We have been delighted (and humbled) to hear all the encouraging words about the first issue of The Mockingbird. If you’re without a copy, it’s not too late to place an order. We’re not biased, but we think you’ll be glad you did. In the following weeks, we’ll be publishing some of the essays from that issue on our magazine’s page, beginning with this one, from R-J Heijmen, on the art of dying in the era of the modern hospital.
While there’s no good way to enjoy a long-form read online–and as far as the look and feel of the magazine, there’s no compare–we still couldn’t resist the urge to share some of these pieces. Stay tuned for more and, in the meantime, if you’ve already gotten the first issue, sign up here to subscribe for the next ones.
My two sons have never seen a dead body. Of course, this is only partly true. They’ve seen innumerable dead bodies on the myriad screens which occupy so much of their lives. But it’s not quite the same, is it? A collection of pixels which disappears shortly after hitting the ground—nameless, storyless bits of code ceasing to exist—is not the same as an expired hunk of beloved flesh.
Come the think of it, I’ve never seen a dead body either. Or have I? I vaguely remember a twitching leg left exposed by a not-quite-large-enough sheet of white on a 7th Avenue sidewalk near Carnegie Hall. Was it a dream? If not, I was about 12 years old at the time.
Another occurrence comes to mind, though again as if in a mist. I was in my second floor apartment in Paris during a college year abroad when, through the open window, I heard a sharp yell, followed by a thud on the street below. Peering over my small balcony, I saw a young man sprawled and motionless in the road, pedestrians beginning to gather round him, looking down and pointing up to a floor above mine. I just now verified with my wife (whom I was dating at the time) that this actually happened. Perhaps the trauma of the event, or its incompatibility with the rest of my life narrative, has caused my brain to file it away under “miscellaneous.”
And while my sons may have never seen a dead body (nor has my wife), they recently attended their first funeral, a thirteen year-old boy at their school having lost his battle with cancer.
When I consider my family’s close encounters with death—an accident, a suicide, a tragic disease—they are linked by their exceptionalism. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Alvie Singer opines that “life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else.” Put in these terms, all of the deaths to which we have been witnesses were horrible. They were in the realm of the exceptional, the unusual, rather than the quotidian, the simply miserable.
In my experience, many (perhaps most) people don’t have an intimate experience with death until one of their parents passes away, and given the average American life span, this may not occur until well into their middle life. This is an exceptional set of circumstances in the sweep of human history, and while we may rightly rejoice that death is not the close companion it once was, it may be that the chasm that has opened between us and the experience of dying has some unfortunate consequences.