time we all have. Of course, as a young boy, I engaged in the universal desire to be older. When asked, I was 6 ½ years old or almost 13. It seemed that achieving a greater age brought some instant benefits. For some reason, I thought 19 would be a perfect age.
I was wrong.
There is no perfect age. There is your age, and you best learn how to enjoy it.
What stimulated these thoughts about age was on-line forms and surveys. Whether it be purchases, surveys, or updating important information, at some point we face the age selection box.
Since I am now fast approaching 60, it seems I have to scroll almost to the end when picking by age and to the beginning when picking the year of my birth.
Soon, all too soon, I will be at either end of the selection process.
You would think, with all the creativity and knowledge in this country, someone would find a way to gather the necessary information without reminding me of the inexorable march of time.
It is the most common of human experiences, dealing with the death of a family member, friend, or others who affected your life.
I think we make a mistake when we focus on the tragedy of death. Death is one of two things every human being shares. Better that we come to accept this.
Since we all die, and none of us knows what the experience entails, I think we miss an opportunity to gain something positive from death.
It does not matter how one dies. The manner of death is like the weather, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Why rage against something so outside our ability to change?
What does matter is how one lived. Focusing on their death masks the real loss; the missed opportunities when they were alive. That is not to say we should not mourn, but we can give the natural state of mourning a purpose.
When someone dies, the living bear the loss. For those who have passed on, all opportunities are gone. The greatest lesson we can learn from someone’s death is to appreciate the living. To focus the time you have on things that really matter.
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning,wrote that people could survive the most horrendous conditions if they have a reason to live. Focusing on things beyond their control is useless.
Frankl’s experience in the camps taught him this; the one thing that no one can take from you is your choice of how you respond to the course of your life.
This would include dealing with death.
Most of the things we focus on, the material things, are secondary to living. Finding meaning is the key to life. Meaning cannot come from death. Yet a reason to bring something more into your own life, and the life of others, can.
Death in inevitable. Raging against such a certainty is folly. Deriving something good from it is enpowering.
In the wake of someone’s death, we need to focus our efforts on finding meaning in our lives and to give meaning to those we hold dear.
Death should remind us to live, not waste time raging against it. The sadness that comes with someone dying lies not in mourning the death but in mourning the missed opportunities when they lived.
Sometimes our blind trudging through our day overshadows the days of our life. Often our focus on the things of this world, jobs, money, the accumulation of things, detours us from living. The things we accumulate are nothing but the dust of life. They are the flotsam and jetsam of existence.
Lost opportunities are what death so starkly points out. Therein lies the sadness, and hope.
Imagine the important, breathtaking moments of our lives are like the stars on a crisp dark night. The enormity of the vision is powerful and vibrant.
Now picture the stars on a bright sunny blue-sky day. They are all still there, still amazing. Yet we cannot see them. Blinded by what seems to be a beautiful day.
Such are the many things we do in our lives. They may bring us some sense of satisfaction, some sense of value. Give us some measure of self-worth. Nevertheless, when the light fades and the stars show themselves, those bright things of the day pale in comparison.
When someone dies, we should celebrate their life, learn from those missed opportunities, and resolve to embrace those moments still left to you.
Frankl also wrote, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.” Choosing to find meaning in our lives, through the things we do and the people we touch, is what matters.
There is no greater memorial to those who have died than embracing the living. To find meaning in our lives and to share that with others.
When I die, if those who remember me say that I learned to do just that. That I tried to embrace my time as best I could. That I found meaning in my life and shared it with others. Then that is a life worth celebrating. Death is simply part of the process. Rather than something we mourn, death should remind us to live.
Here is a bit of a perspective for my fellow members of the Cumberland High School Class of 1974.
The President of the United States was Richard Nixon, until August 9th, and then Gerald Ford after Nixon resigned due to the Watergate hearings. Ford pardoned Nixon. Both Ford and Nixon are dead
The Soviet Union was intact, armed with nuclear weapons, and still our sworn enemy. Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin was the premier. He is dead
There were no cell phones, internet, or cable television
We landed on the moon for the first time 5 years before in 1969 and for the last time in 1972. Only 12 men have ever walked on the moon. We have not been back since nor do we have a real timeline for returning.
The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. She later joined them and participated in a series of bank robberies. She is now 61.
Muhammed Ali fought George Frazier in the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali is 73 Foreman is 66.
A gallon of gas was $.55
The speed limit was changed to 55 to conserve gasoline.
President Ford announced an amnesty for Vietnam War deserters and draft evaders.
The Kootenai Native American Tribe in Idaho declares war on the United States. It settled peacefully. The only time a war was declared and resolved without a shot being fired or anyone killed.
The World Population: 4 billion. (now 7 billion)
India successfully tests a nuclear weapon. They become the 6th Nuclear power. (There are 9 now, 15923 total estimated nuclear warheads in the world as of 2015)
The first MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is developed.
After 84 days in space, the American astronauts aboard Skylab return to earth.
A 3.2 million year-old hominid skeleton, 40% complete, is found in Ethiopia. She is named Lucy. Dr. Johanson, the paleontologist who found her, says he named her for the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
The pocket calculator goes on sale. (I got one as a graduation present, it cost my parents 84$)
Bar codes are used for the first time.
Salty Brine was still on WPRO announcing “No school, Foster Gloucester.”
Movies of 1974
The Sting, The Exorcist, Blazing Saddles (my favorite), Serpico, Death Wish
#1 Song of 1974
The Way We Were
Time in a Bottle, Hooked on a Feeling, Band on the Run, Can’t Get Enough of You Babe, Kung Fu Fighting
(How many of you sang these songs as you read them?)
1974 holds the record for the most #1 Billboard hits in one year, 35.
