In Search of My Good Death
Essay by Frank Zahn
Once I heard a man say of another, “He had a good death.” And it got me to thinking. What is a good death as opposed to a bad one? For starters, neither one is the same for everybody. Death, whether good or bad, comes to us all, but it is very personal—an individual experience.
The bad deaths that come to mind are those most often reported and dramatized on television, in film, and on the Internet. Without question, an accidental death with loss of limb and excruciating pain in combat during wartime or in a pileup on an interstate highway during rush hour is a bad one—upsetting and depressing to say the least. Death with desperation—a massive heart attack while driving at night across a desert, alone and without a cellphone—is not much better.
Worse is a violent death that results from a beating and stabbing by members of a street gang. An even worse violent death is one that results from a beating, torture with electrical shock to the genitals, and finally, a beheading with a dull machete in a terrorist camp. Death by drowning at sea or suffocation in the hot box of a prison farm should also be included in a list of the worst violent deaths.
But these bad deaths seem foreign to me—far removed from what I believe I will likely experience, if, in fact, a bad one is my fate. The most likely is one during which my sins are visited upon me, whatever the cause of my death and wherever it occurs.
My sins are many, and my remorse has made them no less painful. Three of them invade my consciousness more often than the others. One is the anguish I heaped upon my mother and father during my willful and rebellious youth. The second is the torment I caused the dear-heart of my life when I took her for granted and lapsed into insensitive, selfish, and combative behavior. The third is the harm I did to my son and daughter when I made unintentional, but nevertheless damaging, mistakes in their upbringing, especially the irreparable harm I caused during their early teens when I shattered their sense of family with divorce.
Good God! Consideration of possible bad deaths quickly becomes depressing, especially the most likely one for me among them. Enough is enough! Even though my sins have found me out, perhaps by some twist of fate, a good death is still possible. But be that as it may, I promise that from now on in this ditty, I will consider only good deaths and the choice among them I find the most satisfying.
Among the possible good deaths is one filled with fond remembrances. To date, those remembrances would include a loving mother and father in spite of my bad behavior; six great siblings; a daughter and two sons, all three well-educated, independent, and successful; the love of a wonderful woman during the second half of my life until her passing three months ago; an optimum number of good friends and acquaintances; reasonably good health; a couple of decent economic research papers among the many that were published; opportunities to teach college students in the U. S. and abroad how the U. S. economy works, especially those in my MBA and executive MBA classes; several teaching awards, which is rare for an economics professor; a second career as an author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; worldwide travel, which provided much joy and a greater understanding of the problems human diversity presents in a global economy; the ability to provide financial support for five bright and ambitious college students in the pursuits of their college educations; and the good fortune of being able to provide myself with an active and comfortable retirement—thanks in large part to novel royalties and the stock market.
Although the positives in my life are important to me now, they may not be all that important to me on my deathbed. Remembering them would probably be comforting, but I think I can come up with something that is more imaginative than just comforting.
Two other good deaths are often touted above all others. One occurs during sleep and the other with the deathbed surrounded by loved ones who grieve and offer loving words of comfort. A noble death in defense of individual liberty on a battlefield, in the air, or at sea is another good death—one hopefully free of lingering pain and suffering. An accidental death when hit by a truck, bus, or train is a good one as long as it is quick; it would be even better if it were the result of saving someone's life—a son or daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, a neighbor's child, or a good friend.
But these two possibilities seem as foreign to me as the most often reported and dramatized bad deaths mentioned earlier. They are far removed from what I believe I will likely experience, if, in fact, a good death is my fate. But that said, the preferable good deaths for me are a one-last-romp-in-the-sack death, a dramatic or theatrical one, and a humorous one. All three are excellent alternatives for a last hurrah.
Death after one-last-romp-in-the-sack with a Susan Hayward lookalike would clearly be a last hurrah, and it would be even better if I lasted long enough afterward for a snuggle, a kiss or two, an cold beer, and a hefty fart. Of course, every effort would be made to exercise the latter after the Susan Hayward lookalike got up and left.
Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with the one-last-romp-in-the-sack alternative. Although less frequent, erections persist at seventy-six, but at eighty-six, or so, they may become less reliable, or worse, out of the question. So a one-last-romp-in-the-sack death may well be little more than wishful thinking.
A theatrical death could be Shakespearian in character, one in which I play the role of a tragic but sympathetic victim who has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The problem I would have with it, however, is I do not think I could do the scene justice. I simply do not have the frame of mind to play the character. I have faced disappointment, failure, and loss of loved ones, but seldom, if ever, have I been a victim—unless, of course, the times counted are those in which I have been a victim of my own ignorance and actions.
A theatrical death similar to that in the final scene of Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities has appeal. Carton’s love for Lucy and his remorse for his life of vice and sin prompted him to sacrifice his life on the guillotine for that of Charles, Lucy’s intended. Although I thank God I do not have to face death by guillotine, I relish the thought of playing the scene on my deathbed as if I did and speaking Carton’s final words, “It is a far, far better thing than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
The problem with the scene is I would have trouble keeping a straight face. Rather than play it straight, I am willing to bet I would overdo it on purpose—turn it into melodrama—so as to evoke a chuckle or laughter. And I would make no apology for it. Humor has always been front and center in my life. Early on, I discovered it not only makes life tolerable in bad times but all the more joyous in good times. It relieves tension, renews the human spirit, and makes each tomorrow more inviting.
So what am I saying? It must be that since humor has been front and center in my life, why not in my death? And instead of wasting time bastardizing drama with melodrama for the sake of humor, why not go for humor by a less cumbersome and more direct means?
My humorous remarks and antidotes about my life are a must. My mocking impersonations of faith-based fascists—theists and atheists alike—would not only provide additional humor for the not guilty in attendance but also showcase my lifelong contempt for fascism in all its forms. I assume, of course, that on my deathbed, I will have sufficient strength for these antics.
So now that I have determined a humorous death is my preference, I will prepare a bucket list, one geared toward doing everything I can to ensure that it prevails over my most likely bad death—the one I explained earlier. And I will pray as never before that fate cooperates and helps make possible a joyous smile on my face when at last death permits me to crossover into a hereafter that I hope and pray will be a wondrous adventure.
Copyright © March 2012 Frank Zahn. Published in The Oklahoma Review, Volume 13: Issue 1, Spring 2012; The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Smashwords and Kindle Editions) 2017.
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