He tries to picture himself eating his favorite food or snorkeling an unknown sea, but sometimes the grim-reaper thoughts just keep on coming. Here, in thirteen ways, Ira Sukrungruang unpacks what it means to be dead.
My dog lies in the shape of a crescent moon, her front and back paws curling toward each other. She dreams, I am sure, of her greatest moment—the day she brought back a decomposing deer leg. She was not over two then, just a pup, and the leg was twice—maybe three times—the length of her spaniel body. What must she have thought when she came upon such a discovery? What joy did it bring her? She emerged from the expanse of Illinois grass that towered over her a champion, hefting the weight of that deer leg in her small mouth, dragging it to us, breathing in short audible bursts through her nose.
I don’t remember who took it from her, who was brave enough to touch the dried and crusted flank. But I do remember how my dog offered the leg as a gift. How she expended so much energy to bring it to us—this dead and rotting leg. How she did not stay in that field, hidden by prairie grass, and feast.
This is what I think about as I watch her sleep, eight years later. There is more white under her chin and her eyes have become cloudier. And in those years she has given us more presents: a dead and frozen downy woodpecker, mice, a vole, a rabbit, unfortunate squirrels.
Her paws twitch.
Her mouth twitches.
She makes tiny squeaks.
In her dreams, she is off—the ageless dog—scampering across endless flat fields after prey that can never escape her boundless energy.
We joke, my wife Katie and I, about my upcoming death.
“Don’t you dare die,” she says. “We don’t have life insurance on you yet.”
“I’ve been feeling pain in my left arm.” I grab my chest dramatically. “And my heart hurts.”
“If you die, I swear I’ll kick your ass.”
“I’ll try to hold off a little longer, but no guarantees.”
“I’m just saying I need that insurance money.”
This type of joking is almost a daily routine, and because it is routine, it is, in fact, a real issue, with real fears. Because underneath our banter is the recognition that I will die. Perhaps sooner than most. Because I am over three hundred pounds and in love with starches and deep-fried food. Because I am a diabetic. Because, though I exercise, I eat more than my body can contain. Because my body is finally feeling youth slip away and suddenly my knees/back/ankles/hips hurt. Because now, I pay for my late nights.
Sometimes joking about what we fear most is the only way to confront it.
When we finally get life insurance, Katie says, “Okay, you can die now.”
“I’ll pencil it in.”
“Maybe next year,” she says. “I get more money the longer you last.”
Lord Buddha: How many times do you think about death?
Monk Number 1: I think about death every day.
Lord Buddha: Too little. How about you?
Monk Number 2: I think about death with every bite of food.
Lord Buddha: Not enough. And you?
Monk Number 3: I think about death with every breath in and every breath out.
Lord Buddha: Perfect.
When it got to be a certain hour of night, my friend and I spoke only of dying. We spoke about loss. We spoke in hushed tones, afraid that if we got louder someone would hear us, two tough boys being open, being vulnerable. Worse yet, we didn’t want our talk to be omens.
My friend was layered in muscle. He worked at the lumberyard at night, and spent his afternoons in the gym pumping iron. He took supplements, drank protein shakes, and was a carb-eating machine.
He leaned against my minivan in the garage, and the summer night brought the song of crickets. He said, “Crickets live less than a year.”
“Ooh,” I said, “Mr. Science.”
“Longer if they stay warm.”
“Look at you—the Polish fact machine.”
He chuckled and stretched his right bicep, as big as my head. “What would you do if you had a year to live?”
I shrugged. “Lots, I guess.” The truth: probably the same thing I do now. Sit outside listening to crickets with him. When you’re nineteen, what else is better?
“I’d stop working out,” he said. “I’d stop doing any sort of exercise.”
I made a sound that said whatever. My friend was obsessive about the gym. If he wasn’t there, he was at work. If he wasn’t at work, he was in my garage talking about dying. I couldn’t imagine him without dumb bells in his hands. I mean, this was the guy who’d bought an electric contraption to shock his muscles into shape.
“For real,” said my friend. He flexed his left arm. “You know how much time I put in to make these?” He flexed his right. He lifted his shirt to show me his abdominals.
“A lot of time,” I said. I had the opposite body. Fat and flabby. I slouched on an aluminum chair.
“I work out more than I sleep.” My friend yawned. “If I had a year to live, I’d stop doing anything healthy.”
“You can stop now,” I told him. “Take a few days off.”
He smirked, thinking that what I’d said was absurd.
“I can’t stop.”
“The irony.” My friend admitted his time at the gym was to stave off death. He kept his body in prime condition so it could fight off sickness and age. What he didn’t know was that longevity and living are two different things. What he didn’t know was that dying happens to the healthy too. Dying happens to everyone.
My friend said, “A cricket is loudest right before it dies.”