Kojak, The Price is Right, The Six Million Dollar Man
Here’s one that may bring some of you to tears
Born in 1974:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Alanis Morrisette. Jimmy Fallon, Victoria Beckham
So why the walk down memory lane? The end of a year lends itself to a momentary review of things. A recap of the path of our lives. We have come a long way from 1974, some of those class members didn’t have the opportunity to reach 2015.
As time moves on, as the year changes from 2015 to 2016, as we all approach our 60th birthdays, I thought I would remind us of where were all those years ago, the events that shaped us, and, more importantly, get us all to make the most of the time we have left.
The reality of life is that most of us will not be around when a Cumberland High School Class of 2016 graduate writes a similar memoir of his or her graduation year. It is important for all of us to be mindful of today and use the time we have wisely.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year, I apologize for reminding those of you trying to ignore the significance of 2016 age-wise, and hope you all have many more memories yet to create and cherish.
The following is a short story (albeit a bit longer than the
last one) written for a collection of short stories. A bit of an indulgence on my part, I admit, but I hope you will take the time to read it and comment.
So grab your favorite drink and find a comfortable place to sit. Let me see if I can entertain you with a bit of diversion, an escape from the realities of the world, if even for just a few precious moments. A story about dying. The fun stuff and the fine print!
Thursday morning, I woke up dead.
I did not expect this; it just happened. Later on, I wondered at what point I reached my end moment. Was it when I woke? Maybe I was dead tired that night. A part of me remained curious. All of me remained dead.
No matter, I am dead and there is no way out of it.
Here is how I found out.
I woke in my usual manner and time, reaching for my reading glasses and iPad. I could not grasp them. My hand passed right through them. Thinking I was still half-asleep, I stood up and looked for my slippers. They were in the same place I leave them every night. Yet they were at least 12 inches below my feet, which, I realized, were not touching the floor.
I must still be asleep. In a rather cool dream. I love the ones where I can fly.
Closing my eyes, I tried to draw myself out of the dream. Force myself to wake up.
I had things to do. Places to go. People to meet.
Turns out, death cancelled my plans. Indefinitely.
Reopening my eyes, I saw my human remains in the bed, not breathing. Very much dead. My exit from this mortal coil well in progress.
The words from the movie, The Wizard Oz came to mind.
…but we’ve got to verify it legally, to see, if she…
is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead.
Curiosity tempted me to lift the body, my body. See if there is truth to the notion that one does something in the bed at the point of termination.
I decided to leave it a mystery.
Walking or, to be precise, floating out of the bedroom, I glided down the hallway and into the living room. My wife and daughter were hugging, and crying. I assumed it was because of this sudden change in my status. I was sure it was. No insurance claim forms lying about, so I kept good thoughts.
“Bit of a shock, eh?” The voice had a hint of an Irish Brogue. The kind in a permanent state of amusement.
“What the heck…?” I said, startled by the unexpected words. “Who the hell are you?”
“You are not going to believe this, so give it time. I am your WTYPLE guide,” a somewhat diminutive, smiling being said. “But I prefer the old term, before political correctness infected this dimension, YADGOI.” He looked like a cross between a Leprechaun and a Hobbit. Although I do not recall Tolkien describing Hobbits as translucent. He shimmered like the Northern Lights.
“What is a WTYPLE guide?”
“Welcome to Your Post Life Existence.”
“Lovely.” I moved away, putting distance between this, ah, thing and me.
“Want to know what YADGOI stands for?”
“I don’t think so,” shaking my head.
“You Are Dead, Get Over It.” He smiled as he ignored my response. “Much clearer, don’t you think? None of the touchy-feely give them time to adjust nonsense. You are dead, move on I say. Hit’em with the reality and let them deal with it.”
“Is that what you do? Hit them with reality?”
“Oh no. We help you adjust.”
“Adjust?” Staring as I tried to get my head around all this. “To being dead?”
“Of course, it’s like a new job. There are new routines, new rules, you know, adapting to a new experience. The whole being dead thing.” He put his hands up in the quote motion, “Your post life existence as I am supposed to say. Such nonsense.” Shaking head.
“There are rules to being dead?” watching as this, whatever he was, faded before my eyes and reappeared on the couch. Sitting between my wife and daughter.
“They’ll be fine, you know. No worries,” putting his arms around the two. “Part of life, is learning to deal with death and the changes it brings. You have had a good life with them. They have more to do here. You, are the other hand…well, it is time to move on. You ready?”
“Now? Can’t I stay with them a bit longer? Say goodbye?”
“That is always one of the first things they ask, ‘Can I stay longer and say goodbye?’ Sorry, but no.” He rose from the couch. “Look, while you were alive, there were many opportunities for that. Those are no longer available to you.” He floated over, stopping next to me.
He put his hands on my shoulders. “You’ll come to understand, given time. Your life is now in the past. You cannot alter it or undo it. You can remember, for as long as you like. Hold tight to those memories.” Pausing a moment, I could see him studying me. “Now, what you have is a future. Different from the past, yet full of opportunities. Let’s go.”
I watched him gliding towards the window.
“Why are you, that is, why can I see through you?”
His appearance changed, turning from a shimmering translucence, into a solid something. A being, I suppose, for lack of a better term.
“Oh that. Special effects, helps convince people they have checked out. You are well along the way.”
I stood looking between him and the two most important people in my life, or former life anyway. Slowly, reluctantly, I moved away from them towards the window.
“So there is an afterlife?”
“Well, not like any of that psychobabble, contact from the beyond nonsense. There is no crossover between the living and the dead. It is a one-way journey. There is this brief transition phase. You meet your guide, that’s me, and learn to accept the new reality.” He reached over, putting his hand on my shoulder again. “Once you transition, there is no further contact with this level of existence, or the past.”
“But what about near-death experiences, or people who believe they speak to the dead?”
My guide smiled and shook his head. “It is all in the mind of the person that believes it. The human mind is capable of amazing acts of self-deception. You have a politically correct term for it.”
“And that is?”
