One of the funniest TV commercials I remember from my TV viewing days was this crazy one called ‘Got Milk’ where this well dressed businessman is on his mobile phone nastily firing an employee when he suddenly gets run over in a crosswalk by a semi truck. Next thing we see is him eating a bunch of delicious chocolate chip cookies. He opens the fridge to get some milk. The fridge is full of milk cartons. Only all the milk cartons are empty, ’cause he is really in Hell for being such an asshole. Then the ‘Got Milk’ logo shows with a small fire burning underneath.
Lately I’ve thought quite a lot about ‘death’ and ‘existence’ and ‘being,’ trying to finally understand and unravel these deep ontological concepts which were so brilliantly depicted in the ‘Got Milk’ ad and which have been so thoroughly and thoughtfully studied by Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and other great philosophers, all the way back to St Anselm of Canterbury.
This very similar quest of my own came about in part from my involvement with my two cancer support groups through the Simms-Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and the fact that suddenly new people and treasured friends I know from the past are starting to ‘clock out’ of the system and actually physically die. Or at least they appear to be dead inasmuch as their phones don’t answer and their bodies are no longer breathing or have been cremated into ashes and put into an urn like my younger brother was last Spring.
Part of the problem is obviously that living beings like myself cannot actually imagine themselves in a non-living state of death. To do so obviously creates a paradox. It is for that reason mankind has had to invent religion and Gods and various ‘after death’ machinations like the ‘soul’ which somehow magically keep us soldiering on after physical death has occurred and throughout eternity. And these concepts would have been necessarily invented by people who valued their lives and valued the experience of living more than they valued the peace and serenity of death. Survival of the species clearly depends on that. But as our reproductive capabilities fade away with age and our physical bodies decay into disability, ill health and infirmity, I and many of my comrades are starting to segue our attention towards the dark and unknown netherworld of death, all via this compass called ‘quality of life’ which provides some measure of how we value ‘life’ vs its unknown and unknowable alternative, death.
I am currently 81 years old. Even a healthy 81 year old male in the U.S. can be expected to die about 6 or 7 years from now. On top of that I have stage 4 prostate cancer and other nagging health issues such as ‘low vision’ due to age related macular degeneration (AMD) and being an above knee amputee for the past 70+ years. All these issues are collectively and slowly starting to chip away at my overall quality of life, creating the need for me to start visualizing what it means to be dead and whether or not I should actively do something to try to halt or at least delay its inevitable progression. Now that my immortality has been pierced with the arrow of metastatic cancer, I’ve had to seriously rethink what it means to be on the other side of that infamous River Styx. Lately I can often be heard muttering, “Damn, just think. After I’m dead I won’t have to be a fucking amputee anymore! No more stupid prostheses! No more stupid phantom limb pains!” No more of the shit that has so interfered with my quality of life even during my younger years when I would just tough it out through all that annoying stuff and plow forward. After all, I had kids to raise, a happy and successful marriage that needed to be maintained, a bright future for myself and prosperity for my family, if I would just find the strength and energy to bite the bullet, get out of bed and drive down the coast to my fairly well paying yet shitty consulting engineering jobs. Over time my professional engineering work and later, my teaching career, paid off. My wife and I are comfortably retired now and we don’t have to work anymore. But having been raised as a Christian, a part of my atheist self worries that, ‘What if I am wrong? What if I come back? In Heaven? Or maybe as a goldfish in a pond? Or perhaps a cricket? In that event I know fucking well I’m going to still be an amputee, still suffering phantom limb pains. So I’m saying “Fuck no! I’m done! Dead as a doornail. No more phantom pains! No more Vicodin!” In Heaven there is probably at least Vicodin. But imagine what Hell would hold for me. Phantom limb pains and no Vicodin?! Like the guy in the ‘Got Milk’ commercial. Such a Hell I cannot even imagine. Without puking. So, for the time being I will have to comfort myself with the belief and expectation that after I’m dead I will no longer be an amputee, no longer be having phantom pains! Such unimaginable bliss!