Content Warning: mentions of death, homicide, suicide and graphic descriptions of bodily mutilation and trauma
I remember the beauty of last week like it was yesterday, when all the fresh and crunchy leaves were still littered across the Diag and the wind lacked that extra bite. I frequently find it difficult to engage in my favorite pastime — stopping to smell the figurative roses — with such a busy schedule, but I had some time that day to pause and collect a few vibrant specimens from the ground, glowing in all shades between red and yellow.
It’s not hard for me to imbue such seemingly bland moments with meaning, to make those tender seconds of inner solitude the defining parts of my day. But my ability to manifest meaning in otherwise ordinary occasions stems from something sinister, something completely out of my control that haunts me to this day. I remember the dim green of the traffic lights and the wet, shiny reflection on the road like it was yesterday.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the look of the other driver’s face, the complete and total blankness that overwhelmed his softer features, dimly lit up inside his car by the luminescence of my headlights. I almost want to say that there was a look of fear on his face, which is predictable given that he haphazardly pulled out into my lane before noticing my car barreling towards his, but I might just be projecting.
I remember thinking how unfair it was. How I spent the last five years building my defensive driving skills. How I got my permit the day after I turned 15 and a half. I had a car before I had a license. There is something embedded in this silly invention by man, some kind of force that beckons me to the driver’s seat like a siren. There is nothing more electrifying for my soul than the hum of her engine. No one can cure me like my Hyundai can.
How unfair it seemed to me then, to know how much thrill driving gives me, and how much of it is ruined by clueless drivers. “Unfair, unfair, unfair!” I would scream as I approached my father covered in tears, for years on end, after yet another idiot on the road made me pay for his mistakes again.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to think about all the unfairness in the world. This man didn’t just pull out into my lane — he parked his minivan perpendicular to my path, and with me nearing a speed of 60 mph, the already worrying 100 feet or so of space between our cars was diminishing quickly. It was unfair, truly, that even with my stellar reaction time and the urgent strength in my foot as I slammed the brakes, it was not enough.
I was just going too damn fast.
In all actuality, I don’t know what that guy went home and did. Maybe he kissed his wife, told his kids he loves them, and promised to quit his shitty job. But me? I spent months regressing into a sort of guilt, ruing the fact that I had been granted a second chance, and feeling unworthy because I didn’t know what to do with it.
I once took a forensic pathology class my senior year of high school where we were shown intensely graphic images from victims of asphyxiation to death by chainsaw to car crashes. I wasn’t strong enough to stomach one, just one, image from our class, where a pedestrian was plowed through by a sports car, which left his legs on the opposite side of the road from his torso, and a mildly interrupted string of intestines could be traced between the two.
I can only picture what the scene of my accident would’ve looked like. How both of our faces would have been eaten by the airbags, bones snapped and twisted and exposed, even though I definitely had a higher chance of walking away from our encounter than he did. It would’ve been horrible — tragic to look at, tragic to think about and just tragic enough to make the next day’s front page.
It may have only been a flicker in my mind, one second that wasn’t drowned out by instinctual thinking, but I had convinced myself that I was a dead man driving.
Any time I sit behind the wheel, I often have close encounters with destruction. I drive in a way that leaves my passengers shaking with adrenaline, slammed down into the seat from the force of my sharp turns and startled by the sudden yet smooth swerving in between lanes. And yet, with all the accidents I’ve almost had throughout the course of my life, never have I blanked behind the wheel so instantly as I did in that moment.
And yet, when the brake failed to stop my rear wheels from sprinting as I approached the minivan head-on, cars racing against me in both of the adjacent lanes, leaving me with nowhere to go, my detrimental habit became the thing that saved my life. I took my foot off the brake and slid it to the right, speeding up just quickly enough to lane split and avert death by just a few inches.
I initially assumed I had learned nothing from my lesson, taking away nothing from the deathly learning curve and the addiction I have to endangering myself and others. I continued to drive with the same recklessness (and still do), but how could I not? That night, I had saved both of our lives, shooing away death with the same dangerous driving that all those news outlets warn you about. Despite the years of unfairness, I was in the right this time.
Still, the ego boost was not enough to overshadow the hollowness that followed my spirit around. I had averted death, but for what benefit?
For months, I grappled with my dilemma. What would leave a more foul stench in your mouth — dying a little too young or unfulfilled potential after being granted another chance?
If you had told me that just enjoying the softness of grass beneath, or collecting pretty rocks to give to my friends later, would be enough to make me feel whole again, I honestly wouldn’t have believed you. I had met Death before, in hospital rooms and in movies and within myself, but it took me almost dying to realize I was shunning the friend who made my life worthwhile, who made me remember what I do it all for.