“Delusional,” he smiled. “If you want something bad enough, the mind does its best to provide it. If you want to believe in heaven. It imagines it for you. If you want to believe Grandma comes to you in the night and helps you write poetry, ta da, the mind provides.
“You want to believe that a person has some special ability to contact another dimension. That they can speak to the dead. Your mind finds a way. You will soon understand. Depending on how well your transition goes, I may let you observe the next time one of those self-proclaimed psychics crosses over.
“The last one I had wet himself, twice, and wouldn’t stop whimpering for hours. The dead terrified him. Never believed any of the nonsense he told people. It was quite amusing.”
“So none of it is real?”
“Oh no, it is real. Real to the person that experiences it. Even so, it is all in their mind.”
I am sure he saw the disappointment in my eyes. “What about this? Is this just in my mind?”
My newfound friend smiled. “That’s for you to figure out, I suppose.” He clasped his hands together. “Okay, time to go. We have much to do.” Standing on the windowsill, looking back at me, his hand reached out to me.
“What do I call you, I mean, do you have a name?”
He voice took on a different tone. A deeper sound with an echo effect. “I am known by many names.” The voice returned to his normal lilting timbre. “There is a book called The Nine Billion Names of God. How about you use one of them?” The echo chamber effect returned. “Or just God will do.”
“God?” My eyes grew wide. “You mean you’re… there is a….”
The smile on his face grew wider. “Just kidding, I love the reaction when I do that. Sorry, a little guide humor. Just added this new app to my phone. Look.” He held up his iPhone, pointing at an app. An icon image of Charlton Heston from the Ten Commandments displayed on the screen. Underneath it said, The Voice of God (for entertainment purposes only.).
He put the phone away. “Call me Wyatt.”
“Why do you have an iPhone?”
“Ever since a certain person crossed over, we’ve gone full Apple. Although I do miss my Android sometimes. Ah well, no matter. Equipment choices are out of my control.” He turned to the window.
“Oops,” he snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. You can take one thing. Something small, be nice if it fit in a pocket, but your choice. You have to carry it.”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know what to take; there isn’t anything I’d want to have, except more time with them.” I looked back as my wife answered the phone, telling someone else I had checked out. “I can’t have that, can I?”
“There you go, Joe. You already figured out the first part. You, my friend, are ahead of the curve. There is nothing important you can take. It is what you leave behind that matters.” He patted me on the back. “I’m glad I got this assignment, you show some promise. I had one who wanted to take his 60-inch TV. Said his wife never watched it and it would be a waste to leave it.” Wyatt chuckled at the memory. “That project took years.”
I floated towards the window, looking back one last time. “Do we have to fly out the window?”
“Only if you want to. I always find a little dramatic experience in the beginning eases the transition. We can walk out the door if you like. My car is right outside.”
I looked at my new companion for a moment. “I think I’d prefer to walk out the door, Wyatt. There is no need for the dramatic gesture. I’m dead, I get it.” I walked toward the door. “Wait, a car? Why would we need a car?”
“We don’t. I just like to use one in this first phase. More a personal preference than anything else. What can I say? I like to drive. One of the things I miss from my life,” his eyes grew misty. He looked lost in thought.
“I see.” As we walked out, I glanced back one more time.
“Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”
“That’s quite profound.” Wiping a tear from my eye.
“I’d like to take credit, but Paul Simon wrote it. From the song, Old Friends/Bookends.” He sang the song as we went out to the parking lot. “Time it was and what a time it was….”
“So, when did you die?”
“Me, oh some time ago. Back in the 60’s, 1969 to be precise. I don’t remember much about that time. That was part of the problem. My single-minded devotion to the consumption of alcohol and drugs. A major contribution to my exiting in a spectacular way. Plenty of time to talk in the car. Long ride ahead of us.”
“Long ride, to where?”
“Review tour. I take you around to various places that played a part in your life. We find that it makes the transition better. You adapt to the new experience faster and it helps us measure your progress and suitability.”
“Suitability, for what?”
“Once your transition is complete, everyone gets assigned a task. For some it is a one-time thing, for others it is more complex. This will all come with time. For now, just think about what you’d like to do with your future.”
As we walked through the lot, my mind roiled with emotion. I felt great, if that was possible considering I was dead. The emotions of leaving a mix of sorrow, regret, and curiosity. I never expected this, but I suppose no one ever does. I continued walking until I realized I was alone.
“Over here,” Wyatt’s voice came from behind me.
He stood next to the last two cars in the lot. Before I croaked, I always parked my car in these spots. I did not recognize either one.
“So, what will it be? Which ride would you like?” he said.
“We’re going to steal someone’s car?”
“No, of course not,” Wyatt laughed. “I had them brought here for this purpose. Pick one.”
The cars were both the same color, deep forest green. One was a brand new Camaro, glistening in the early morning light. The other, a 1964 Chevy Bel Air. The first car I ever owned. Fond memories tempted me.
“Does it matter?” As the words came out of my mouth, both cars vanished.
“See, I knew you had potential. The choices people make, and why they make them, would surprise you. The new car represents all the things that do not matter, yet many spend their lives chasing them. The old car represents the past; many spend their lives clinging to what was.
“None of it matters. The only thing that matters is now, here, at this moment. The car you drive, clothes you wear, houses you occupy are fleeting and meaningless. Good for you.”
I thought about what he said. We are all guilty of both. Chasing happiness through material things, or craving the nostalgia filtered memories of the past. We have just one true thing of value, time. How we choose to spend it determines the course of our lives.”
Wyatt let the words sink in for a moment, his hand linked behind his back as he watched me.
“Let’s take the Camaro.”
His voice interrupted my thoughts of summer days long past, spent with my friends at the beach. Delivered there in my old Chevy.
“Put on some Led Zeppelin and see what this baby can do.” The car appeared again, the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven coming from the inside.
“I thought the point was it didn’t matter?”
