I feel unhappy with phrases like “when I am not there” or “when I am gone” for what I really mean, of course, is that when I am dead.
It astounds me how hesitant we are to talk about our end. Just as all sentences end with a period, all lives end with death. We would think a language teacher inept if she did not teach a pupil how to end a sentence. But we are squeamish to talk about death that puts a full stop to our lifeline. We use silly euphemisms and pretend we are immortal. Until the day cancer gnaws at our colon or a stroke fells us at dusk.
I remember I once broached the subject of my end, only to evoke my daughter’s riposte that I was being morbid. It did not surprise me. Morbidity has come to mean, not just the incidence of disease, but a dark state of mind, sheer gloominess. My mind isn’t gloomy at all; it is unaccountably perky and positive. But I see no reason why I can’t talk about a day that is sure to come -- and may not even be far away.
Nasty things like Asperger’s or Alzheimer’s are hardly uncommon, but surely such unpleasant possibilities are good reasons for pondering the eventuality. Like everybody else, I would certainly like the end to be brief and breezy, with an iced Campari in my hand and cheery Dvorak playing in the background, or calm and quiet, drifting in my sleep into that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. But I have limited control over the manner of my exit.
But a few other things can be controlled, and I think I may as well say what I would prefer.
The one thing I don’t want is that anybody makes a fuss about my departure. I am not Goethe or Gandhi. I would not leave a void of any kind. I would simply, like my father or his father before him, disappear without a trace. The latter died before I was born and my father – that gentle, caring man – I still miss. If someone misses me, it will be an unreceived but very precious gift. Let it be just a quiet sigh in the evening air.
I would not like a ceremony or a memorial meeting where people beat their breasts and give long speeches. If two or more want to sit and share a reminiscence, that would not raise my brow, but I certainly don’t want a religious rite. I have attended churches and temples, mosques and synagogues, and read religious texts, in different languages, with great respect and interest. But I don’t believe in the hereafter and have no faith in a deity up in the clouds. I have lived with joy among people; their affection, not piety as defined by some priest, is what I care for.
I have seen some ghastly funerals and presided over a few as a part of my consular work. I have also heard of exorbitantly priced coffins and attendant rituals. I would prefer to be unceremoniously cremated, in the cheapest wooden box money can buy. My ashes, useless like all other ash, should be unhesitatingly dumped, unless my daughters care to retain a thimble of it. Despite my general distaste of ‘big’ people and my comfort with ‘ordinary’ people, I realize my life hasn’t been one with which ordinary people can identify. At least, in the way I depart I would like to underscore my utter ordinariness.
For most of my life, I have earned more than I needed. Maybe because I never yearned for caviar or cruises. If I have often bought deluxe cars, it was mostly because I understood little of automobiles and wanted something that moved without the need of a nudge. The other thing I continue to splurge on is the computers I use. I always special-order the PCs and Macs I buy, and I buy the most current and potent. I am reluctant to compromise on the things that are not only key to my work but gateways to my ideas. Ideas generate in the head but need the grist of information, literature and music. At least for me. I have always cared little for money but I wanted enough not to have to think about it.
I am not Methuselah and, given the present state of science, I don’t care for the idea of a very long life. I enjoy living, feeling the bright sun on my head and the strong breeze on my face, and I would like to live while my limbs function and my mind is still excited by a new idea or news headline. My friends, whose ranks daily dwindle and rarely surge, have importance for me they scarcely imagine; they enliven my days and stimulate my nights. Missing their warmth may be closest to the Norwegian concept of a frigid hell.
The people I have loved were simply exquisite. The ones that loved me even more so. If they erred in that, their generosity far outstripped their sagacity. In that, they are blessed. Says my favorite Lloyd Webber song: Love will turn your world around – and that world will last forever.
I think it presumptuous to occupy a plot of land and reserve it for my remains, let alone foist a slab of stone or marble with my name on it. But if somebody were to write an epitaph for me, one could perhaps say, “He liked ideas and he had fun.” As Victor Hugo knew, ideas can screw even armies, and life is worth little if we don’t have some fun.
And it will be a special fun if my daughters send a thimbleful of my ashes back to India – for a kind friend to pour it into the lake on Southern Avenue, where for years I rowed a boat exuberantly every dawn as the sun slowly emerged.