God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

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Reading Vonnegut to Cope with Death

I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms.

After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss.

I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for.

Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug.

What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me?

I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion.

This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”.

Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.”

The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters.

When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes.

Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then.

Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him.

My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life.

At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle.

In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly
couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to
think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and
look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
Good night.
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait…
To find out for certain what my wampeter was…
And who was in my karass…
And all the good things our karass did for you.
Amen.
I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true.

Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul.

Image: Flickr/Seabamirum

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