“It doesn’t matter to you; I’ve already made the transition. I am entitled to a little fun.” Dancing to the driver’s side, Wyatt played an enthusiastic air guitar. “Like the irony of the music?”
“Nice.” I smiled. “Wait is there a–.”
“Nope. Another mass hysteria figment of a collective imagination. I find it amusing. If you prefer, I can play Highway to Hell.”
Just as we got into the car, another voice came from the back seat. I jumped as I looked around.
“Hi there Wyatt,” the Asian accented voice said. “I see we went with the Camaro again.”
“Hey there, Vong. Say hi to Joe, my newest project.”
“Hello Joe what do you know?” Vong said, laughing at his own humor. “I never get tired of saying that. My sister said it all the time.”
“Long story, I’ll tell, you later.”
“So is Vong your assistant?”
“He’s an apprentice guide just assigned to me. One who needs to learn to speak only when spoken to,” Wyatt glared back at Vong. “We’ve known each other for years.”
“How’d you meet?”
Vong chuckled. “Yeah, Wyatt, tell him that story.” Laughing as he played his own air guitar to the Jimmy Page solo.
Wyatt gave him a nasty look. “I killed him in Vietnam. He was a Viet Cong agent sent to sabotage the aircraft on the base.”
“I prefer patriot and hero to my country.” Vong leaned over the seat to look at me. “It is all about who’s telling the story isn’t it?” He laughed.
I stared at Wyatt, glancing back at Vong, as I tried to absorb this. “You killed him? And now you work together?”
“Death has a sense of humor. The fates love irony,” Wyatt said. “You ready?”
I nodded, although I was not sure why. I mean, here I was, dead for all of twenty minutes. A strange creature named Wyatt asks me if I am ready. Not sure how anyone could be. Still, I nodded and waited for what came next.
Next consisted of me thrust backwards into the seat as Wyatt lit up the tires and squealed from the lot. The car just made the corner. Sliding off the metal bridge over the Blackstone River, he accelerated up the road.
As we approached the traffic light, it turned to yellow of course. Wyatt pushed the car harder. Beating the red light by a full hundredth of a second, fish tailing onto the Mendon Road.
“Are you freaking insane?” I yelled.
“Nope.” Wyatt laughed. “Just dead.”
“How the hell did you die?” I yelled, as Wyatt cranked the volume on Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath. The car careened onto Route 295 north.
Wyatt flashed a sinister smile, “Car accident.” Glancing back as Vong continued his guitar performance. “Don’t worry, I was drunk then. I’m not now.”
“Would you slow down; you don’t want to kill anyone do you?” I hollered over the music.
“You mean again?” Vong added, breaking into the more intricate of the solo sections of the song.
* * * *
I stared out the window, watching my once familiar neighborhood fade into the mist. The emotions and adrenaline of the last few hours faded and I drifted off to sleep. Do you sleep when you’re dead? Warren Zevon thought so.
I did not dream, it was not a deep sleep. I could hear Vong and Wyatt engaged in an animated conversation about what we would do next. Still half asleep, I heard fragments of the discussion.
“A little harsh, don’t you think?” Vong said.
“Best get it over with. It is part of the checklist and he seems to have handled the initial phase well. Most are still thrashing around on the floor or hanging onto the furniture as we drag them away at this point.”
“Okay, Chongjin it is.”
The sensation of speed drove the sleep away. I opened my eyes and the adrenaline started pumping once again.
We were flying.
“Since when does a Chevy Camaro fly?” I asked.
“Since the day they were first made.” The song Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf blared over the speakers.
“Not at 30,000 feet.” Guessing the altitude by the number of commercial airliners we passed. “And not at… How fast are we going anyway?” Being dead has a benefit of eliminating the fear of, well, anything.
Wyatt smiled, “8500 miles per hour, cool isn’t it?
I turned to look at Vong. He had his head buried in a paper bag, making guttural noises and moaning.
“What’s his problem?”
“He hates flying. Says it’s unnatural to be this high.” Wyatt chuckled.
“Unnatural? He can fly without the car. What is natural about any of this?”
“Try telling him that. We spend half the time preparing for our new arrivals trying to arrange the schedule to avoid flying. Just so he won’t–”
A huge retching sound came from the back, interrupting our conversation.
“Dammit Vong.” Wyatt cringed. “So he won’t do that.”
I turned to check on Vong. He lifted his head from the bag. He glanced inside it once again before closing it. “Funny, I don’t remember eating that.” A weak smile crossing his face.
Wyatt laughed, “Must have been the Somali Pirate we handled last week. The one the Navy Seal aerated. We took him to the village where he was born and we ate, ah, whatever the hell that was.”
“Well,” Vong said. “Whatever it is, it’s in the bag now.” He rolled the bag up, placing it in a larger plastic bag. He smiled. “We recycle.”
“Hang on boys, this is my favorite part.” He looked over at me, grinned, and pushed forward on the wheel.
Dying may end fear. I learned it does not end the sensations of deceleration and descent. Some parts of dead are like a ride on a rollercoaster.
I thought for a moment that I might need to borrow a bag from Vong.
“Hey Vong,” Wyatt said, looking in the rear view mirror. “I did it again. I turned you white.”
“I hate you.” Vong took deep breaths as his normal complexion returned. “I can’t wait until you sit back here and I drive.”
* * * *
Wyatt landed the car, such an odd thing to say, in the middle of frozen lake. As we got out of the car, the bitter cold and cutting wind assaulted me.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked, my body shivering in a feeble attempt to keep warm.
“Chongjin,” Wyatt said.
“Chongjin,” Vong repeated. “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
I looked at Vong, then back at Wyatt.
Wyatt handed me coat, gloves, and wool cap, then did the same for Vong. “You’ll understand soon. Just pay attention.”
“Can I ask something? If I am dead, why am I feeling the cold?”
