I'm sorry to say it, my friends, but this is the weekend for contemplating death. If you're a Christian, it's the moment in your spiritual calendar to consider death and rebirth, and the wear and tear of the past year on the soul. For the rest of us, bellies filled with dollar-store chocolate, death is present as a pleasant alternative to watching another hockey game.
I know, I joke, and about such a serious subject. What can I say? It's a coping mechanism. "Dying is a dull, dreary affair," Somerset Maugham wrote. "My advice to you is have nothing whatever to do with it." But there are those who ignore that advice – people who are forced to press their noses up against death's window, who travel to the borders of Shakespeare's "undiscovered country" and report back, before they're gone forever. They have remarkable wisdom to share, should anyone chose to listen.
The great cultural critic Clive James is one of those explorers who is dying and mapping out the terrain, one of the Amundsens of the edge. Mr. James's new collection of poems, Sentenced to Life, is being released later this month. One of its poems, Japanese Maple, caused a stir when it appeared in the New Yorker last fall. It begins:
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact.
When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree.
Mr. James, formerly a burly charmer and chaser of skirts, has leukemia and emphysema, and his head, in recent pictures, shows the bandage where a carcinoma was removed. You sense, in his interviews and poems, a man who is running out of road and discarding secrets as he goes: "I was a bad husband," he told one interviewer, "faithless, sly, deceitful. And I regret it all."
Along with regrets, his dying has brought a gift: "I'm getting more productive," he told The Australian. "It's brought a new clarity." Or, as he writes in another poem, "I am restored by my decline, and by the harsh awakening that it brings."
"Clarity" is the thing that unites all the death memoirists. (I read far too many of them than is good for a hypochondriac.) I think of it as the "Screw the dust bunnies" lesson. No one cares, at the end of a life, if his drawers were organized or e-mails were all answered, but he does care if he was loved, and loved in return, and made some impression with his two feet on the planet.
"There is no question I am having the most fulfilling time of my life," British political strategist Philip Gould wrote in his book When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, which he began after receiving a terminal diagnosis of esophageal cancer. "… I have had more moments of happiness in the last five months than in the last five years."
A death sentence is a licence to take shears to what remains of your life, leaving only what is vital. "I feel intensely alive," Oliver Sacks wrote in a New York Times essay that was far more popular than any story featuring "multiple metastases in the liver" has a right to be. "I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. … I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential."
No wonder that post appeared on thousands of Facebook walls the next day. There's nothing like a warning from death's waiting room to focus the mind on what's important. But why wait for Mr. Death to knock at the door, asking about the reaping? Why not focus on the essentials now, the words of love that are overdue, the arguments that should have been dropped years ago?
In short, can the living learn to think like the dying? I'm not sure it's possible. You can't trick yourself into pretending the road is shorter than it is, and denying that mortality is the only way we get things accomplished. Who would get out of bed, otherwise?
Perhaps it's possible in short bursts. For more than a year, I followed the wonderful blog of Lisa Bonchek Adams, an American woman who was living with metastatic breast cancer. Her entries were astounding – dense with the clinical details of her treatment, but alive with human awe and pain. When I heard she had died last month, it felt as if someone I knew were gone, not a stranger.
Every morning, she would send out the same tweet, and when I saw it I would vow to follow her advice, even though I often failed, because there were floors to sweep, grudges to keep – life to live, in other words. Every morning, she wrote: "Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere."