The Rhetoric of Death

I could not recall what it was my husband and I had eaten Friday night, but at 6 a.m. the following morning, while savoring the last few minutes in bed before getting up and getting sucked into the structure of a Saturday, we found ourselves discussing death. We had never, prior to that morning, discussed the dreary subject before, except in a joking, bantering manner of what the surviving spouse will most likely do in the event of my or his passing (i.e. throw a party!). Though fairly young, he had lately been bothered by his slipped disc and the pain he had been experiencing as a result of it.

That discussion may have been brought on by my cavalier attitude towards life, for I had articulated my desire for a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) option should I meet with a fatal accident and fall into a coma, as well as to not seek medical care if I happen to be diagnosed with the Big C (scant savings for kids’ college going to chemotherapy not a talking point!). His slipped disc will not probably devolve into paralysis of the lower half of his body, but my husband, not taking any chances, decided to sign up at the Moro Lorenzo in the Ateneo for a 3-hour three times a week session of therapy with an in-house PT. He does not treat lightly his small aches and pains.

Naughty me naturally made fun of my “hypochondriac” husband. He is that because he runs to the Medical City at the slightest indication of an ailment borne, I will not be surprised, of a luxurious previous experience of confinement there for a non-fatal but highly contagious chicken pox in 2004. The running joke in his office is that our HMO must be hemorrhaging money from Bong check-ups alone. I, on the other hand, am preternaturally optimistic that what ails me will resolve on its own, or it is I that dissolve, whichever comes first.

Clearly, my husband and I have divergent ideas about life and death. And while I seriously applaud my husband’s attitude towards responsibility and caring for the next generation by making wise use of his time while he still can, I could not help thinking that after all, these stances are pretty much the only options available to us. We could either sleepwalk our way through life, waiting for that inevitable STOP sign, or hightail it “home,” –offering rides to people along the way, until we get to, again, that inevitable dead-end.

Next to love, Literature is rife with ideas of our mortality. Death is a topic about which many poets have given us clever lines in both prose and poetry. Name the poet, and you can google what it was that that poet thought and said about death. Lord Tennyson’s nostalgic and deeply sentimental lyric about his best friend’s death, immortalized in some of the most beautiful lines ever written in the English language, riveting for their ordinariness and yet eternally memorable “But Oh, for the touch of a vanished hand, / and the sound of a voice that is still” in a simply titled poem called “Break, break, break” is one; Linda Pastan’s notion of death as a minor surgery doubling as a “dress rehearsal” for the real thing, is another; and Sylvia Plath’s “bell jar” experience—being cut off from all contacts with the outside world via insanity or death, may well be an objective correlative for it, a topic prefigured in her novel of the same title and in much of her poetry, a third. All life’s trajectory is a death, I read somewhere once, and accurately too, paraphrasing Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”:

“The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere, (…)

Dylan Thomas rounds this out when he advises his father alternately to “not go gentle into that good night” and “rage against the dying of the light” in a memorable villanelle.

In much the same tone, I could very well hear the same advice coming from the husband.

Posted in B

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