Monday, 21 November 2011

Sum of All Fears


Our attitude to death is one of the indicators for the various flaws of our Western culture. We are brought up to mostly ignore the existence of one of this world’s biggest certainties, to simply pretend it does not exist. Then, when the inevitable happens and it hits us, we don’t know what to do. I need only look at myself and my immediate family to see that.

Death hit me properly for the first time 15 years ago through my uncle. He was no ordinary uncle: in many ways he overshadowed my parents throughout my childhood. My parents were the ones that got me dressed up and ready for school, but he was the one who bought me my first proper books and who took me to the cinemas. Amongst other achievements, my uncle bought me my first ever science fiction book (Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey), took me to see my first ever proper cinema experience (The Empire Strikes Back), and got me the book that probably carries the burden of blame for my world views (Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan). More importantly, it was my uncle who was the family’s skeptic; without him I would have probably been an entirely different person. So yeah, my uncle was important to me.
For as long as I remember my uncle had an ongoing dispute with cancer. Fifteen years ago he got to the point where his doctors told us that he has up to two months left to live, more likely two weeks. What I remember from that experience was the way we dismissed the information: it couldn’t happen; after all, my uncle didn’t seem that bad, did he? But he was, and two weeks later he was dead.
The thing that still annoys me about it is that as a direct result of living in a society that pretends death does not exist I did not get to have a proper farewell with this uncle that gave me so much. My dismissal of the doctor’s news, boosted by the way the whole family dismissed it, was coupled to my sheer ignorance of not realizing the meaning of death. It was not the ignorance that comes when you simply don’t know something, the way I am ignorant about, say, baseball; it was the ignorance that comes from not wanting to know in the first place.

Fast forward to modern times, and it seems that history might repeat itself soon. Now it’s my father who is on the line.
Don’t get me wrong: he is not dead or dying yet. However, over the last year there was a pattern of health failures, and at his advanced age it is clear there is no going back. It may take a good few years before the inevitable happens, and I hope death takes its time, but it is clear that the distance between where my father is and death has severely shrunk. Shrunk enough to bring back all those fears I have developed 15 years ago: I might have learnt my lesson, but would I be able to have it any different now that I live some 24 hours away by jet?
It is not easy to just drop everything in Australia and quickly board a plane to Israel, where my parents live. It costs a lot of money, it requires coordination with work, it means leaving my wife and child behind, and there is always the uncertainty of not knowing how long this all affair would take. Death, it seems clear, is nasty business.
One annoying thing I find is that while I have grown to be able to stare death in the face, name it for what it is and even pass jokes on its behalf, the openness I am displaying does not apply to the rest of my family. With the way they are behaving it feels as if they’re all planning on immortality. As in, I have no idea how my mother expects to be able to manage her finances without my father. That is something I find even scarier than death itself: the latter is inevitable and certain, but the former is basically a shroud of uncertainty that has been proven to ruin the lives of the living. You know, the people’s whose lives still matter after the dust settles.
I have to add that I have another fear to add to this equation, one that I am not too proud of: the fear of Israel. I don’t like Israel and I don’t make much of an effort to hide the fact; why else would I leave it? However, a death in the family means that I will have to go back to Israel, and for an uncertain while I will have to do some organizing and arranging. In other words, I will have to be an Israeli again, if only for a limited period. And I hate that and I would do a lot to avoid doing it.
My Israeli friends have already picked up on this fear of mine; they enjoy making jokes on my behalf. The funny thing about my fear of Israel is that it only seems to apply before I go there. Once at Israel I’m fine, but on the way there I keep wondering what wars and calamities will befall the country just as I drop for a visit. A death in the family is obviously much worse than just coming over for a family visit, though, so there is more chance for this phobia to rear its head.
For now, all I can do is to try and get both myself and the rest of the family ready to deal with whatever is likely to happen. Alas, I’m quite sure all the various inhibitions we grew up on will prevent the us from achieving much.


Uri said...

I was so sure you were commenting on Anne McCaffrey's death, I was half way through the post before I realized you weren't, and in fact, that you wrote it a couple of days before her death.

I assume that no one in your family reads your blog. Maybe that's a good thing some times.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Hardly anyone reads my blog, period. However, since the point of this post is that families should be openly discussing death, I disagree with you. Personally, I wrote a will a publicized quite extensively; I think the rest of my family should prepare for the inevitable, too.

P.S. The McCaffrey coincidence occurred to me, too...

Sarah said...

Have thought about this post quite a bit since you posted it. The thing I would tell families no matter how much time you have left is to make sure you are creating memories and leaving evidence behind so that once someone is gone you can still visit with them. Take videos, photos, write down stories of births and other important family experiences so that once the oral history is gone it is still available to future generations.

I want to hear my Mum's voice and see what her mannerisms were like and we really don't have any videos of her and she was shy and didn't like to be filmed anyway. My mind works hard to remember these things and because I try so hard I can't hear it and then it fades.

So for all parents don't rely on the ability to be around to answer your kids questions leave evidence in a tangible form. We are all dying of a terminal disease called life and as you say there is no use pretending otherwise.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You remind me of Simon & Garfunkel: "Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you".
For the record, I have hardly anything of the stuff you're talking about from my parents. They keep on asking to see Dylan videos/photos (recently less, though, since we started video Skyping), but they don't realize I need just the same from them. But don't get me started there.