“Did you make that up?”
He smiled. “Trust a Pollack.”
They were uneven, those stitches, like railroad tracks drawn in a clumsy hand, arcing across the curve of her stomach. It doesn’t hurt, she said. I don’t know they’re there at all. I wanted to ride across her wound with my fingers, to understand why she had been gone for so long while I’d waited and watched, closing and opening my eyes, thinking she might appear in her usual spots: sewing by the window, reading a Thai magazine upstairs, sipping coffee under Buddha. I did not know what a hysterectomy was, did not know that it meant losing the parts that give life.
I called for her, louder and louder each time, and the neighborhood echoed with my voice. I feared losing her then, and knew I would keep losing her—each minute, each second. I knew this even when she did finally come back and I hid my face in her hair, ashamed of the wet coming from my eyes. I wondered what other things we were going to lose, what other things had already been lost. What will you do? she said, her hand hovering over the stitches. What will you do when I am gone?
I concentrate on breathing. I count my breaths. I prevent anything from entering my mind. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it fails. When it fails, I toss and turn. I sigh loudly. My wife lying beside me tells me to “Settle!” in the same stern voice she uses with our dogs when they howl at a cat. Sorry, I tell her, and lay board still, my body tight, like one united muscle. I concentrate on her breathing. I count her breaths. But my mind, my damn mind, has gone to the places I do not want it to tread. Fear clenches my body. I shut my eyes. I shake my head. I try to disrupt my thoughts with movement. But my mind imagines a life without. Without my wife. Without my mother. Without all of those I love. I panic. My hands ball up. My toes curl tight. I take shallow breaths. And my heart. It thuds in my chest so loud and fast I think this could be it, the heart attack I have been waiting for.
This. Is. It.
I play games to chase the fear away. Imagine myself eating my favorite food. Imagine the taste of that food. Imagine the joy of eating that food. Or, picture myself snorkeling some unknown sea. Picture myself among so many colorful fish. Picture myself as one of the colorful fish. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it fails. When it fails, I am frozen and sweating and clutching the covers tight in both hands. Waiting.
I should be ready for this. I’m counting down.
My wife had an addiction to this TV series that appeared on cable, Dead Like Me. The show was about reapers, who’d once been part of the living but who now worked in the business of death. Each day, reapers met in a greasy spoon, and the head reaper—played by the charismatic Mandy Patinkin—gave out Post-it Notes with a first initial and last name and also the time and place the reaper had to be in order to claim the soul. Dead Like Me took the scythe and black hood away from death, and gave the job to a mix of crazy characters. The series showcased inventive and outrageous ways people die. Example: the main character, George, was killed by a space-station toilet seat plummeting to the Earth. Those were my favorite parts, those eccentric deaths.
Most of the time, however, the series centered on George. She hated her job of taking souls—understandably. And George clung hard to her former life. She followed her younger sister around in her new, unrecognizable body. She kept breaking into her old house and leaving clues to her existence. She couldn’t let go. Even in death, she was suffering from her former life, which as a Buddhist scared the hell out of me.
Buddhists believe in leaving no footprint, but a great majority of us do just that. We want to be remembered. We want to remember. I’m always struck by the question, “How do you want people to remember you?” Often this is asked of celebrities, politicians, the rich and famous. And often, the answer is stock: “As a good father.” Or, “As a person who gave.” Or, “As a person who tried hard.” Not once have I heard, “I don’t.”
But on a minor scale, we ask ourselves this very question every day—not straightforwardly, not directly—but it is implicit in our daily routines, the decisions we make, the people we keep company with. It is in many ways why some of us collect things, why some of us can’t throw things away. Who will remember us if we don’t leave these clues? Who will speak of us when we are gone? I wonder whether being alive is about being remembered.
George the reaper says: “We lead our lives, and when they end, sometimes we leave a little of ourselves behind. Sometimes we leave money, a painting, sometimes we leave a kind word. And sometimes, we leave an empty space.”
My mother tells me we live this life for our next lives, and I wonder if that’s living. Ever since I can remember, she has said over and over again that it is happening. She talks about her death in the present tense. Present tense—at this moment, right now. I remember her saying this when I was seven. She continues to say this. It is happening.
She’s right, of course. The moment we are born, we are dying. Our cells are moving and changing by the nanosecond. Young, we don’t care. We don’t feel it. We don’t register time because there are so many things to do, so many things left to accomplish. Too much fun to be had. But at a certain age, time registers. Suddenly the phrases, “Time flew by, didn’t it?” or, “I can’t believe the year is over” creep into our language. Suddenly we recognize—though many of us don’t want to—that we have expiration dates.
My mother knows this. She has known this for a good many years, even though many in her family lived well into their nineties. She wants me to know it to. She wants me to be aware of it myself.