We all have, I think, treated our friend the Grim Reaper a little too unfairly for all the good he brings us. Death was once considered a uniquely divine and honorable part of our lives, but the creation and medicalization of the death industry has transformed conversations about Death into cultural taboos, as we all just bite our tongues and sweep under the rug the most inevitable component of our collective experience.
Like any healthy obsession, my fascination with death started quite young. Instead of “Vampire Diaries” or “Gossip Girl” or “Wizards of Waverly Place” (which has earned me plenty of harassment from my roommates), I grew up on shows like “House MD,” “Bones,” and “CSI.” My exposure to death was precocious to say the least, but these heavier and moralistic shows helped to stiffen my backbone during actual troubling times, when I started having to say my last goodbyes to the people I loved.
And how ironic it is that my life pursuits continue to center around these topics. One of my truest passions — as everyone around me knows — continues to be anthropology. I tend to make it very explicit how much I appreciate the efforts of past hominins to preserve evidence of their existence. To slather paint on cave walls and to look after injured members of their clan — it’s all just too poetic to ignore.
The first known intentional burial we know of can be traced back to about 100,000 years ago, which is a third of the entire timeline of Homo sapiens. These individuals were buried with their corresponding tool industry, often ancient weapons colored with red ocher, potentially as part of a ritual. At some time somewhere, this deceased person mattered to others, and because we modern humans know this, I’d say the mission of the loved ones who buried them was successfully fulfilled.
Compassion has grown inert as a human trait, it seems, because our seemingly brutish ancestors actually possessed the capacity to care and empathize. When archaeologists unearthed the remains of a 15-year-old boy in present day Vietnam, they examined his strange, fused vertebrae and concluded that he had a congenital disease called Klippel-Feil syndrome — which left him paralyzed from the waist down and almost no use of his arms.
Still, he lived over 10 years longer than expected due to the care he received from his family. The graduate student who helped unearth the remains commented that “not only does his care indicate tolerance and cooperation in his culture, but (it) suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live. Without that, he could not have stayed alive.”
And without the sanctity of human death, we’d rarely get a glimpse into the beauty and benevolence of human life.
It’s a shame to see what’s important to us pass into the crevice of time, but at least there is beauty in knowing that Death will happen to each and every one of us. Beyond us beasts who breathe and bend and babble, any object with materiality cannot escape its grasp. Even mountains are worn down over time by an occasional faint breeze and carved through by a slim stream of running water.
That which has no materiality but is defined by other material existence, like language or artistic customs, is also doomed to die eventually — though not as a result of cell senescence or chronic diseases. Our biological tethering, then, our skin and bones, is not the deciding factor that necessitates our passing. We are not special because we die, like all other things do, but because we have the unique ability to live and breathe before our existence is decimated by time. Death is the great equalizer because it does not discriminate, but at least we are bestowed just enough fingers and toes to carve our love into stone and tell others about what once mattered to us, about how we made something of ourselves despite our flesh.
That we were once here, too.
Death in contemporary society, unfortunately, hardly resembles the relationship our ancestors once had with it, especially in the Western world. I think that the gradual medicalization of death, this transition from perceiving death as a spiritual occurrence to the hopeless degradation of our physiology, is the largest contributor to the uneasiness that arises in a room when someone mentions this dire topic.
In America, the industry of death rose to prominence during the Civil War, when soldiers’ bodies would be injected with arsenic and preserved so their parents could see their child once more before burying them. Nowadays, bodies are preserved with the (not actually any safer) formaldehyde, but this movement introduced a new approach to death — as something that ought to be prevented, forestalled for as long as possible.
The modern equivalent of the obsession with bodily preservation, the medicalization of death, protrudes through the field of health care. Families are less involved in the death of their loved ones’, as death is occurring more often in a hospital setting than at home, and there has been a noticeable increase in futile or inappropriate medical treatment before death. Dying now involves planning, prepping, paperwork, prescriptions, pessimism and predetermination — the Western world has manufactured death to be as all-consuming and banal as taxes, shushed and silenced at the dinner table all the same.
However, death isn’t always as gloomy as it is in the Western world. In many nations, cultures and societies, death is a reason to party.
A most timely example, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a core part of Latin American traditions, which has its origins in ancient Aztec beliefs that held death to be a circular process. A holiday spanning across multiple days, people honor their passed loved ones on Nov. 2 by bringing sugar skulls and food to the cemetery, where bands play music and dancing crowds rejoice over their loved ones’ lives.
