New years and birthdays take on a different context once you notice how your parents are beginning to prune and shrink moving into their twilight years. Morbid thoughts cripple my merriment on these occasions: it could be the last toast, the last cake, the last meal, the last photo. (I’m also aware that Death can strike at anyone at anytime but I prefer to think conservatively in terms of our hierarchy.)
There are useless and unnecessary fears, those that you can avoid—like complex math. There are also useless and unnecessary fears, those that are inevitable.
The Exact Location of the Soul by Richard Selzer forced me to contemplate on mortality such that on most nights that I read the book, I’d get lost in my own thoughts and sink into muted sadness. (Hence, it took me two months to finish the whole thing.) Consider his following passages on what happens as soon as we die in a chapter so subtly titled, The Corpse:
A man stands by the table upon which you lie. He opens the faucet in the sink, steps forward, raises the trocar. It is a ritual spear, a gleaming emblem. Two inches to the left and two inches above your navel is the place of entry. (Feel it on yourself.) The technician raises this thing and aims for the spot. He must be strong, and his cheeks shake with the thrust. He grunts…
… The head of the trocar disappears beneath the skin. Deeper and deeper until the body wall is penetrated. Another thrust, and he turns the head north. First achieved is the stomach, whose stringy contents, food just eaten, are sucked into the holes. A three-inch glass connector interrupts the rubber tubing. Here is one spectator as the yield rushes by. Can you identify particular foods? Beets are easy, and licorice. The rest is merely… gray.
He then writes about how the trocar sucks out your liver, lungs, heart and just about all your innards. They all turn to juice.
And how exactly does the mortician prepare your body for public viewing? For one, we sleep with our mouth ajar—so it has to be closed shut at death.
Our technician… takes a large flat needle. It is S-shaped, for ease of grasping. A length of white string hangs through the eye of this needle. He draws back the bottom lip with thumb and forefinger. He passes the needle into the lower gum. Needle and string are pulled through and out, and the lip allowed to rest. Next the upper lips is held away, and the needle is passed up into the groove at the crest of the upper gum, thence to the left nostril, through the nasal septum into the right nostril, finally plunging back into the groove and once again to the mouth. This stitchery will not be seen. Pledgets of cotton are inserted to fill out a sag here, a droop there, lest the absence of teeth or turgor be noticed.
The book’s other chapters are devoted to his surgical experiences. He is best at providing context and perspective, which I find to be almost as relevant as experience. There was the part wherein he mused about the grace of suffering:
The cancer had chewed through Joe’s scalp, munched his skull, then opened the membranes underneath… until it had laid bare this short-order cook’s brain, pink and gray, and pulsating so that each beat a little pool of cerebral fluid quivered…
… I would gaze then upon Joe Riker and marvel. How dignified he was, as though that tumor, gnawing him, denuding his very brain, had given him a grace that a lifetime of good health had not bestowed.
And when he got cured (which Joe attributed to “holy water” from Lourdes): “How often it seems that the glory leaves as soon as the wound is healed.”
I would personally prefer to look earthly than have the saintly glow of martyrdom, but when you think about it, how true is it that we are most beautiful at our humblest, and we are at our humblest when we are suffering. (“Anger turns to sweet compliance,” he writes on page 69, in another chapter.)
On being kind to strangers, again, he offers perspective:
The man of letters did not know this woman before. Preoccupied with dying, he is scarcely aware of her presence now. But this nurse is his wife in his new life of dying. They are close, these two, intimate, depending upon the other, loving. It is a marriage, for although they own no shared past, they possess this awful, intense present, this matrimonial now, that binds them as strongly as any promise.
A man does not know whose hands will stroke from him the last bubbles of his life.
On how organ donation does not fit into religious faith:
There are those who believe that on the Day of Resurrection, one’s flesh, this very flesh, ipso corpore, will rise intact and one will be once again. So it is told in more than one place in the New Testament. If that is so, who then, gets the heart on that Day? Donor or recipient?
That made me go LOL.
So where exactly is the location of the soul? His lengthiest chapter is devoted to his experience living in an Italian monastery, about which he writes the following nonchalantly, without the bravado of placing it in the concluding paragraphs:
However, it doesn’t assuage my fear, which isn’t so much about dying as it is dying and then there’d be nothing.