You’d imagine that the first time you die is something that you’ll never forget. Well, to be perfectly honest with you, all of my early deaths have mostly just dissolved into one big blur. After a while, you just stop keeping count and the details seem far less important. It’s probably for the best, all things considered. There’s only so much pain and suffering and loss that anyone can be expected to put up with before it becomes overwhelming. Mind you, if it does become overwhelming, what exactly are you going to do? Kill yourself? In a very real way, that just compounds your problem. If you think that life is pain, then you clearly haven’t died often enough.
I’m okay with most of the later deaths. I can remember them just fine, but that really isn’t very impressive because the plain fact is that the documentation is simply better these days. If you can’t quite remember the details of exactly how you shuffled off this mortal coil last time around, it’s now the kind of thing you can always just look up.
Maybe it’s my age, but looking back over my deaths now, old and new, I find that I’ve actually become a little nostalgic about the good old days. Everything is so clinical now. Oh for sure, nobody in their right mind would be sentimental about massive rates of child mortality, plagues, constant, blood-soaked warfare and a medical profession that killed more people than it cured, but there was something almost romantic about the way people died back then.
Life might have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, but people still died of a broken heart, or passed away from old age peacefully in their sleep. These days, you might live to be one hundred and twenty years old, but medical science will now know exactly what it was that finally carried you off. One of a thousand different cancers, perhaps; the failure of a particular valve in a particular chamber of your heart or maybe something rather less banal like an untreated dose of parasitic visceral leishmaniasis (I don’t recommend it). Some people probably think that this makes the Dictionary of National Biography infinitely more interesting to read, but I disagree. What’s life – or death - without a little romance?
I suppose it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Well, for most people. Hashtag YOLO.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live just one life. I’m not asking to live forever (although I do think that might be a lot simpler), I’m just becoming a little tired of this endless cycle of life and then death. Perhaps this happens to everyone? Maybe most people just forget and I’m doomed to remember. Well, to remember most of it, anyway.
It’s not as though I’ve learned anything really useful, either. Nothing that I can really benefit from, anyway. Stock tips don’t work this way around and there’s only so many times that any one person should have to go through adolescence. Trying to wisely share the benefits of your lifetimes’ worth of experience with someone who has instant access to the entirety of the world’s knowledge via their mobile phone is a complete waste of time. It’s not that they could just look it up faster than you can tell them, it’s that they’re so bloody busy on Twitter that they’re probably not even really listening. You’re wasting your breath.
So what have I learned? All this time and all those lives; what have I actually learned? Well, I I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; I’ve been virtuous and I’ve been dissolute; I’ve been famous and I’ve been utterly anonymous; I’ve lived long lives and I’ve died within a single heartbeat. What have I learned?
As Hubert Selby Jr once said, “I knew that someday I was going to die. And just before I died two things would happen; Number 1: I would regret my entire life. Number 2: I would want to live my life over again.” Well, be careful what you wish for. That’s what I’ve learned.
[for writing group session, March 2021]