(Editorial Comment from the American Heathen® radio show – Air Date 10/30/09)
Ghosts, goblins, spirits of the dead. It’s Halloween, and it’s a recipe for fun! At least, for those who dismiss the spooky, supernatural aspect of it. Not to say that there aren’t folks out there enjoying the holiday. Candy, costumes, parties… Who can resist? There are many who believe in the supernatural who still manage to enjoy the festive nature of the event. They ignore the fundamentalist rabble over the supposed connections of the celebration to Satanic rituals and evil. To most, it’s just a holiday. But, there’s something haunting the deep recesses of the minds of the faithful. It eats at them everyday and causes them great distress. That something is death. The end of life… or at least in their mind, the end of this life.
A popular belief for most religions is life after death. Human beings are attracted to the idea that one can live beyond this mortal coil, forever wandering the heavens alongside their skydaddy. They seem to think that the mind and the body are two independent entities under the command of a god. When the body dies, the mind/soul is supposed to be magically transported to a celestial criminal court, where it will stand trial for its crimes. If it doesn’t beg for the mercy of the judge and ask for forgiveness, it will be convicted, then sentenced to live for all eternity with a bunch of Freddy Krueger’s, Mussolini s, and Hitlers. Makes a great Halloween story doesn’t it?
Well, cheer up my believer friends. I’m about to scare the shit out of you for the sake of the holiday. But, I’m also going to teach you that death is assured, permanent… and nothing to be afraid of.
Dualism. It’s the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another, that our consciousness transcends time, space, and the body. Some call it our spirit, our soul, our essence. Sounds kind of quaint doesn’t it? It sounds so reassuring. But why is that? It’s because a lot of people are simply afraid of death. What better way to sooth this fear than to place a barrier between the biology of the body and our consciousness? But, there’s a serious scientific problem with this. The brain, and ALL of its functionality, is dependent on the rest of the body to operate. The brain needs blood and the oxygen it contains. Without oxygen the brain cannot function. It’s called Cerebral hypoxia. The brain requires approximately 3.3 ml of oxygen per 100 g of brain tissue per minute. Initially the body responds to lowered blood oxygen by redirecting blood to the brain and increasing cerebral blood flow. Blood flow may increase up to twice the normal flow but no more. If the increased blood flow is sufficient to supply the brain’s oxygen needs then no symptoms will result. However, if blood flow cannot be increased or if doubled blood flow does not correct the problem, symptoms of cerebral hypoxia will begin to appear. Mild symptoms include difficulties with complex learning tasks and reductions in short-term memory. If oxygen deprivation continues, cognitive disturbances and decreased motor control will result. The skin may also appear bluish (cyanosis) and heart rate increases. Continued oxygen deprivation results in fainting, long-term loss of consciousness, coma, seizures, cessation of brain stem reflexes, and brain death. [wiki]
Brain death. Yep, the end of life. Notice the important losses associated with cerebral hypoxia? Loss of consciousness, coma, seizures, cessation of brain stem reflexes… the thing that makes you YOU no longer functions. Your consciousness is only as good as the gray matter machine that produces it. Once the machine stops functioning, you stop functioning, and your reality disappears. The “I”, the “Me”, the “You” ceases to exist. What makes you who you are isn’t a separate entity, a soul, a spirit or magical thing. It is a culmination of experiences, saved off in memory centers of the brain, a natural process of biochemical/electrochemical reactions. Human death is not unique. It is really no different from any other biological death. After death, your body becomes a mass of slowly decaying bio material at the end of a natural life cycle, governed by the laws of nature. Easily and simply put, you’re dead. End of story.
My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer on December 23, 2006 and died on February 2, 2007. He was 65, almost 66 years old. I spent the last week of my dad’s life with him. I watched the process of death carefully, and with a keen eye applied to his lucidity. When I first arrived at his bedside, I took note of his mental faculties. He was sharply aware, in some pain, and somewhat cheerful. Physically, he was incapable of eating and was wasting away. He couldn’t hold anything down. Even fluids were a challenge for him. He was not only being consumed by the cancer that had spread throughout his abdomen, but he was also starving to death as a result. Anyway, the first thing I asked my father when I sat down on the edge of his bed was, “Are you afraid?” His exact words were, “A little”. Then I asked him why. My dad looked at me, propped up on his right side, his pillow tucked under his arm, and said, “I don’t know”. I smiled at him, and he returned the smile. I said, “Do you remember being born dad?” He said, “No”. Then I asked him, “Do you remember anything before you were born?” He smiled again and replied, “No”. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Dad, if you don’t remember being born, or anything before you were born, then you’re not going to remember dying”. My dad looked down at his hands as he pondered what I had just said to him. When he looked back up at me he cracked another smile and said. “Yeah, you’re right”. I replied with a smile, “Then what is there to be afraid of? Nothing?”
