His little ribs rose, then fell, then rose, then fell, then stayed still. The spark left his green, curious eyes — I swear it wasn’t a trick of the light. They were dull … dead.
I loathed myself for letting my first cat be put to sleep without me by her side. I swore I’d be there for my second when he passed less than a year later. I swore I’d look him in the eye, even if it meant nothing to him. And so I did.
The odd thing was that he wasn’t afraid. He was calm. He’d spent a good life of hunting, cuddling, and lounging. He knew his place in nature’s cycle. I didn’t understand that. Not then.
But my time came.
Sepsis destroyed me. As my soul ripped loose from my bones, I gasped to my girlfriend that I loved her but I would soon need to die. Then I pissed the bed. I realized that dying isn’t romantic like in the movies. I stank from rolling around in a soiled, sweaty bed, and my voice was hoarse from begging for an end.
While death isn’t romantic, it can be peaceful. In my time, I’ve known many who have passed — they’re either ready or they’re not. I wasn’t yet ready. I was ugly and bitter in my death, outraged by the unfairness of this world.
Somehow, I survived.
The paradox of death is that it teaches you how to live. The tragedy of death is not everyone gets a chance to apply what they’ve learned.
I woke up in an unfamiliar world. All details seemed illuminated and emotions felt overwhelmingly potent. I cried a lot more, hugged a lot more, prayed a lot more, loved a lot more.
Former priorities fell away; ambition, money, and comfort lost their gleam. Each day during recovery, I composed an obituary in my head: “Boy dies of cystic fibrosis. He had caustic humor, good grades, and a decent savings account.” I craved depth and vowed to thrive with passion and weave a legacy of compassion.
Did my old friend know I’m sorry for calling him fat in fifth grade? Did my sister know I look up to her? Did my parents know I regret every single time I lashed out at them? Did everyone know that I mostly only pretended to love, yet always yearned to learn its power?
I lay in my soiled bed and tried recalling instances in which I’d helped people out of love rather than for the potential of a self-serving debt. I sobbed at the realization that I’d lost myself long, long ago. In prayer, I begged for redemption, for help with becoming the Brad I was designed to be.
It’s been 47 months since that prayer. I’m nowhere close to perfect, but I’m far from who I was. Today, my joy comes from expressions of vulnerability, wide smiles and belly laughs, the bonds forged through struggle, the light in people’s eyes, the warmth of another body, the tears poured in prayers, the little acts of love and the big acts of love, the feet that tap along to music, the winding conversations over meals, the exhilaration of adventure, the richness of sharing nature and sunsets with strangers.
I am ready to die, when that time comes again, though I’d love to learn even more about life with a third pass. Death is liberating, driving me to be fully present and live intentionally for the things that truly matter.
Like my old cat, I know my place in nature’s cycle. Mine is to love and be loved in return. Maybe that seems sappy to those who haven’t yet died. But one day you’ll understand, too.
The main challenge in reflecting on one’s own death is the way the various aspects of death and dying are intertwined which make it difficult to discern personal mortality.
First there is the prospect of me dying; of me entering whatever is in store at the end of my life. How long will it last? Will there be pain? What will I leave behind? How do I say goodbye? Next there is the prospect of other people dying, particularly the death of loved-ones and the painful absence their loss leaves behind. How would I cope with the death of a close friend, a partner, a child? But thinking about my dying and other people’s deaths are different. Dying is an event in life, admittedly an important event, but still one that happens within the course of life. Similarly, coming to terms with the loss of a loved-one is an important process, but it belongs to a different domain than my death.
Another temptation is to think of my death as though it is like the death of others. I imagine myself in the shoes of someone as they approach their death. Maybe it would be my soul that is absorbed into a zone of endless tranquility. Maybe it would be my body lying motionless in the coffin. I conjure up images of love-ones with shocked expressions as they are told about my death, I visualize their forlorn looks as they watch my coffin descending into the grave and I picture their reactions to constantly interacting with the spaces I now no longer occupy.
