If you haven’t been inspired by how Roger Ebert has handled the tragic health problems that have beset him, you haven’t been paying attention. Thyroid cancer has resulted in the removal of part of his jaw and the loss of his ability to speak or to eat and drink and he now takes nourishment through a feeding tube. But he has shown remarkable dignity and grace during the whole thing. He has a new book out about life and death and an article on Salon that sums up his views. It is a model of how a non-believer should handle the prospect of death.
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…
Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. …
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.
I can only hope that, when I inevitably face the prospect of dying, I would handle it with a tiny percentage of the courage and grace with which Roger Ebert is doing so.