Oh Death

May 24 2011

"Aren't you afraid of dying?" Calvin said.

Calvin smelled like he'd been drinking quite a bit. I met him at the bus stop, but he didn't appear to be waiting for a bus, or at least none of the buses that stopped there. I was still waiting for the 48, and I'd been there long enough that he felt like striking up a conversation. I wasn't particularly interested in carrying my part, and I had a hard time understanding him. So he wandered off.

A friendly-looking woman arrived and gave Calvin some sandwiches. She smiled as she listened to him talk. After she left, Calvin walked back to the bus stop, sat down, and snorted.

"She was talking to me about church and God. Well, I've been to one of those churches, and they didn't make me feel welcome," he said. He told me about the time he and his family attended a predominately white church, and they felt conspicuously black. He told me no one really helped them feel like they should be there.

"Now, I may not go to church, but I believe in God," he said. "Do you believe in God?"

I told him I didn't.

"Why not?"

I said it didn't make much sense to me, and that there wasn't a lot of evidence for it.

"Well, OK, prove it to me, then. Tell me why I shouldn't believe in God."

I told him I felt the burden of proof was on the other side.

Calvin looked disappointed, and slightly worried at the same time. And that's when he asked me:

"Aren't you afraid of dying?"

I thought about that for a moment, and I told him the truth: I'm not afraid of dying. I'm definitely afraid of getting hurt, though. I don't handle pain very well. But as for my own death, I don't worry about eternal suffering. Nonexistence is neither shameful nor painful, and it's inevitable.

A cherished friend committed suicide last week. His body kept working for almost a week, but his brain – nearly all of what made him who he was – had died shortly after he mixed the chemicals that created a deadly gas. The news hit me hard. I didn't see it coming, even though I should have. I worried about him, especially when I heard bits and pieces of news about marital and financial trouble. But he and I had not been in close contact for years. My attempts to reach him went unanswered. I relied on a mutual friend to keep tabs on him and keep me up to date. He called me and gave me the news.

A few weeks ago, the only thing that made me feel my middle age was a few gray hairs. I would have said the worst part of getting old was working with colleagues who don't get my cultural references. Today, I know what the worst part of aging really is. It's outliving those you love.

So Calvin, if you're out there and remember our conversation, let me rephrase my answer: When my time comes, there shouldn't be any reason to fear death. But I'm afraid of death visiting my family and friends. I don't ever want their time to come.