But thinking about my death in terms of what happens when others die does not fully capture what happens when I think about my own death. When I die, looking at myself from the outside, my brain will stop working, my senses will cease to operate, I will no longer have any voluntary control of my muscles, and my body will lie limp and lifeless. This is undeniably what will happen.
Looking at this from the inside is more complicated. If my brain and my body cease to function, then it makes sense to consider my emotions, my consciousness and all those aspects that make up my subjective world, as ceasing to operate as well. My consciousness surely relies on input from my senses plus the processing power of my brain, so without them it is hard to think of how consciousness might persist. I might reassure myself that my consciousness will continue in some form in another realm, but I can’t be sure. It makes more sense to say that when all the conditions for consciousness are no longer present then my consciousness will no longer be able to function.
But this is a terrible thought; a horrifying realization with alarming consequences. My consciousness is always present whenever I look out at anything in the world. I never experience anything around me without being conscious. When I am unconscious, such as when I am asleep or knocked out, I assume the world continues under its own steam, but this is an assumption which I can never fully trust. What I can be surer about is that the world and my consciousness are always paired; they are always together, each interacting with and enabling the other, and participating together in allowing what is going on around me to continue to take place.
What this throws up is the possibility that without my mind the world, and all that it contains—objects, animals, people, loved ones—will cease to exist. In other words, from the standpoint of how I experience things, when I die the conditions that enable the existence of both my consciousness and the world around me will, most likely, no longer be present. In this way, the prospect of my own death highlights the possibility of the end of everything.
The unthinkable and unspeakable nature of my death forces me to walk repeatedly down a conceptual dead-end; a dead-end which discourages any further attempts to think along the same track. Even if we were to consider it important to form some sort of relationship to my death, there is no identifiable object to connect with, there is nothing to cling on to; it stands there as a conceptual black-hole; an emptiness which we can only approach with insecurity and foreboding.
Here lies the true challenge of reflecting on my death; the idea of it as an unthinkable, unspeakable nothingness. But, despite this, thinkers, poets, and artists have, over the centuries, still had a lot to say about personal mortality. It is just too big a part of the rhythm and structure of life to be ignored.
It is, similarly, important for each of us not to turn our backs on death and, despite its unintelligibility, to seek out ways of engaging with it. What is needed is some sort of provisional handhold that allows each of us to reach out and grasp onto something that can enable us to pursue a lifelong relationship with personal mortality.
By Kevin Armstrong The morning after he turned 52 last month, Brother Robert Bathe emerged from the Millennium Hotel on West 44th Street. He ambled half a block into Times Square and reflected on the emptiness. A street cleaner’s whoosh broke the silence.
Dressed in a brown robe, the traditional garb of his Carmelite order, Bathe began his daily walk down Broadway. At 28th Street, he hooked left and continued to Bellevue Hospital, where he is a Roman Catholic chaplain and bereavement coordinator.
“Welcome to ground zero,” he said before a nurse trained a thermometer gun on his forehead and scanned for a reading.
It read 98.6. The nurse nodded.
“Normally,” he said, “the family is there with me bedside at death, and when we say the Our Father it is very emotional. Now I stare at a person that is taking their last breaths. I’m with a doctor and a couple of nurses. We’re saying goodbye.”
Bathe is the friar on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic. A native Tennessean who was a soil scientist before entering religious life at age 27, his Southern accent is the first voice many patients’ family members hear from the city’s oldest hospital when he calls to inquire about special needs.
Each morning, he reviews death logs. He then walks through the emergency department and intensive care unit, where he stands behind glass and cues up music on the smartphone he keeps in his pocket. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a favorite selection. On Funky Fridays, as he calls them, Bathe mixes Benedictine chants with James Brown. If patients are awake, he flexes his biceps or pumps a fist — encouragement to stay strong. He takes precautions when praying over the intubated, slipping on an N95 mask and face shield. In all, he ministers to more than 25 patients daily.
“Music gives a little more sense of sacredness so I don’t get distracted by nurses and doctors screaming,” he said. “I am focused on that patient, looking at that face. I know who that person is, imagine what it is like for them to be alive.”
His pager pulses with death updates. It is programmed to receive alerts for cardiac emergencies, traumas and airway issues. Whenever a coronavirus patient on a ventilator needs attention, it comes across his screen twice. When a nurse who worked in the neonatal ICU died of covid-19 recently, Mary Ann Tsourounakis, Bellevue’s senior associate director of maternal child health, called pastoral care for help. A group of nurses grieved. First to arrive was Bathe, who led them in prayer in a small hallway.
“One of the most healing and loving I’ve heard,” Tsourounakis said. “People think it has to be a big production. Sometimes those moments are the moments.”
The virus continues to paralyze the city and stretch the limits of its hospital system. Confirmed cases have surpassed 185,000 and more than 20,316 deaths had been recorded, according to the New York City Health Department.
Bathe’s path to New York began in Knoxville, Tenn. He grew up around his grandfather’s cattle farm, went on frequent hikes as an Eagle Scout and eyed a career as a forest ranger while a teenager. His mother, Linda, worked at the University of Tennessee, and she consulted with faculty members about her son’s future in forestry. Prospects were slim, and alternate paths — archaeology or agriculture — were suggested.
He didn’t see himself traveling to Egypt to unearth tombs, so he dug into agricultural studies and toiled with botany and geology as well. Following graduation, he worked for the Buncombe County environmental health agency in North Carolina. Hired to protect groundwater, his release was to drop a line in honey holes for catfish, pitch a tent and listen to bluegrass songs after dark.
One day, Bathe was sent to meet a man named Robert Warren to evaluate his soil so he could build a house. When Bathe arrived, he saw Warren slumped over in his truck. As Bathe approached, he said, Warren grabbed his hand and asked, “Would you pray with me?”
They recited the Lord’s Prayer, he said. Moments later, he was dead, Bathe recalled. Bathe accompanied him to the hospital and attended the memorial service and funeral.
Bathe joined the Carmelites soon after, and in 1997 was assigned to Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen’s Church, two blocks from Bellevue. Lessons followed.
One day, he said, a woman fell from her window in a neighboring building and through the church roof. Bathe was sent up to investigate.
“First dead body I ever smelled,” he says. “Life is tender.”
Transfers are part of the friar life. He taught in Boca Raton, Fla., and served as the vocation director from Maine to Miami before returning to Manhattan two and a half years ago.
In ordinary times, Bathe receives a monthly allowance of $250, lives in the St. Eliseus Priory in Harrison, N.J., and rides the PATH train. He fell ill in January, experienced the chills, registered a temperature of 101 and lost weight. He believed it was pneumonia then and self-isolated, using a back stairwell to his room. His brothers left meals outside his door, and he returned to Bellevue after convalescing. He has yet to be tested for covid-19.
Since March 30, the hospital has facilitated his participation in a program that provides free or discounted rooms for front-line workers, first at a Comfort Inn on the west side of Manhattan and now at the Millennium, to limit his commute. Along the route to work, his bald head, eager gait and hearty laugh are known to mendicants and administrators alike.
He carries on the tradition of the Carmelites, who have ministered at Bellevue since the 1800s, through periodic epidemics, saying Masses from the psychiatric ward to the prison unit. Colleagues include a new rabbi and a 20-year-old imam.
When a Catholic dies, he performs the commendation of the dead, a seven-minute service. His responsibilities range from distributing Communion to finding prayer books for patients across faiths to leading memorial services for staff. He is “staunchly against” virtual bereavement, which has become common amid the pandemic, insisting on providing a physical presence.
“People are looking for a miracle when the miracle is to let go,” he said. “Call me too practical, but I don’t pray they leap out of the grave like Lazarus. I think we’re meant for better. We’re meant for God.”
Hospital staffers are processing what has happened since the pandemic first gripped New York, and they’re bracing for a potential second wave. Since Lorna Breen, medical director for the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, died by suicide last month, Bellevue has increased its support services for employees. Questions about closure come from all mourners.
“Families ask, ‘Are we going to be able to have our loved one go to Mexico?’ ” Bathe said. “How are we going to do the next step, to bury our loved ones?”
