Coming face-to-face with your mortality. Looking the Grim Reaper in the eye. Mano a mano. A friend of mine, from my days in banking, recently had his own close encounter with Mr. Reaper and emerged victorious. I’m not talking about your first experience with death, but rather your first experience with the possibility of your own death. If you’ve not experienced it yet you will. We all do.
I’ve known death from an early age. The loss of my grandfather when I was five, the death of my childhood sweetheart (from polio) at age six, the death of assorted aunts and uncles (and another grandfather) while growing up in the 1950s. And I had my own close calls with Mr. Reaper early on: a leukaemia scare at age four, rattlesnake bites at ages eight and ten that left me in critical condition for a while.
When you’re a kid death doesn’t really sink in, even when you lose someone close to you. Death is for others and not for you. The first time you look death in the eye, for real, it can be a life altering experience. You’re never quite the same. I was nineteen years old when I knowingly faced my death for the first time. It was in Vietnam that I realized I could die (and even came close a few times).
I’m now closing in on seventy (I will be sixty-nine in May), and death doesn’t really scare me that much anymore. I had a really close call in Guatemala about a year and half ago, and I thought the Grim Reaper had finally caught up with me. I don’t remember being scared, but I do remember feeling a little sad (I had so much more I wanted to do before checking out). But I spit in Mr. Reaper’s eye and I am still here.
I don’t know what happens after physical death, but I have my suspicions. I think it will be alright (I guess it will have to be alright, there’s no escaping it). I once thought I would like my death to be quick, but I don’t feel like that now. I want time to reflect, to be grateful and to say my goodbyes. I don’t want to leave trauma in my wake, I want to fade away with barely a ripple. I want those I leave behind to be okay with my passing.
I’m not sure that Mr. Reaper is really an enemy, he might be a friend in a hideous disguise. I readily admit I don’t think much of his makeup and wardrobe, and if he catches me unawares he will probably scare the shit out of me. I’ve faced him before and I know that he will eventually win. It’s a stacked deck after all. But so far he’s let me off easy to pursue my various follies in life. I guess I owe him.
There is still much I wish to do, but I think I’m ready if time runs short. In retrospect I’ve had an amazing life, not always easy to be sure, but amazing nonetheless. For that I am grateful. I hope when my time comes it’s an easy passing (selfish I guess), at the very least I would like to retain some dignity at the end. Death sometimes robs us of that option, but I remain hopeful. Death with dignity is a good goal.
I think my generation will pioneer physician-assisted suicide (helping to insure death with dignity), and even if I don’t choose to checkout of life that way, I would like to have the option if the end becomes too grim and painful. Better to have my family and friends in close attendance, and maybe a good old dog to ease my last moments. Above all I want to be clear in my head and leave peacefully knowing and appreciating I had a great life.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveller