It came as a great shock, of course -Youth does not easily admit defeat: it lives as if there is always a tomorrow, will always be a tomorrow. The sun will rise after any darkness; day will always follow night. Youth is immortal, although perhaps it is that death is further away than they can see. It is beyond the horizon of a land so vast, it barely recedes as they wander along the rainbow of their still-wet days.
At least that’s how Elissa saw it in the years I knew her. We met at university in our freshman year -some club or other, I suppose -although we also took many of the same classes, I recall. And then after three years, she transferred to another school and I lost track of her -until one day I saw a face that shouldn’t have been where I saw it.
I had just started doing my first ward rounds on a neurology rotation in my fourth year of medical school, and there, tucked in a sunny corner of a four-bed room, was a pair of eyes that suddenly twinkled with recognition. Almost everything else I’d seen that first morning on the ward was depressing: asymmetrical faces, immobile bodies, eyes that stared unseeing, and perhaps uncaring, at the ceiling tiles -a ward of scarred, and time-ravaged bodies.
But there she was: a more mature, but still beautiful version of the Elissa I knew. Her auburn hair was shorter than I remembered -but partly shaved and bandaged near the crown. And her face told me she had gone through a lot since we had last seen each other.
I glanced at her chart. The beds on the neurosurgery unit were filled, and so she had been placed on this ward after her brain biopsy a few days previously, until something became available for her on the surgical ward. The biopsy results were depressing -definitely not encouraging for a 29 year old just beginning her PhD program in Psychology.
“Is that who I think it is?” she asked as I approached her bedside.
“I guess that depends on who you’re hoping for,” I answered lightly, and with a smile.
“So…” She ran her eyes across my face and then over the short white coat that medical students wore when visiting patients in those days. “Are you a doctor now?” she asked, even though her expression told me she knew I wasn’t. “Sit down and tell me what you’ve been doing,” she added, before I could answer.
We talked about our lives for a while -well, about everything other than why we were meeting after all this time in a hospital. Elissa could sense my discomfort.
“It’s okay to talk about it, you know…” she said, after an awkward silence when I’d seemed to run out of things to say.
I smiled weakly and shuffled around in my chair.
“Nobody wants to… They crowd around the bed and tell me how well I’m looking, and if anybody dares to mention my cancer, it’s to tell me I am going to beat it.” She glanced at the chart I was holding and smiled. “But I’m not, you know.” She studied my face for a moment. “I can see the subject makes you uncomfortable, too.” She sighed gently and then reached over and took my hand. “I find myself comforting my visitors more than describing how I feel about dying; they don’t really want to know.” Her eyes landed briefly on my cheeks and then hovered over my head before they returned. “I don’t think they’d understand anyway, you know…”
She smoothed the sheets on her bed with her free hand and sighed again. “The really hard thing is that I’ve accepted my fate, but nobody else has. They won’t let me…” She stared out of the window. “You don’t know how hard that is. I almost feel guilty for letting them down.”
She squeezed my hand. “But you know, what it really makes me feel is so very alone… I can’t talk to them about that -not my friends, at any rate.”
Suddenly she stared into my eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean you!” She smiled like the old Elissa. “It’s just that I’m still entitled to an opinion, don’t you think? And I don’t want to live forever, you know…”
I nodded, and stayed quiet and let her talk. I’d never felt so… so close to her.
Then her eyes began to twinkle again. “I mean I have a few quibbles about the timing and everything, but I think I could accept even that, if they’d only stop trying to console me all the time… and just listen.”
Her face was almost radiant as she poured out her feelings onto me, and we continued talking until a nurse tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I had rounds to do on the rest of the patients.
It was then that Elissa leaned across the bed and kissed me on my cheek. “Thank you, G,” she whispered, using my nickname like it was a caress. “Thank you for just listening… ”
Elissa died only a few weeks later -there wasn’t much to treat brain tumours with in those days, and she slipped into a coma only days after we’d talked. But our discussion has coloured my thinking ever since.
And one topic we discussed -the unfairness of our allotted lifespan- still surfaces from time to time, even all these years later. Most recently, I suppose, in an essay by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory in the department of political economy, King’s College London. He was writing in Aeon, an online publication, outlining the fears that surround both death and its converse, immortality: https://aeon.co/essays/theres-a-big-problem-with-immortality-it-goes-on-and-on
I suddenly remembered Elissa’s feeling about immortality. I don’t want to live forever -just long enough… Until I’m ready, I guess. So I was pleased to learn that the attitude she taught me was neither anomalous nor unusual.
‘[T]he English moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggested that living forever would be awful, akin to being trapped in a never-ending cocktail party. This was because after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going. But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. We would lack what Williams called ‘categorical’ desires: ie, desires that give us reasons to keep on living, and instead possess only ‘contingent’ desires: ie, things that we might as well want to do if we’re alive, but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive.’
I’m reminded, of course, of Bill Murray in that famous movie Groundhog Day where he lives the same day over and over again. As moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University points out, ‘because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over. Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever. A desire for immortality is thus a paradox.’
And yet, is that it? There must be something else about, well, death -apart from fearing it- that makes us long to avoid it. Sagar mentions the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno feeling ‘outrage and anger that something is being taken away from him (‘they are stealing my I!’). Unamuno is imagining the situation that most of us do when we are contemplating our own deaths: not a distant point of decrepitude, aged 107, trapped in a hospital bed, in an underfunded care home – but rather death as claiming us before we are ready.’
As Sagar concludes, ‘ We are not simply afraid of death, we also resent it, because it is experienced as an assault on our personal agency. We can fully control our own deaths in only one direction – and that, of course, is usually no comfort at all.’
I wonder what he might have thought had he met Elissa that day in the hospital so many, many years ago… Those who are dying may also have an opinion.