How strange it is to be anything at all

How strange it is to be anything at all

The first thing that made me angry about religion was the afterlife. I went to a youth group camp (because that’s where the pretty girls went), and a few of the zealots told me my Jewish friends were going to hell. “If those assholes are going to heaven and my Jewish friends aren’t,” I told my Aunt Janice, testing the blasphemous phrase with her for later use in front of my mother, “Then their god is an asshole too.”

The afterlife — which I’d never fully believed in — was the first thing to drive me away from religion, and Janice was a good sounding board. It was harder to talk to my mom about it: she took it too personally, and I meant it too personally. 

Not that Janice agreed with me — we’d sit across the table from each other at Bravo’s in Field’s Ertel or Bob Evan’s in Blue Ash, and she, who depending on the occasion was either about to be diagnosed with breast cancer or early along in her treatments, would talk about reincarnation.

I did not have much patience for it, but she had patience for me, so I listened. She talked about past lives, and about the cycle of birth and rebirth. And I would talk about void and nothingness and despair. I was excellent company for a cancer patient.

After a while, we stopped talking about death at these breakfasts and dinners. Cancer tends to make death less majestic and sexy and abstract — you start to care less about death and more about discomfort and pain. And then when you beat the cancer, it seems like a waste of time to spend your mental energy on the inevitable. So instead we talked about our travels and concerts we had gone to, then my move to London, and then after London, there were no more one-on-one dinners. When we saw each other, my girlfriend Steph would be with me. This was fine by both of us — Steph has a big personality, and both Janice and I are tickled by big personalities.

A few months after my grandpa died, my family came to the Shore, Janice included, and Steph, in memoriam, had learned how to play “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis on piano. My mom stood there with Janice, the two of them crying, and then we went and spread grandpa’s ashes in the Manasquan inlet, right by the burger joint where he and my grandma had gone on their first date.

We didn’t talk about death again until this past summer. Janice’s cancer had come back, 10 years later, and this time it was not going away. The cancer had spread to her spine, which meant it was pressing against her nerves and causing her the worst possible pain. The last time I saw her lucid, she just said, “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m worried about Mike, mom, and my sissies.” Mike, her husband, was too stoic to show what he was feeling, and her sissies — my mom and my Aunt Bev — were absorbed in the here and now of caretaking. Janice may have thought what came after dying, but she never again would talk about it with me.

I’d hoped that we could maybe talk about reincarnation or death again (everyone else thought the topic was too gloomy, for some reason), but once you start feeling that sort of pain, you start needing serious painkillers, and even though I saw her another 5 times after our final death talk, she was always in too much of an opiate haze to talk about anything more than the concrete details of her life, paralyzed in bed, and of my life with Steph.

I wonder where she was at the end, when you took the drugs and cancer out of the equation. In the last week, my sister and mother talked about how she would point at nothing, how she would try to speak and no coherent words would come out, just garbled nonsense. The comforting thing to think would be that she’d begun to see the world for what it is, that she’d burst through the illusion that we’ve collectively built where words are taken to be the same thing as the physical objects they represent, and that she saw the things before the word, and was calling them by their true name. But at this point, the cancer had spread to her brain, and between that and the drugs, it was hard to see any such interpretation as anything more than a consolation.

I wanted to tell her that I still believed what I believed before: that there was nothing after death and that the “soul” did the same thing as the body — it slowly disincorporated and dissolved back into the world around it, the energy, like the matter, to be used elsewhere. I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a bad thing, because a chart in my high school classroom said that 4 our of every 5 breaths we breathe contain an atom breathed by Julius Caesar and Jesus, and that meant that most of our atoms were once parts of other people, or of beloved pets that had passed, or of mountains and oceans and breezes.

I wanted to tell her, too, what had changed since our first conversations a decade and a half ago. I wanted to say that what I believed actually agreed with reincarnation. I’d read Alan Watts, and he’d explained how Buddhists can not believe in a soul and also believe in reincarnation. It was because they saw humans not as static, eternal souls, but as processes, all part of a single larger process. Humans cling to the idea that they are individuals, and that they are alone. 

“You would say there is no connection between [humans],” Watts says, "In the same way you would say there is no connection between the molecules in your hand. And yet you say it is a hand. But if you look at it under a powerful enough microscope, the molecules in your hand are miles apart.”

If there is no self, if we’re all part of the same huge process, then reincarnation is real, because every birth is our rebirth, every death is our death.

When I woke up to a missed call early this morning from my mom, I knew what it was about. And for a moment, I wished I’d had this conversation with Aunt Janice before she slipped away. It would’ve been nice to tell her that I would see our future children — kids I wish she could’ve known — as little reborn Janices. 

But the moment passed. If I truly believed what I said, if there was no self, if this was all some inconceivably strange singularity, then Aunt Janice never needed to be told what I thought. The Christians who’d given me no comfort at all when my grandparents had died, with their, “He’s still with you right now,” had been right, in a way. Not about the eternal hellfires and hosannas, but that nothing that ever existed ever leaves us. Janice didn’t need an angelic cloud to look down from, a place from where she could spy on my thoughts. She is my thoughts. Her death is my death. My life is her life. To be alive is almost unbearably strange, but there is some comfort in knowing I can always talk to Janice, even now with her gone.

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