It is happening.
“Vampires have it bad,” a girl I used to date once told me. “All they do is suffer. They can never experience the ecstasy of mortality. They’re denied death.”
“Unless you have a wooden stake,” I said. “Or some holy water and a good dose of sunshine.”
I met her in debate class in my freshman year of college, and we dated for a week because we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Meeting in debate meant we were always on opposite sides of an issue. Abortion: she found it unholy; I was for a woman’s right to choose. Capital punishment: she was for death to criminals; I was for life sentences with possibility of parole. In that week of our intimacy, the topic we often circled around was death. She was obsessed by it, knew bizarre death facts.
“A cockroach can live without a head. True story. Then it starves.”
“There was a news reporter who killed herself on the air. True story. Boom, gun shot in the head.”
“Tennessee Williams died—true story—because he choked on a bottle cap.”
After a few days, I couldn’t take any more true stories. She wasn’t a goth girl. There were plenty of them on campus, wandering like zombies in tight groups, usually English majors. She didn’t listen to death metal. She didn’t stare off into space or mumble incantations. She appeared to be typical. A blue jeans and sweatshirt kind of girl. Someone you wouldn’t mind bringing home to meet Mom and Dad.
Except the death thing.
Her fascination scared me, made me look for death at every turn. When I crossed the street, I made sure no car came because, according to her, four thousand pedestrians a year died in auto-related accidents. When I ate, I chewed carefully, with the knowledge that two thousand people died last year alone because of choking. I smoked less because she liked to describe the lungs of a dead smoker.
It didn’t occur to me that her infatuation with death might have been a telltale sign of depression. I was barely eighteen, self-centered, and my first year of college was proving to be rough, and here was this girl in debate who intrigued me with her arguments in class, even though I disagreed with everything she said.
Finally, during lunch at the cafeteria, I said, “Can’t we talk about butterflies and bunnies?’
“They die, too, you know?” she said, chewing a chicken tender.
“Please don’t talk about this anymore.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Let’s try something else.”
But there was nothing else to talk about, and without her talk of death, there was nothing between us at all. We sat in silence, eating our lunches.
When she was done, she rose with her tray and said, “You should try being a vampire.”
Lord Buddha says, “Do not mourn me.” He lies supine under a bodhi tree that is shaped like an umbrella. Monks have gathered around their teacher. The young ones pat away moisture from their eyes. The older ones are resolute. They wait for one last lesson.
Lord Buddha says, “This is a joyous moment.” His body begins to glow. There was one other time his body lit up like this: the moment of enlightenment.
Lord Buddha says, “I will be free of this body that housed suffering.” He closes his eyes. Ready.
Lately, I’ve had this urge to document everything. Wherever I go, I take a picture. Usually, it is of something that moves me. The light between trees. Pelicans and cormorants on a dock. Sunlight off a pond. Sometimes, I set the timer on my camera and pose dramatically. I think about my poses. I think about my facial expression. My poses are usually silly. I stick my tongue out. I play a role, like a quick-shot cowboy or gangsta. These pictures aren’t for me. They’re never for me. They’re for my wife. My family. My friends. I want them to remember me and the things I love in case I’m not there anymore to tell them why I love these things. When I get home, I rush to the computer. I make sure to organize my photos into folders labeled by the date. This is important. Again, it’s not for me.
You can know my days by what pictures I take. You can know my life by what face I make. If something happens, there is evidence that I exist. If something happens…
In W.S. Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” Merwin writes: Every year without knowing it I have passed the day… I always pause at that line. Its profundity takes my breath away. We wake up each day and fill it with activity. At the end of the day, some of us will sleep and wake again, and some of us will continue sleeping. The poet César Vallejo wrote in his poem “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone” that his death would come on a Thursday. I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn. Vallejo died, for the record, on a Friday in spring.
These poets and many more who have broached the topic of death have gotten me thinking about the cliché “death follows you.” I’m not sure death follows anyone. I think, in fact, we follow death.
Recently, I listened to my sister-in-law, who is in seminary school, speak at her father’s memorial service. In the soft cadence of her voice, in her pointed prose, I was struck by the details of his life, his joys, his happiness. He was man who lived, who loved, and was loved. My sister-in-law’s speech on that gusty Illinois afternoon spoke of living regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.
Buddha said: “If we keep death in front of us, if we are aware of it, we will live better lives.”
Before Buddha closed his eyes, before he gave in to his death, what was it, I wonder, he saw? Was it a bird trilling in the tree? Was it his disciples’ orange robes fluttering in wind? Was it the sunlight peeking through branches? I would like to think that before his last breath he saw the shape of contentment, and that contentment guided him into whatever his next life was.
For the time being, for me, not knowing must suffice.