One of the laments I made when I was journaling after my near-accident was promising myself to plant stronger roots of my heritage within me. A common phenomenon among first-generation immigrants, I woke up one morning and suddenly found myself Westernized, reheating frozen meals and celebrating Christmas in December, working to live so I can live to work. It’s not me, I thought.
When I looked into it, I was stunned to learn that the pre-Christian Slavic approach to death also contrasted the ideas of the Western world.
Before most of them were converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, my family’s bloodline could be traced to Pagan Slavs occupying the lands of the former Kievan Rus’ and the Balkans. The burial practices of choice for many pre-Christian Slavs were cremation and burial mounds and would be followed by merry celebrations and tables overflowing with food and alcohol. While my family is a bit more modest, and I may not pleat wreaths and jump over burning fires, bringing food and drink to your loved one’s headstone — or just spending some time with them — continues to be a popular and withstanding tradition in Eastern Europe today.
The lack of functional logic in the Western approach to dying, defined by this shallow explaining-away of things, where we appeal to numbers and projected outcomes and palliative treatment plans, allows us to mask the reality of dying, rendering it both demystified and somehow more confusing to comprehend. But to assign a linear cause and effect trajectory between our birth and death is to try and place some absurd form of agency into our hands, where we think we can play God — and win.
In our avoidance of what is painful, we become oblivious to the poetic nature of death, failing to recognize the importance of the periods that punctuate the sentences of our mortality.
I think we are still far from normalizing casual mentions of our loved ones’ death while passing the salt at the dinner table, but it sure helps to deconstruct the taboo by re-evaluating what your personal relationship is with death, and whether it’s currently granting you any benefit.
According to Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher, there is a way to rationalize the fears associated with death and overcome them through logic — with the exception of just one: the fear of dying before we are fulfilled. Indeed, passing before we are certain we have served our life’s purpose is an ailment that not even the Stoics can cure. But I like to think that an eagerness for living will do more for our fulfillment than fearing an untimely death.
So I choose to celebrate my near and old friend, Death, whose name has been tainted and twisted for the last millennia. He reminds me of the burden I carry, the thoughtfulness I should maintain before I speak words into existence, the kindness I should show to the flowers rising beneath me, a fateful omen to what I will look like one day. Death keeps me on task — he reminds me to always keep the peace, to water the plants and to feed the soul, to do the laundry and clean the shelves, to drop what has become unnecessary and to pick up things that give me joy.
Death reminds me there will always be a gentle tenderness to the brutish act of destruction, by underlining the volatile belief that anything worth doing is worth dying for.
So, in a last-ditch attempt to find a reason to keep on living, I wrote down all the things I wouldn’t mind letting consume me.
Writing. Music. Poetry. When I had emptied my jar of general terms and hobbies, I leaned further out of the box. Lacan and Sextus Empiricus. Sometimes even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The softness of morning air, and the satiety that follows from taking a deep breath in.
Eventually, the writer’s block faded, and I instead found myself unable to interrupt the sudden symphony erupting from my pen.
I would die for things like the coolness of the water droplets dripping through my hair and down my back on a rainy day and the refreshing freedom that comes from succumbing to the elements. There is nothing else that instills so deep an urge to die than when I close my eyes and turn my head up at the rainstorm above, swallowed by the heavy transcendence resulting from breathing in the thinned air — like balloons swelling in my chest — but not because of some raw, negative wound becoming defleshed by the rain. I want to die, then and there, because I have no desire to be anywhere else in the world — and being able to walk away after is too perverse of an idea for me to handle.
Scribbles turned into bullet points, which meshed into sentences and entire diary entries. I talked about the silence and salience of love and my notion of the maraschino cherry soulmate, how there must be a predestined order to the universe, for what else can explain the balance between the one always refusing to eat the maraschino cherry and the other willing to scoop it off the milky foam.
Immanence is a skill learned, not granted, and my journaling habits have done more for me than I’d like to admit.
I find joy in taking things lightly. I squeeze the grains of parmesan a little more loosely now, not so much worried about the bits that might fall on the counter as my hand advances toward the bowl. I resist the sun’s rays a little bit less in the summer, and I don’t squeeze myself as tightly when the wind gusts in the winter.
Resistance is not a kind state of being because fighting the current and swimming up river is needlessly draining, as you protest natural law because of something you think you want, despite the water’s gentle promises to take you where you need to go.
If only it was easier to realize how much of the future blinds so much of the present. If only it was easier to know about all the leaves that go unnoticed, all the flowers left un-smelled and all the strangers gone ignored, drowned out by the tick-tock of the clock and the whistles of Google Calendar notifications and the stifling, silent rush of life.
Today, I watched the snow dance outside of my window, and I thought about calling my mom.
Statement Correspondent Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.