Wyatt put on his coat. “Good question. For most of these little adventures, the ambient environment is unimportant. Some are better if you experience the elements. In this case, cold is an important element.”
“Okay, so why are you guys experiencing it?”
“Yeah,” Vong concurred, “Why do we have to be cold? I am from Vietnam remember. I like warm.”
“In order for us to help you through the process, it’s better if we all share the full experience.”
Vong shook his head. “I’ve been here, done this. I can wait in the car.
A moment later, I heard and felt a loud ‘whomph’ sound. Wyatt pointed towards the car, “Watch this,” he said.
“Oh shit,” Vong yelled as he dove to the ground.
A bright flash, followed by an explosion that shook the earth, engulfed the car. Parts of the vehicle flew everywhere. I joined Vong on the ground.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, raising my head from the snow.
“Mortar round,” Vong explained. “I love mortar rounds.”
“I know you sneaky bastards do,” Wyatt laughed. “Too bad you couldn’t hit the ground with one.”
Vong chuckled, “That is so true. If I had I would be in charge right now, instead of you.”
I sat up, knocking snow off my head and coat, surrounded by pieces of a once nice Chevy Camaro. Death was not much fun to this point.
“Can I ask why we’re here?”
Wyatt motioned for me to follow him. I looked at Vong, he pointed for me to go first.
* * * *
Climbing a hill, we came upon a group of men clad in padded white coats. They were firing a variety of weapons. Some of them alternating between shooting and blowing trumpets.
I started to ask, “Who are these–?”
“Chinese, People’s Volunteer Army, from the People’s Republic of China.” Vong explained before I finished the question.
“What year is this?”
“1950, November 26 to be precise.” Wyatt, handing me a pair of binoculars, pointed towards a road at the bottom of the ridgeline. “You’ll figure it out.”
Lifting the binoculars to my eyes, I focused on the snow-covered road. Wyatt leaned over. “Watch the bend in the roadway. Two men will be the last to come around the corner. Focus on the man closest to us.”
The sound of the battle increased. I watched a steady stream of vehicles, loaded with dead and wounded men, making their way along the road. They struggled through the unrelenting weapons fire poured on them by the Chinese. It seemed to go on for hours. I put the glasses down for a moment, looking to Wyatt. He sat on the stump of a tree. Next to him was a foxhole. Three Chinese soldiers, taking cover in the hole, tossed grenades down the hill. He made a motion for me to resume looking through the binoculars, pointing back to the road.
At last, two men came around the corner. One was carrying a large automatic weapon, the other a Thompson submachine gun. They alternated between firing at the Chinese and running to keep up with the convoy.
I watched as one of the Chinese soldiers fired at the man with the Thompson. The Marine went to the ground. The other Marine put the sling of the Thompson around the wounded man’s shoulder. He lifted the wounded Marine onto his back in the classic carry. He was of slight build. Yet he managed to carry the wounded man, and both weapons, to the nearest truck.
The Marine returned to his position in the rear, firing his weapon. Sometime reaching down and tossing one of the Chinese grenades back up the hill.
Wyatt tapped me on the shoulder. I put the glasses down. “Follow me.”
We walked another 100 yards or so down the ridge, stopping at a large boulder. The rock concealed a Chinese soldier from the passing column below. The soldier lifted a rifle to the edge of the boulder, taking aim at the Marines.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“There’s nothing you can do. This is something you just need to understand.”
The Chinese soldier fired the weapon and time slowed down. I watched the bullet leave the barrel, traveling down towards the man on the roadway. At the same time, I saw the man on the roadway spot the Chinese soldier and fire at him.
The rounds passed within inches of each other.
The bullet from the Chinese rifle passed through the outer layer of the Marine’s uniform. Spinning him around and knocking him to the ground.
A moment later, I watched the round fired at the Chinese soldier strike him in the forehead, killing him.
Time resumed its normal rhythm. The Marine rose to his feet. He resumed firing with the same intensity and continued to follow the column of vehicles.
The blood from the Chinese soldier poured from the wound. I watched the steam rising, the blood soaking the snow and freezing in the intense cold.
* * * *
I found myself back at the car. “Didn’t this get blown up?”
Wyatt laughed. “Nah, it was just special effects. A little drama to add some realism to the battle.”
“It seemed real enough to me. I could smell that distinctive coppery aroma of the blood. You want to tell me the purpose of me seeing that?”
“Wanna take a guess what it was you saw?” Wyatt asked.
I thought for a moment. “Vong, you called the place Chongjin. Does it have another name?”
It struck me at once. The nightmares of my father’s experiences with the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He was in the worst of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, when the Chinese entered the war.
I thought for a long moment, remembering the few times my father spoke of the war. “The Marine on the road was my father?”
“And I watched as he came so close to dying. Why show me that?”
“So you understand the path of life is determined by small, almost imperceptible, things. A slight change in action or time or place creates a different history. If that man was not wounded, or if your father did not carry him to the truck, things might turn out differently.
“Maybe the bullet your father fired would have missed the Chinese soldier. Maybe the one fired by the Chinese soldier would have killed your father. Maybe there’d be no you. Maybe the Chinese soldier, or his child, would live to find a cure for cancer. You must understand, there is no such thing as insignificant.”
“So I am here because of chance?”
“You are here because one outcome prevailed above all the other possible outcomes. Call it chance, fate, or luck. It is what happened,” Wyatt answered.
“And the Chinese soldier? What about him?”
“His time in that moment was different. Not better, not worse, just different.”
“So there is a reason for everything? Things happen for a reason?”
“There is a time for everything, there’s no need for a reason. Everything has time. For some it is short, for others longer. The outcome is determined when it occurs.” The sounds of the Byrd’s singing Turn, Turn, Turn came over the radio,
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
“I thought you said there is no heaven?”
“There isn’t. The lyrics came from an imaginative poem. Written by an insightful, but innocent and misguided, believer.”
