March 5, 2019
Somewhere sometime in my twenties I wrote that my motto was, “Live fast die young, and leave a pretty corpse.” It seemed cool at the time. When your heroes are dropping off at 27, the romantic exit seems, well, romantic. Now, not so much. Hitting 90 seems both horrific and preferable.
This week’s deaths of Luke Perry (3 years younger than me, from a stroke) and Let’s Active drummer Sara Romweber (same age as me, from brain cancer) is a reminder that we continue to shed our peers at a rate that only accelerates. A large percentage of the Gen X elders that I inhabited the world with when I was twenty are gone. My aging icons will leave more rapidly. I’m ready of Bob Dylan and the rest of the lions of my youth to slip from this mortal coil. But so will those younger than me. Kids in tornadoes. Generation Z teens texting while driving, running over millennials talking on their iPhones. Then us.
George Harrison once said that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another. That’s sweet. I had a student who once asked the class what do people remember from before they were born. Silence. “That’s what death is like,” she said. Who knows? Nobody. That includes people who write hokey books about dying on the operating table and coming back to life. People buy that shit up hoping for proof that they well never cease to exist.
Sociologists will tell you that as people get old, they get more religious. I had a professor at Emory, Martin Levin, who called it the “nearer my God to thee” thesis. My father recently told me he’s just coasting into heaven. I hope so, Dad. It sounds so much nicer than just being unplugged by time. All those old friends waiting for you.
Me, I know that I don’t know. In all likelihood, this is it. No pearly gates, no Casper the Ghost, no singing with Aretha or jamming with Hendrix. (Poor dead Hendrix.) And that’s OK. That means heaven is right here. In the excised Gospel of Thomas, one of the gnostic texts that was removed from the New Testament by the patriarchal church, hipster Jesus told his peeps that the kingdom of heaven is not in the sky somewhere. “Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” I can dig that. Heaven is in a living room in Portland. Awesome, because I’m already there.
The bottom line is to make the most of the time while you are here. Make the place you are in full of love and light, not anger and darkness. And do it for as long as you can, because there might not be a tunnel to a “better place.” Stay healthy, don’t smoke, get check ups, get off the couch, be kind, and keep the memory of those who have past alive in your minds.
One of my favorite poems is by Liverpool poet Roger McGough, enticed “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.”
Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death
When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party
Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides
Or when I’m 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one
Let me die a youngman’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death
Sounds like heaven to me.