I have always had an obsession with death.
It is difficult to say that without coming off as deliberately macabre so as to garner whatever perverse attention it attracts, but it is the truth. I am not referring to the glamorized simulacra of death we see on screen or on page. Yes, I do occasionally enjoy the thrill they provide, but I am far from fascinated with decapitations in cheap gore-porn and bloody slaughter in horror stories. I am obsessed with Death in the Japanese-death-poem sense of the word: Death as an inevitable certainty. The only certainty, in fact. Perhaps this alone is what warrants the worship of Santa Muerte in some ancient parts of South America.
The person who sat next to me on the school bus when I was in grade school drowned in a surfing accident during summer break. His name was Jonathan, and he loved Batman. I was too young to mourn the dead and shrugged it off with ingenuous insouciance. That was how Death was able to insidiously creep up on me, hiding behind and peering from the shoulders of each person she took from my life, whenever I looked back to see if she was there. Throughout the subsequent years she kept coming closer, if not personally then quite literally. First she took Jan, an old lady who hosted my family in Boston. Then an uncle I only saw several times every year. Then the old lady who lived next door. Then a group of students in my college. Then the girl who lived two blocks away from me. Then my favorite teacher, whose eulogy I neglected to write because I had an essay due that week. It feels frivolous to debase the deaths of these people to an item of my philosophic inquiry, but in a way my fear that Death is coming for me is justified, for obvious reasons.
It is easy to fall into sentimentality and turn this into yet another mawkish lamentation on why I am in fact a deeply broken and brooding person. I am not. If there is anything I noticed from hanging out with young liberal arts students is that many of us artistic souls love to be seen as tortured and hence, special. It is like a dick-comparison game on the schoolyard where kids see who has the longest penis; only, in this case, the proverbial dick is whatever tragedy we can contrive based on the brief, inevitable moments of sadness in our privileged little lives.
I have long reconciled with that and ceased to ponder whether Death gives our enterprises meaning or takes it away. Time should be wasted on speculating on things that are uncertain, and to lament mortality is to make fun of the sufferings of others. To mourn the dead is a foolish undertaking – taxing on the soul, practically useless. It is part of the contract you signed up for the moment you choose to give your heart away. Understanding death and mourning for the dead are not mutually exclusive, as the hypocritical would assume; if your understanding were was true, you cannot mourn. To be human is to be inhumane.
If anything, Death gives me solace in times of distress: when in doubt, know that you will die one day. It is something that simultaneously liberates and constricts. Fear of others is irrational as we are all walking hand in hand towards the same fate. That girl with the cheap perfume you think is too damn good for you will be a rotting carcass some day. Regardless of what perverse reason you wish to change the world, regardless of how much importance you put in your career, your love, your taxes, your wife, your dog, your affair, your Mercedes, your book, your 3000-dollar tuxedo, your sport, your charity, your art, your cause, your God, your mother and yourself, you are an eventual nothing. This is not nihilism born out of two decades of living a sheltered, prosperous and healthy life; this is something that keeps me grounded and happy, my therapist and my cocaine. Only when you are lying in your deathbed, too feeble to move, just conscious enough to open your lips and breathe whatever last words you think the world will remember do you truly know yourself. So laugh away; you won’t be able to very soon. Even Ozymandias must fall, as do the poets who poeticize them.
And hence my obsession makes me relieved, grounded and sincerely happy. If you think these words are angst-ridden, you missed the point. My grin is that of a skeleton.