Vong and Wyatt leaned on the hood of the car, talking quietly. Vong appeared to argue a bit, and then nodded in reluctant agreement.
“Ready for your next step?” Wyatt asked.
“What will that be?” I said, looking at my two companions.
“You don’t have to do this now, if you’re not ready,” Vong said.
“Ready for what? I don’t even know what the heck you’re talking about.”
“See?” Vong turned to argue with Wyatt. “He’s not ready. We need to show him a few more before he gets it.”
Wyatt smiled. “Look, I’ve been doing this longer than you and–”
“That doesn’t matter, we have a process.” Vong was getting agitated
“It isn’t written in stone, remember? I can tell with this one.”
“Hello,” I said, waving my arms. “I am right here, the new dead guy. You’re talking about me like I am invisible.”
“Well, you are.” Vong laughed, pointing at me.
I looked down and there I was, gone. Nothing, no light reflected off me. I could see where I thought my feet would be. Nothing but the ground.
“Don’t worry. The ability to reflect light, to make yourself visible, takes time. It will happen. Don’t try so hard.”
As Wyatt spoke the words, I seemed to reappear.
“See, it’s like quantum physics. Something does not exist until we observe it. Learn to observe yourself and you exist, ignore it and poof, you’re not.”
“Is this place always so metaphysical?” watching myself fading in and out of visibility.
“Nah, just some of it. The rest is like a self-fulfilled prophecy. You make it whatever you believe it to be,” Vong explained, as he faded in and out of visibility as well. “I’ve had more practice.”
“So if I forget about myself, I no longer exist?”
“You can never forget it all. That would be non-existence.” Wyatt disappeared, and then reappeared once again. “It’s like being asleep. You are there, but unaware.”
All this talk was making my head, or the space where my head should appear, spin. “So what is this next thing?”
Wyatt and Vong exchanged glances. “It is sort of a graduate level experience in deadness. A PhDead in the post life experience.”
“Okay, bad pun. It is an expedited explanation of how life works, or worked, and where you go from here. I have used it with a few of my projects, but I think it would work for you. It is a fast track approach to transitioning. I think you are ready.”
I looked as Vong made faces behind Wyatt’s back. “You disagree?”
“I just like to move a little slower. That’s all.”
Wyatt laughed. “That’s how I picked you off in the ‘Nam,” turning to look at me. “He was creepy-crawling all VC-like and I spotted him. Lit him up like the 4th of July.”
Vong shook his head, “Picked me off? You damn Americans; I try to take him on đàn ông với đàn ông, man to man. He calls in two jets with napalm. He has no sense of a warrior’s honor.”
“Warrior’s honor?” Wyatt chuckled. “You call firing a rocket into an outhouse being a warrior?” Turning once again to face me. “You know what he did, this brave warrior? He watched our commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, go in for his morning shit. Then the great warrior fired a rocket right into the outhouse. There was shit and dead colonel parts everywhere. It was hard to tell which was which.”
The two laughed at the humor.
“I HEARD THAT, SERGEANT!” a voice thundered from out of nowhere.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, looking around, terrified of the sound.
“Oops, I forgot the Colonel is on monitoring duty today. Sorry Colonel, just kidding.” Wyatt spoke to the sky. “It was easy to separate you from the shit,” leaning in and whispering in my ear, “The shit smelled better.”
Wyatt smiled and motioned for me to follow. Vong kept glancing over his shoulder, making me nervous.
“This isn’t what I imagined it would be. Being dead I mean.”
“But you’re wrong there, my friend,” Wyatt said. “It is exactly as you imagined. It is exactly as everyone imagines. Different for each, but just as they imagined.”
I tilted my head, “No it’s not.”
“Sure it is,” Vong chimed in. “Have you ever read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?”
“Sure, I read it. I’m surprised you have.”
“Why, because I’m Vietnamese?” Vong put his hands on his hips. “I was a guerrilla fighter and well-read, they are not mutually exclusive you know.”
Wyatt broke in with a fake Asian accent. “I go your Harvard University. How many homerun Baby Roof hit 1927? You tell me now, Joe.”
Wyatt threw up his hands and backed away, bowing.
Vong turned to face me. “Apology accepted. As I was saying. Like the man seeing the shadows on the wall, that is reality to him. To you, this is being dead. To someone else, this would all be different. Each has their own perception of what being dead means. Just as we all have our own perception of reality.”
I shook my head and leaned against the wall. “I still don’t get it.”
“Would you like Plato to explain it himself?” Wyatt asked.
“Exactly,” Wyatt answered. “He is also here. Imagine he is standing in front of you. Close your eyes and give it a try.”
I closed my eyes. A moment or so passed by and I felt a warm breeze against my face. I opened my eyes. There was a small, bearded man wearing a white robe holding a scroll standing in front of me.
“Plato,” Wyatt said, “this is Joe. Joe, Plato. Ask away,” waving his hand at me and turning to sit on the bar stool. Somehow, besides the visit from Plato, we had transitioned to a bar. Vong made Martinis.
“This is the real Plato?” I asked.
The man smiled and said, “Έτσι, θέλετε να καταλάβετε το σπήλαιο”
Which, of course, was Greek to me.
Wyatt laughed. “Your imagination is too precise. Imagine Plato, but he speaks English.”
I looked at the Greek Philosopher. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, it is your imagination. So, as I was saying, you want to understand the cave?”
“Sure, I guess,” I answered.
“You guess? You conjure me up, make me speak English and you guess you want to learn something?” Plato said, turning to Wyatt. “You think he has potential?” Pointing his finger at me.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Explain the cave, please.”
“Okay then,” Plato said. “It is simple. Perception is reality. As you perceive, so you believe. How else can you explain Scientology? Or Xenu? Yet people believe it.” Plato laughed.
“That doesn’t explain anything,” I argued.
