Death Becomes Us

That dragonfly is dead.

David Bowie is gone.

So now is Alan Rickman (who probably would’ve done a bang-up job playing Bowie), too.

Shit goddamnit shit.

And also the familiar, oft-repeated refrain:

Fuck cancer. Times a thousand. Times a million. Times infinity.

Art at its core is, I think, driven by death. It’s there to help us look away from death. Art is there to help us understand it. Art is there to romanticize death — or to stare it square in the face.

And death is also something that motivates artists.

When we’re born, we’re guaranteed two things: one breath and death. Everybody who lives gets those two certain narrative beats to their story, birth, death, born, died. It is not a morbid fantasy to note that I’m going to die and so are you. It’s not a threat. It’s a promise earned by life — that grim balancing of the scales is not reserved for one person over the next, for you but not for me, for the under-served but not the privileged. We all have wildly different journeys but when our time is up it’s like game design: we are all funneled toward the same ending, the same inevitability. Some of our life is about ignoring death and pretending it isn’t there. Some of our life is geared toward trying to prevent death — or, for some, running headlong toward it.

The fear of death can destroy you.

But the epiphany of it can also motivate you.

People ask why I work so hard or why I’ve been so single-minded to be what I want to be and that’s because I don’t want deathbed regrets. I don’t want to get there and then look back over my shoulder and look at all the closed doors I wanted to open. I don’t fear death; I fear purposeless death. My work, my writing, is very explicitly motivated by the reality that I could get gored by a moose tomorrow, I could get crushed by a bulldozer in ten years, I could get prostate cancer and die in my 60s like my father, I could get pneumonia (again) and die when I’m 99. It’s coming. I know it. And so I cleave to the act of creation both to spite and to make sense of the ineluctable destruction. I don’t know what happens after we go. That’s an adventure either of realms beyond life or becoming food for trees and worms (both of which sound very nice in their own special way). Concentrating on what’s past the mortal gates, though, is a very bad way to live.

As such, I’ll say here what I said on Twitter this morning:

Everybody dies.

Love those that you have while you have them.

And do what you love while the world has you.

Bowie did that. Rickman did that. Be like Bowie. Be like Rickman.

Live. Make. Love. And then, only then, die.

68 comments

  • My brother is currently battling glioblastoma (brain tumor) and the passing of these two wonderful artists has hit me even harder than it normally would. Fuck cancer, indeed.

  • Dammit, Chuck. I’d just managed to stop crying.

    but as always you are so perfectly on point, with this especially. ” I don’t fear death; I fear purposeless death. ”

    That’s my worst fear, too. Thank you, And for this too.

    “Everybody dies.

    Love those that you have while you have them.

    And do what you love while the world has you.”

    Thank you.

  • That, my friend, is a quotable tweet.
    Three immediate family members died last year and I’m coming up on three years since being diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m with you. I don’t fear it. I know at some point, like when I’m old and decrepit, I’ll cry out, “Uncle,” and will go down without a fight, unless I don’t know what hit me. In the meantime, I feel time. I hear it ticking. I watch the days fly by. I hope I’ll feel less frustrated when I’ve published my books and I have several completed screenplays. Or not. I’ll probably always sense its hot nasty breath down my neck.

  • Survived my own cancer scare two years ago this April. Pancreatic cancer are scary words. I worried more about my family and my child (who just turned ten) than i did myself, simply because when I looked back I couldn’t find a significant regret. Of course I didn’t want to die, but I easily accepted that I could and that I had done my best up to that point. It was such a comfort that when I disappointed the doctors I promised myself I’d keep living without regrets.

  • I went to sleep last night right after writing about making sense out of suffering, and woke up to this. And now I’m sitting here sobbing.

    You can’t know how close I was, a month ago, to giving up on writing altogether, or how pivotal a role your voice and this site and the people in this commenting community have played in keeping me coming back. Thank you.

  • I agree with everything you said. None of us knows when we will lose a loved one, or when it will be our turn. Cancer is an evil bitch. It’s been a year since I finished chemo for breast cancer. Had a heart attack on ’09 at age 59. I don’t expect to live to be 95 but I’ve been given two second chances. It’s tough to see the folks who seem ageless and immortal leave us. I’ve always liked David Bowie. Alan Rickman was a superb actor and, as far as I know, a nice person. Rest in Peace Professor Snape.

  • Death. The return to the elementals all must face, like it or not. Some people beat cancer. I’ve know both who have and have not. It can be a great driving force… beats the hell out of defeat and depression. It also takes a great deal of practice to be mindful of the present. It is probably the best spiritual and work practice there is. Don’t waste time. Eat with enjoyment, greet friends, ignore the nay sayers and negative anchors that would deflate your sails. Make your art. Clean out the useless junk in your files, donate what can be recused, recycle the rest and let the Universe rush in with new energy.
    That’s what I’m hoping for. Back to the purge. Thanks for your blog.

  • Only found out about Alan Rickman when my blog alert popped this post in my email inbox. I think as writers we think of death every day – at least I do. I’m glad we writers get to leave some words behind, just like Bowie and Rickman left their artistic endeavours behind for us all to enjoy. That’s all we can be thankful for – and for the researchers and doctors who save so many, and keep such men as Bowie alive long enough to make just a little more love for us.

  • Thanks for writing this, Chuck. I have trouble articulating my feelings on death. I’m not scared of it, exactly, but like you, I don’t want to go too early. There’s a lot left for me to do here in the living world, and hearing recent news, I’ve realized I only hope I can accomplish half as much as what Rickman and Bowie accomplished as artists. May they rest in peace.