I spent the week talking with my dad, asking him questions about how he felt physically and emotionally. We talked about old times and good times. As the week slowly passed, I noticed changes in my fathers behavior. Each day his mental faculties decayed. He began to hallucinate. He would have visions of Indians coming through the walls, storming a wagon train. Dad liked western movies. Occasionally dad would play air trumpet, his eyes closed, his fingers moving to the sounds of the Big Band music playing softly in his room. My father had been a fantastic trumpet player when he was young. Pretty soon, dad would slip in and out of consciousness in the middle of a talk, then awake suddenly, resuming a conversation we’d never had. He would mistake me for his father, his mother, my brothers… I went along. Even in this state, he seemed happy, content, and unafraid. In the afternoons I would lie down on the bed next to him and nap, my hand holding his, the two of us quietly sharing his last precious moments. I was not distressed, nor was he.
By the end of the week, the family was having to endure sudden, minor outbursts, as my father would try to get out of bed on his own to go to the bathroom. Each time he would collapse to the floor, lying in the fetal position as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Even though we checked on him frequently, dad would still manage to get out of bed. Sometimes he’d make it to the doorway of the bathroom, other times he would make it into the bathroom but never to the toilet. Dad really didn’t have to urinate or defecate. His digestive tract didn’t have any food in it, and very little water. But, the cancer had quickly spread to his bowels that week and was sending a signal to his brain that he needed to go. Anyway, my brother and I would run into the room, at my step mother’s every call, and carry dad back to bed. Occasionally dad would raise his voice in anger when we tried to pick him up. But, we did it anyway. Dad was now barely conscious when “awake”, and his hallucinations had stopped. He would simply drift away as his mind decayed, his brain dying of starvation.
My brother and I left on Sunday, January 29th. We had to return home. At my urging, my step mother and step sister called the hospice nurse and asked that they come and get dad. He needed to be looked after 24/7. My step mother’s blood pressure had become dangerously high during the week , the stress getting to be too much, and dad was trying to wander away from his bed at all hours now. The nurse agreed that he needed constant care and should be moved. That afternoon my father was transported to a hospice facility. Four days later, he was dead.
What was my father is no more. There’s nothing left of him but memories in the minds of the living. For the dead, there are no memories, for the memories need a brain to exist, and when the brain no longer functions, the “I”, the “Me” no longer exists. That’s what death is. Non-existence. The hardest part about facing the reality of death is facing the reality of nothing, of non-existence. Nothing, non-existence, a concept that’s hard to wrap your head around, doesn’t warrant fear because there’s nothing to fear of nothing. What most folks don’t realize is that they’ve been dead before. Dead, being the opposite of alive, is one of only two states of being. All of us have already been non-existent, dead for all intents and purposes. Hell, just watch any movie or any television show that was produced before you were born, and then make an effort to realize, to acknowledge to yourself, that at any moment in the program you’re watching, you didn’t exist. You weren’t you. You didn’t exist.
Everything dies eventually. It is the nature of things. But, how you decide to deal with it has consequences, both good and bad. If you believe, for instance, in an afterlife, you are selling your life short. Period. You need to ask yourself, ‘How much more living would I do if I didn’t ascribe to souls, spirits, ghosts, goblins, angels, demons, heaven and hell?’ More importantly, think about this… Do you really want to live forever? The myth that is heaven doesn’t have the trappings of life. How could it? Rest assured, television, radio, movies, books, cars… hot chicks in bikinis, or hot guys in Speedos, won’t exist in this fictitious heavenly abode. All the things that make life worth living, like family, friends… these are worth living the here and now for! Because,when they’re dead, they’re dead, and when you’re dead, you’re dead. Heaven really is a fiction and the here and now is real. And, the good in embracing the finality of death, the reality of now, is living life to its fullest NOW. Don’t hold back. Live it, love it, but don’t become too attached to it, because it eventually disappears. Now, enjoy the Halloween celebration! It’s all in fun! But always remember…
Death is assured…and it’s permanent.