Plato smiled. “Yes it does. I am sure Wyatt told you, the mind is capable of wondrous things. It can conceive ideas, create masterpieces, and compose awe-inspiring music. It can do all these things just by being. Some believe it is divine inspiration. It is not. It is the power of the mind, if you use it. The sad part is most do not. They believe things fed to them when they are young without ever questioning any of it. Because they believe, because they want to believe, their mind makes it real to them. It is how all the religions, philosophies, and concepts of what it is to be human proliferated. Each one sincerely embraced by some, derided by others. As they perceive, so they believe. That is why this transition takes so long for most. It takes time to dissuade them of the nonsense which infects them like a virus.”
“This is all in my mind, isn’t it?”
Plato smiled. “Some of it is. I am real. You are real. All the things you experience are your mind’s creation. We are here to help you understand. Now that you have, it’s your turn to help someone else.”
Plato vanished. Wyatt and Vong carried on another of their secret conversations.
“So what’s next?”
“We’ve considered a radical departure from the norm,” Wyatt said, glancing at Vong.
“The best guides are those with an open mind and a desire to learn. It is clear to us you have that.”
“What does that mean?”
Vong handed me a stack of papers. “Call it a baptism under fire. We’re taking a chance here that you may be one of the rare ones. Capable of learning on your own. It’s all in there.” Vong smiled. “You’ll find the way.”
I flipped through the pages, when I looked up Vong and Wyatt were fading.
“Ah, focus there guys. Your invisibility is showing.” I smiled.
“Enjoy the transition, my friend. See you again soon….” The two were gone. I was alone.
I re-read the documents as I traveled along the road. I enjoyed walking, or at least this close simulation of it, as I went to my assigned task. Walking through the front door of the hospital, I went to a particular room. I encountered a large group gathered around the bed. Some were crying, others laughing and telling stories.
In the bed was a man of about 65 years old, looking confused.
“Bit of shock, eh?” I said.
The man turned to look at me, surprise on his face.“Who the heck are you?”
I smiled. “You are not going to believe this, so give it time….”
There are as many ideas and concepts about post-mortal existence as there are people on this planet. In the vast universe, the conceptualization of what happens after death is likely, well, universal.
We hold onto our life. We sometimes go to extreme means to prolong it. And sometimes, we choose to end it by our own hand.
Regardless of how it happens, we all will die. Cease to exist in this particular form and manner.
So, naturally we wonder, where do we go?
Is it me, or my idea of myself, that exists outside the corporeal me?
Is it some ethereal existence, sans a physical form?
Or is it merely the atoms that once took my form follow the rules of physics and bind into another?
Where do we go? Where have those that have gone before us got themselves to?
No hard evidence exists of anyone ever coming back (despite the Bible or Shirley Maclaine’s claim to the contrary).
So, where did they go?
Is our composition of stardust our only path, reverting to that molecular essence?
I hope we do return to the stars. Taking on forms in locations we can only dream of. Becoming, once again, a living part of the universe.
Those that would have us ascend (which way is up by the way? It changes as we rotate in our current world) to heaven or descend (same direction issue) to hell show signs of self-limiting human thought.
I imagine a different ascension.
While my human self-awareness may end, each of the atoms and molecules of my brain that power my consciousness will continue.
Matter can neither be destroyed or created.
The law of conservation of mass, or principle of mass conservation, states that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy (both of which have mass), the mass of the system must remain constant over time, as system mass cannot change quantity if it is not added or removed. Hence, the quantity of mass is “conserved” over time. (Wikipedia definition)
Hence, while I will die, the matter that is me will not cease to exist. And since no one has ever come back, there must be something to it.
Now, understand something, this is no death wish. I intend to continue on this level of existence for as long as I can. There is much to do, much to experience, many things to live for.
As things come into my mind, compelling me to write, one of the things I contemplate is the end of life. As you age, it becomes more apparent that each day brings you closer.
By thinking about the realities of our physical world, by trying to understand the concepts of physics and all it’s weird possibilities, multiple universes, string theory, quantum theory, by the simple act of looking into the night sky and seeing the immense universe, one cannot help but imagine the possibilities of existence after this human experience.
So, where do we go from here? No one has the answer. Religions have tried to corner the market by selling a guarantee on the post-human experience. While many are well-intentioned, I think they lack true imagination.
Our minds, our ability to dream, our ability to think is our most precious asset. If we can imagine it, we can do it.
By using that same ingenuity in contemplating our post-human experience, I believe we can see the infinite possibilities of our continued existence.
While I enjoy this level of existence, I believe there is something to look forward to when the time comes.
While the Ebola panic dominates the news, an equally important story goes almost unnoticed.
Brittany Maynard, 29, suffers from a rare, untreatable, and 100% fatal brain cancer; diagnosed with grade II Astrocytoma, the most aggressive form.
The prognosis for the progression of the disease is one of rapidly decreasing quality of life and a painful decline to death.
Ms. Maynard chooses to end her own life, on her own terms, after living long enough to celebrate her husband’s birthday.
The real tragedy here is that we may have already had a cure if we had prevented religion from interfering in the funding and course of scientific research. I am referring to stem cells and other promising medical research.
Whether or not it would make a difference in this matter, no one knows.
We do know that prohibiting the research did make a difference. It condemned her to die.
Another argument, once again fueled by religious zealotry, would prohibit her access to choose the time and manner of her death. There are only four states in the country where this choice is available.
They argue it should be left in God’s hands.
That would be the same God who, if he did not inflict the disease on her, at least let it happen. You can’t argue this point. Omnipotence is pretty specific. God either chose to allow it or inflicted her intentionally.
Sad state of the world when this country would turn its back on suffering and slow, painful deaths based on Bronze age writings manipulated by a powerful, self-sustaining organization propagating a myth.
The other side of this story is one of courage and hope.
Courage. This young woman shows remarkable courage in choosing to die with dignity, in her own time, without subjecting her family to the agony of watching her prolonged and painful death.
