published by Dagbladet Information, Denmark
Ten years ago, I learnt what death is. Now I understand what it does to life
A letter to my father
11 April 2020
It has been ten years since I last saw you, and I will never see you again. Except at night, when we sometimes play football and walk along the beach near your old house. The other night we took shelter behind a dinghy by the rose hip bushes, like in one of those photos from the family album. You closed your eyes and let the sun warm your face. But even at night you are ill. You have trouble walking and can only move one arm, and I always know that it never lasts: these dreams don’t last, and life doesn’t last. I know that when I wake up as well. I know life ends, and I have known this since that day in February more than ten years ago when I took you to the hospital in Aabenraa.
It was a golden day with patches of snow on the hard, cold fields along the motorway; we drove south with the low sun reflecting off the road. I waited in the corridor. Your body had not responded to the Parkinson’s medication at all, but surely they could give you something else, they could examine you, scan you, do something. Afterwards we sat on a bench by the large entrance where lung patients in white hospital gowns came to smoke. You were quiet. I asked if you were concerned about your health, and suddenly you said that you feared for your life, that you would probably never recover. It was the first time I understood what death was, but only now do I understand what knowing that does to life.
Now it is Easter, a strange celebration of death. It has been exactly ten years since you passed away, and the world is now more concerned with death and grief than I ever seen before.
These dreams don’t last, and life doesn’t last
I am reading a biography of Nietzsche that you would have liked, since much of it is about Wagner (did you know he only wore tailor-made silk underpants?). Nietzsche’s father was a pastor in a small town in Eastern Germany and had a mysterious illness. First he went blind and dumb, then he was bed-ridden, and before he could turn 36 he died. Although Nietzsche was only four years old at the time, his father’s death haunted him for the rest of his life:
“I had already experienced considerable sadness and grief in my young life, and was therefore not as carefree and wild as children usually are,” he later wrote about his childhood in a letter. Of course. How can you be carefree and wild knowing about death? Death overpowers life.
Do you remember calling me one evening when I was working in the cloakroom at the Copenhagen opera house? I was standing in the brightly lit foyer in my neatly pressed uniform waiting for La Traviata to finish. You were lying flat on your back in your elevation bed using a headset I had bought you from Elgiganten in Odense. Your voice was weak and I couldn’t make out what you were saying.
I stepped outside into the chilly wind from the harbour and could suddenly hear that you were crying.
“Have I been a good father?”
You repeated the question several times, I fumbled through my pockets for my cigarettes.
I don’t know where you end and I begin
Now, most of my memories of you are more sensations than stories. Walking barefoot down the street on wet tarmac feeling the grit stick to the soles of my feet. The smell of pine needles in the driveway. You were not always a good father, I think you know that by now. But now I have a son of my own, I understand how hard it is to be a parent. Your grandchild, who you will never meet, is nearly two. He will never remember how his mother and I get up in the middle of the night to give him his dummy, how we read him Totte Books and stroke his hair when he cries. Only now do I understand that you once did all that for me as well.
“You have been a wonderful father,” I said on the phone.
We would go to the corner shop on Saturdays to bet on football. The small, dark room smelling of tobacco and paper, me standing on the floor watching you fill out the coupons, one for you and one for me.
“Coventry vs West Ham,” you would ask, and I had my own system: if I knew both teams, I opted for a draw, if I only knew one of the teams, I bet on the one I knew. We cycled home under the chestnut trees. Played football on the swampy field down by the marshes. Whatever happened to that cookbook of all the AC Milan players’ favourite pasta dishes? You made Paolo Maldini’s pasta dish for me. And Lentini, do you remember him, the star talent who one day lost control of his Porsche somewhere outside Turin and spent several days in a coma; he was never really the same again. I was only six years old then, but that accident broke my heart, perhaps because it broke yours. We stuck together back then.
I like telling people about the last time we spoke. How you lay bare chested in bed, unable to move and barely able to speak. It was the day you died, we had come to say goodbye. I sat down on a chair next to the bed, you opened your mouth to say something, I put my ear close to your lips and you whispered that you had really always found Barolo to be overrated.
I have told that story so many times I no longer know where the story ends and my memory begins. Maybe it was a different day, maybe you didn’t even say it? I don’t know anymore; I don’t know where you end and I begin. But I do know that everything curled up inside me that evening – Lentini and Barolo, of course, but also all your sleepless nights with me back in the 1980s that I don’t remember but that still somehow live in my body – it all curled up under my ribs and has never disappeared since.
As the sun set, I put my hand on your cold collarbone. The pulse had disappeared, the figure in the bed was no longer you but a body slowly going stiff and pale, so I stumbled out into the garden where the dew was starting to form. It was a mild evening, the dark silhouettes of the larch trees rose against the sky, and I crouched down in the damp grass.
I read the most terrible thing today, dad. People dying of COVID-19 in Italy are dying alone because no one is allowed near them. To contain the virus’ spread, there are no sons and daughters by the bed holding their father’s hand. You just lie there alone surrounded by machines and strangers, afraid and alone, until you suffocate, or your organs fail. At least you were not alone.
People die in the most incredible ways. One summer’s day in 1993 a lawyer called Garry Hoy was giving a group of students a tour of his law firm in Toronto’s financial district. When they got to a small meeting room, he did the same trick he always did on tours of the office: to show that the windows were shatter-proof, he threw all 74 kilos of his body against the windowpane. The glass held up alright, but the entire window frame flew off the building, and Gerry Hoy fell to his death from the 24th floor.
