Why Are You Afraid to Die?

Yes, Captain Obvious is Making a Convenient Assumption. And Yes, I’ve Been Pondering My Future This Morning.

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It’s a new year and welcome to it. We’re still here. Sometimes I’m surprised, considering our current global divisions, but nonetheless I’m awake and finding myself in a contemplative frame of mind this morning.

A typical early-January start for me.

The two bravest men I had ever known were James Cagney, and my father. Well, allow me to amend that. Cagney’s performance in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” as the gangster William “Rocky” Sullivan, shaped my thoughts of death for years. On the night of Rocky’s execution, Father Jerry Connolly, his lifelong friend and childhood co-conspirator who later became a priest, pleads with the stoic felon to display cowardice on his walk to the electric chair. It is the only way, Father Connolly explains, that the group of young thugs who idolize him will break from his negative inspiration, and perhaps save their own lives. Rocky refuses, much to Father Connolly’s chagrin, maintaining his swagger … until he indeed begins screaming and begging for mercy. When the street gang later reads how Rocky really was a coward in the face of his death, the thugs lose all respect for him.

Cagney was fierce, the toughest of the tough in the face of his impending demise. The audience knew it, but the street gang didn’t. Maybe there was the slightest degree of good or, if not good, maybe regret in this presumably unrepentant criminal, who saw clear to do a last-minute favor for the friend he never emotionally abandoned.

But he clearly was not scared to die. That was a lesson for me. To be clear, I met Rocky when I was a kid, as I saw “Angels with Dirty Faces” for the first time at 11 years old. I’m nearly 55 now.

The film stayed with me, and remains a personal favorite.

The other biggest influence — well, the biggest, real-life influence in terms of my outlook — was my father, Richard Eisenberg.

Dad was dying of a liver disease, and he never drank. He pulled the straw, so to speak, puzzling the doctors who could not find a reason for the illness that would take his life.

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We had always had a great father-son relationship and dynamic; our humor could be biting and only we understood it. But on his final days Dad could barely move or speak. I was alone with him in his hospital room for our last “goodbye.” My mother was in the hallway, and I was doing my level best not to break down. I needed to stay strong for her.

I kissed my dad’s forehead, and said, “I want you to know, I’m very proud to be your son.”

He managed to whisper, which were some of the last words he would say before losing all voice, “I’m proud to be your father.”

I walked out in the hallway, met my mother, and started sobbing. I couldn’t help it.

I found out later that Dad, who incidentally was pragmatic and not religious at all, had months before told a close cousin of mine that he knew he was dying, and his only wish was for me and my brothers to take care of Mom. I asked my cousin what my father’s mindset was during that conversation.

“Your dad believed that it was his time,” my cousin said. “He thought he did what he had to by setting up his family well, and it was time to go.” His response seemed curt to me. I asked if my dad discussed being scared. My cousin said, “No. He was completely at peace.”

This scenario mirrors that of a close friend of mine who passed from cancer following a horrific battle. Towards the end, he expressed a similar mindset: “I’ll go when I’m ready. I’m close, and at peace with what happens. But this is a moment with my friend, not for that.”

For comfort, he had been reading a book about a child’s return from heaven, that the author later admitted to being a scam. Flowers, people from the past … and a great light at the end of a tunnel were part of the imagery. Archetypes of the death experience, as discussed by many hospitalized or otherwise severely injured to the point of unconsciousness, were common in such works.

I didn’t believe a word of it, but who was I to take issue with my friend’s peace?

We’ve all heard of the tunnel experience, the light … the cases of people on the operating table who died, and then somehow floated above the scene and watched the doctors working feverishly to bring them back.

Some claim to return from their injuries or near-death states with new outlooks. They say death is “good,” it’s a “reward” and so on. And, supposedly, they no longer fear it.

None of this is to say that when we get close to death, all panic or fear is assuaged. As human beings, despite our best efforts and the religious beliefs of some, we still have no clue what happens once we die. Some of the theories hold a degree of comfort: We live on, the soul lives on, we awaken like nothing ever happened and what had passed was only a dream. Other theories are not as optimistic: Nothingness, the true end, a void … hellfire and damnation.

It is human to fear the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown, but ask yourself, “What do I most fear about life?” Make a list if you have to. Certainly, I don’t want to be irresponsible with this piece. There may be people reading this who suffer from depression-related issues, or who are suicidal. In no way am I advocating any “way out.” I am, though, contemplating publicly that we spend a great deal of time fearing and dreading something we do not understand. In some cases, this fear can cripple our quality of life — which itself can be and frequently is overwhelming.

And the fact that we do not know what happens “on the other side” does not necessarily mean it’s any easier. My own thoughts on the matter are best expressed with a true-life incident:

An elderly woman was sitting next to me on a severely turbulent cross-country flight. I was unnerved to the point of panic, despite the lessons of Cagney. She noticed, turned to me and said, “The planes are built to withstand this.”

“You’re not scared?” I asked. Other people on the plane were praying.

“I’m 89 years old,” she said. “This is more motion than this body has had in 40 years. It’s like a roller-coaster.” Her last point sealed the larger point for me: “Enjoy it while you can.”

I’ve been doing exactly that ever since, for about the last 35 years.

Death to me is The Great Unknown. But then, so is tomorrow. So is today. I don’t bother with it anymore. Like my dad, when it’s my time, I’ll be ready.

Ask yourself for what do you want to be remembered, and then spend quality time getting there. You know the expression, “It’s all about the journey?” It certainly is. Moments within that journey — wins and losses — are the best teachers.

A last tomorrow will come for everyone. I’m in no rush. I’m far more interested in the present to cultivate a legacy through my words, my writing. I’m not the first to say this, but truly we only have the present moment. We spend a lifetime planting seeds, figuratively, and building our futures. But we live in neither the past nor the future. We live in the present.

Captain Obvious strikes again? Sure. But here’s my trip: I woke up this morning — January 2, 2019 — contemplating my future. I elected to plant some seeds this morning. I’m 55 years old on January 14. It’s sobering to think how many years I have left. 25? 35? 40? 10? Two days? No idea.

Making the most of every moment is not a crime. Neither is learning from the past and planning for the future.

But never forget the now.

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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