Roger Ebert died last week. Given his long and serious illness, this could not have come as a shock to anyone and it certainly did not come as a surprise to him. He knew it was coming, likely sooner rather than later, and he wrote less than two years ago about his inevitable demise.
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…
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 went into the hospital in December and many people, my doctors included, had doubts that I would survive the ordeal (when one of my dearest friends asked the nurse over the phone whether she could wait to come up until the next day, she was told, “You’d better come tonight”). I was asked by many people afterward, when the news was good and I was on my way to a full recovery (so far), whether I had gained any great wisdom from it. Alas, I had no epiphanies other than seemingly banal thoughts along the lines of “carpe diem.” I wish I could have thought this deeply while going through it, but I didn’t. I was too busy being scared and just trying to stay alive to ponder the bigger picture.
But Ebert’s words here strike me as rather powerful. As I said when I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, I have no idea what happens after we die. I’d like to think I’ll be reunited with lost loved ones, but I see no reason at all to believe that. The only immortality we can hope to have, I think, is living on in the thoughts and lives of the people we affected during our lives. And that seems like quite enough, don’t you think?