“One moment you are in a boat, the next moment you are in the water,” as Susan Sontag wrote when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I read that the rock guitarist Leslie Harvey died from being electrocuted live on stage in 1972, when he touched a microphone that wasn’t earth-grounded with his wet hands. Death lurks everywhere.
It all curled up under my ribs and has never disappeared since
I once did a short series of articles calling people up to ask how they would prefer to die if they had a choice. The anthropologist Rane Willerslev wanted to be eaten by a bear, but most of the other replies were hopelessly unimaginative; everyone just wanted to check out quickly and quietly. I want to be swallowed by a whale. It has a certain biblical ring to it that I like, but mostly because it is the worst thing I could possibly imagine. Do you remember sitting on the sofa together reading Moby Dick? There is a scene in the book where the seamen tie a dead sperm whale to the railing to extract its oil, but one of the whalers slips and falls into the mouth of the whale. The entire carcass breaks loose, and the heavy animal slowly sinks into the deep with the man trapped in its belly. I can’t imagine anything worse than that. Being strangled and squashed and disappearing into the deep, dark sea, leaving my body to rot and scatter with the currents. In the book, the whaler Queequeg dives after the sperm whale with a knife in his mouth, cutting a hole through the flesh to save his mate. So far so good, but we all know how it ends.
The priest cried when he came to say goodbye, which I guess is unusual. He hadn’t thought it would all happen so quickly, he said. None of us did, but you managed to whisper a few psalms to him for us to sing in church. All were about light overcoming darkness: ”Den signede dag” (O day full of grace, ed.). “I østen stiger solen op” (Sun is rising in the east, ed.). “Se nu stiger solen” (See the golden sun from the ocean rise, ed.).
“Let me fare across the night-dark sea
Let me not only draw nearer to my grave”
Such a brutal couplet. Not so much because we all are drifting towards death on a night-dark sea – we are – but because we do so while begging and praying to the heavens: let there be something more, a direction, a meaning. And because there is no reply.
Watching you gasp in bed in that way, watching your body transform from man to matter – I still don’t know if you were transformed or just disappeared – it all changes how you view life. You can see it in people’s eyes, I think. I bought a black suit and practised the few lines I wanted to say when the hearse drove from the church. I aged five years in a week. That’s what I mean when I say death changes life. My eyes still do not look the same as before.
It’s infinity I fear
I am not afraid to die, and I don’t fear my son or my wife being hit by a car. I do not have any concrete fears. But I am afraid to disappear from them, like you disappeared from me. It sounds silly, but it’s infinity I fear. Like in those space movies where astronauts have to do a brief little spacewalk to fix some loose screw on the outside of the space station, but then suddenly there is an explosion or a meteor or something, the safety line is cut and he floats off silently and alone into the infinite darkness.
Every day I fear leaving this world without accomplishing anything – being forgotten and disappearing. Yet at the same time, I know that everything I might accomplish in life doesn’t really matter in the end. As Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations: “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too.” That’s what death unleashes. Death makes life urgent and pointless at the same time.
When you were still able to use a computer, you sent me a poem which I had completely forgotten, but just found it in an old email.
Pine needles lie
thick in the garden
I pull them over my head
like a blanket
lying in gentle light
That’s how I would like to imagine you lying just now. In the gentle light waiting for a soft winter. And on some mornings when the light is particularly bright, I can almost convince myself that there is something there; that panpsychists and animists are right about grass having a kind of conscience when the blades turn towards the sun and draw up water. Then I imagine death as one big dissolution, that we split and cleave and melt and evaporate like cycling water, that we turn into soil and weeds. On those mornings I sometimes think we should have buried you in the garden between the roses and the apple trees you spent so much time planting, but which the new owners just pulled out to make space for a garden trampoline.
But that sensation never lasts. The truth is that death terrifies me. It brings me no comfort thinking you may have turned into atoms and tiny building blocks in the grass. Soon the grass will rot, it will be eaten by moss, a dog will come and shit on it.
Ten years ago, I understood for the first time what death was, but it is only nowI understand what death does to life – that darkness makes everything urgent, even desperate. Soon we will disappear like the bubbles in a creek, so we spend life longing to live, to run through the tall, soft grass on the hills as the camera pans out and captures the sunrise. But just as the darkness creates longing, it also hollows everything out.
That’s how I would like to imagine you lying just now. In the gentle light waiting for a soft winter.
Stoic philosophers say that we should face up to death. We will all go the way of you and Garry Hoy; we might as well make peace with the darkness. But I can’t. I can’t make peace with the thought that everyone I love will soon disappear. That the world will go under, that I am floating towards my grave with no direction or hope, that it has been ten years since I last saw you, and now I will never see you again. Death is not a constructive narrative for us to reflect on. It is claustrophobia, it is a dead whale and a lost astronaut.
So my conclusion has become the opposite: suppress death, I say! Tug it away into the darkest corner of your sub-conscience, push it aside and only bring it out when there is no way around it. If your grandmother dies, or your friend gets cancer, when your loved ones need you. But never think that you can make peace with it. So that is my strategy now – ten years on. That is what I have learnt: death can get too much power over life. It is best not to think about it.