  • Nicely put, the closeness of death is what finally motivated me to get off my ass and write. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and after a few years of working with that, and returning to health I thought about what I’d regret if I died, and it was not writing a story and sharing it with others….so here I sit a little pen monkey

  • I’m currently fighting the cancer that is not only trying to suffocate me (not lung cancer, but metastasis of adenoid cystic carcinoma), but also trying to paralyze me and take away my hands (I make good use of the predictive text on my iPad). For years, I procrastinated on writing the books in my head and now it’s getting more difficult to write anything at all. Don’t wait until you think you’ll have the time later. Because “later” might not be there.

  • Lost my husband at only 38, some 11 years ago. Lost a good friend of only 36 this past year. Every day is precious, and every day is a day of possibilities not to be wasted. I have so much I want to accomplish still, and watching Star Gate reruns isn’t going to get it done. I chose to live after my spouse died, but your post, so well said, reminds me I can step that living thing up a bit. Thank you.

    • 10 years since I lost my mate to cancer, right now losing a dear friend the same way. Been having counselling for Depession recently. So I’m going along Carolyn and Carrie because “I can step that living thing up a bit.” too. Thanks Chuck, you know how to press all the buttons!

      • :( It is so damn hard. I hate it. My friend I lost, only 36!!! had a vicious fast-moving cancer but man she had an amazing attitude about it. I miss her, just have to look at my desk here at work to see reminders. Am sorry you are going through this, and have.

  • thanks. woke up a few days ago saying to myself, “I don’t want to find myself on my death bed saying, I’m SO glad I was so sensible.” Kind of motivates what remains.

    • I often say to people that I don’t want to be on my death bed saying, “boy, am I glad I spent so much time and energy on Twitter.” ;-)

  • You forgot Lemmy Kilmister, who lived life on his own terms and to the fullest. The most worldly rock star I’ve ever met, worked with, jammed with and socialized with (the stories I could tell…). He did what he wanted to do most, play rock and roll for (and with) his fans and friends, until he absolutely couldn’t any more, passing away just a few weeks after his final show.
    Do what you love and have a blast doing it and you will have no regrets.

  • Awesome way to put it, man. Those creative greats will be missed. I think in the last year or so we’ve had Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy and now these two all go. Sad stuff, to say the least.

  • When I heard Bowie died on Monday, I started writing the final scene to my novel, one I have been procrastinating about since November last year. ‘purposeless death’ is it, don’t want to make it all worthless! Great post, well said.

  • Been saying all the swears this week. Too many lost, too soon, to goddamn disease. Thanks for putting it so eloquently. Time to live, and love, life. Good words, plus you’re practicing what you’re preaching. Testify! Thanks, man.

  • My mom passed away just a few weeks ago in December at the relatively young age of 65, so this really resonated with me right now as I’ve been thinking about stuff since her passing and realizing what I want for me, and that I don’t want to have any regrets, any should/woulda/couldas. Thanks for this reminder (and RIP to both Bowie and Rickman – both giants in their spheres that will live on in human civilizations collective consciousness).

  • A timely blog post, Chuck. Especially as I know I’ll be attending a funeral some time this year for a close friend currently dying of cancer. I know I need to spend time with her and also spend time ensuring I make the most of my life.

  • Being a person who’s been living here on borrowed time since I was a child (yes, I died aged 2 and ‘kick-started’ myself again – I was clinically dead for a good 5 minutes), I have had my parents tell me over and over that I didn’t come back the same way; that was I was a different child/person. As an adult, Mum has noticed that I’m a very serious person, I’m very spiritual, I see and feel things totally different to how everyone else does around me.
    And as the years have passed, I’ve experienced Death in different ways – ways I wouldn’t want anyone else to. My life has been creepy and the only way I can talk about it is to write spooky/creepy stories and books.
    Since I was 2 years old, I almost died two more times (in 2000 twice within days of each time). And since that time, living has become harder. I’m not suicidal… but I see life more different than I ever have; and there are times where I feel I don’t belong here. I do know one thing: I’m not needed through the Veil yet… I keep getting sent back here.

    And you’re right, Chuck. We have to live our lives fully. We have to be spontaneous, love, dance like nobody’s watching and enjoy every minute… and when we do finally go, make sure the world knows you did what you loved doing and leave a little bit of yourself behind for everyone to love you when you’re not here.

  • yeh well said i agree.
    once you accept death
    as a fact of life
    you are reborn because you understand
    that your are part
    of a greater whole
    and it is the people we love
    including, hopefully, ourselves
    that are worth both living
    and dying for

  • I attended a funeral mass yesterday for a close friend who died too young from cancer. Even the ceremony of the Catholic funeral mass wasn’t enough to distract me from the dark thoughts I had about death, and dying. And then I started to daydream about the universe. About things like the Hubble Deep Field and how long the universe has been here and the idea of infinity and the mind-fucking idea of how small we all are in this ridiculously huge space. I felt a bit better after that. Dying doesn’t seem like such a big deal compared to everything else. Just glad to be able to be here at all.

  • Yes! This is it exactly! I also have a fear of being on my death-bed, and thinking – oh, if only I’d . . . but I’ve learnt to give myself time too – I have the time that I shall have – don’t waste it on a load of stuff you don’t want – but it’s there until it’s gone – so don’t waste it on worrying, either.

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