Hope. There is hope that her decision to end her life in this manner will spur people to demand medical research guided by thoughtful, knowledge based, and scientific methodology.
Not restricted by religious nonsense.
Let’s hope that Brittany Maynard’s courage will inspire others. We must all take action to insure her willingness to share the choice forced upon her, and her dealing with the reality of death, is not in vain.
I wonder how many of us would have the courage to do the same.
The first of the early morning light filters in. Your world transforms from the quiet calm of dark to the frenetic movement of light.
Moving as a group you begin the daily tasks of seeking food. Following the familiar paths, you find success, and failure, but enough to survive for another day.
Suddenly, movement from above, the group scatters in seemingly disorganized patterns of survival developed over eons of evolution. Effective for the many, but not for the one.
Removed from the comfort of your familiar world you gasp for air, gripped by a force above you, rising higher and higher, until the motion stops……and the terrifying last, brief, moments of life are torn from you.
Imagine you start the day, driven by a hunger. You search and search for a way to satisfy your need. Hours on hours you seek a way to sustain yourself and those dependent on you for their survival.
Then you see an opportunity. Using all your skills you track, stalk, plan, and pounce at the right moment. Seizing the life sustaining element, you return to those depending on your success.
Some survive, some succumb. Sustained and sustenance is a narrow divide.
The day started as all the other ones. We woke just before the sunrise, ate a small meal, straightened our living area, and prepared to go out to gather provisions.
We headed in a different direction, as he thought we would have more success in an area we had not examined to this point. I was nervous, I do not like new, but he reassured me, and we headed off.
Within a very short time we had gathered more than we had done the whole day prior. Rushing back to carefully store it, we were excited and happy. After several trips back and forth we began storing items in our reserve areas, one can never have enough in the event of bad weather. There are times when you just can’t get out and reserves are necessary.
Having managed to put up an amount that would normally take a week to gather, we had time to relax and enjoy the warming sun.
I ran on ahead, and he followed. Sometimes he would race past and hide. Sometimes, he just followed wherever I led. It was enjoyable.
I ran on, he followed, we came to the edge of the grassy area and I continued on, dashing to the small area before the next expanse of grass and woods. He followed behind. We were happy.
I started to go towards the woods, crossing the hard packed ground, and then, as I stared to run, blackness…….
I was out for my morning walk, on the return trip, listening to my iPod. The podcast was a debate between Christopher Hitchens and the Reverend Al Sharpton regarding Hitchens’ Book “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”.
Hitchens had just answered a question regarding man’s need for ceremony and rituals.
I noticed two squirrels running along on the opposite side of the road, and then crossing to the center island. I knew with certainty I was about to see death visit.
The car came around the corner, the lead squirrel, as they are want to do, dashed into the roadway, tail raised, and was struck. It briefly waved its paws in the throes of death and ceased moving. I was sorry to see such a thing, not that I am a fan of squirrels but this particular one had not done anything as far I as I knew to warrant such a termination.
What struck me was the reaction of the other squirrel. It peered over the rise of the center island and spied its former companion. It rose on its hind legs and from where I was watching his front paws appeared to be almost folded, as if in prayer, almost ceremonial. He (or she, since I have no way to tell from my perspective) paused a moment, started to return from where he had come, turned around once more as if to reassure himself that the body was unmoving, and headed off.
I suppose every living creature has some manner of dealing with death. Is it ceremonial? I don’t know. But there was something there, in the way the squirrel paused and looked at the other.
Death visits, and demonstrates its ultimate power to those of us watching.
Some people would see meaning in the actions of the squirrel, sorrow for the loss of the companion, sadness in continuing on alone, resignation to the realities of life and death.
I think he was thinking, if there is such a thing as squirrel thoughts, “Great!” More nuts for me!
Conversations come in almost unlimited variety. They define many of our moments on this planet. Some we have daily, some only once. They can be combinations of types (first, last, only, memorable first, memorable last, one of many memorable, heart to heart). They can be between two people or many, each participant experiencing a combination of types (first, last, one of many)
Here is my list;
First conversations: filled with uncertainty and potential, can lead to one or many more, may be memorable or merely the seed that begins a new relationship. Sadly, I can recall very few first conversations. I know they occurred because, in many cases, I am still having conversations with that person. I suppose there really is no way to know if that first will develop further. Too bad, I’d love to be able to recall those first few words with the important people in my life.
Funny conversations: conversations wherein you make someone laugh, they make you laugh, or, the best kind where all the participants laugh. I recall having many of these. I suppose that may be a good measure of how my life has been enriched by others. I hope I have returned the favor.
Memorable conversations: We all have memorable conversations, some of which we wish weren’t. They may have been necessary, but painful. Then there those conversations that you will never forget. I sometimes have a hard time recalling my own birthday, telephone number, or even lunch, but I can still recall being told I was going to be a Father… Learning of a loved one’s death, told about receiving a promotion, having someone express thanks for something you did. All memorable, enduring, and in some cases, life altering.
Heart to Heart: We all have to have these. Sometimes we are the focus of the conversation. The focus may be of a positive nature, a rebuke of something we did or failed to do, or a life’s lesson taught by someone with more experience or a better perspective. We may choose not to remember these, but they have some impact. Some work, some don’t.
Death conversations: Having to inform, or be informed, about the death of a parent, friend, relative, pet, or other important life form in your or someone else’s life.
We all have these conversational experiences. If the latest research on the function of the human brain is correct, it is not that we forget our experiences, and thus our conversations, it’s that we lack the ability to reliably recall them.
But the fact is they are imbedded in our unconscious mind. Perhaps, influencing us in ways we may never know.
So the next time you have a conversation with someone, a friend, a lover, a child, a stranger, or two Yorkies named Ralph and Max (had to get my dogs into one of these), bear in mind your words are being written into memory.
They may recall your kindness, wisdom, and affection; or anger, rudeness, and mean spiritedness.