On a recent Sunday, Bathe stepped outside for a breather in what some people call Bedpan Alley, the east side neighborhood that includes hospitals and a shelter on First Avenue. He checked on a homeless woman who sits in a chair facing Bellevue each day, rubbing his thumb against hers as she slept. A shoeless man was prone on the sidewalk. Bathe inquired about a can collector’s economic concerns. Business was slow.
“Are you a priest?” a woman on a bench asked Bathe.
“No, ma’am,” Bathe said. “I’m a friar.”
She introduced herself as Shonda. She was anxious about a meeting with her manager.
“You want to say a prayer for me?” she said.
“Put the phone down,” he said.
Bathe closed his eyes and prayed.
“Breathe,” he said.
“I’m going to breathe,” she said.
As he walked back to the hospital, his pager went off. “Cardiac Arrest,” it read, “10 West 36.”
Notwithstanding some poignant and passionate speeches by particular individuals (notably New York Governor Andrew Cuomo), much of the discourse has focused on the economic, political and policy division, rather than grief for the victims.
This broadly sanguine response might be due to perceptions that it is mostly older people dying from coronavirus, although experts warn younger people can die too. Witness the relief at new reports that children under 10 have not accounted for a single transmission of the virus. The deaths of older people have been comparatively discounted, not the least because many were socially isolated even before the pandemic.
The Greeks of antiquity reflected on the death of the young and the old in some very creative mythical narratives. Greek myth reflects on and reminds us of some of the less attractive characteristics of human life and society, such as sickness, old age, death and war. In the ancient Greek world this made it harder to put old age and death into a corner and forget about it, which we tend to do.
Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, actually has a choice in the timing of his life and death.
He can have a long life without heroic glory, back on the farm, or he can have a short life with undying fame and renown from his fighting at Troy. The fact that he chooses the latter makes him different from ordinary people like us.
Achilles’ heroism is fundamentally linked to his own personal choice of an early death. But it also means his desperate mother, the goddess Thetis, will have to mourn him eternally after seeing him for such a short time in life. Such is the pain for the loss of a child in war.
A play by the master Athenian dramatist Euripides is even more focused on young and old death. The play Alcestis was produced in Athens in 438 BC, making it the earliest surviving Euripidean play (about ten years before the plague at Athens).
In the play, the king of Thessaly – an appallingly self-interested person called Admetus – has previously done the god Apollo a favour, and so Apollo does Admetus a favour in return. He arranges for him to extend his life and avoid death in the short term, if he can find someone to take his place and die in his stead.
Admetus immediately asks his father or mother to die for him, based on the assumption that they are old and will presumably die soon anyway. But the father, Pheres, and his wife turn down Admetus, and so he has to prevail on his own wife, Alcestis, to die for him, which she agrees to do.
The story of the play is based around the day of her death and descent to the Underworld, with some rather comic twists and turns along the way. Death (Greek Thanatos) is a character in the play, and he is delighted to have a young victim, in Alcestis, rather than an old one. “They who die young yield me a greater prize,” he says.
The light of day
There is a particularly spiteful encounter between Admetus and his father on the subject of young and old death:
Yet it would have been a beautiful deed for you to die for your son, and short indeed was the time left for you to live. My wife and I would have lived out our lives, and I should not now be here alone lamenting my misery.
I indeed begot you, and bred you up to be lord of this land, but I am not bound to die for you. It is not a law of our ancestors or of Hellas that fathers should die for their children! … You love to look upon the light of day – do you think your father hates it? I tell myself that we are a long time underground and that life is short, but sweet.
The Alcestis of Euripides, and other Greek myths, remind us, should we ever forget, that love of looking upon the light of day is a characteristic of human existence, both for the young and the very old.
This is the first time I have spent long stretches imagining my own death. Usually, the death pass is a perfect thirty-yard spiral. This death daydream takes place in a blinding blizzard in a game that I lose. In this one, I imagine being sick for a while and then developing a hacking cough and then getting pneumonia and then dying. This is an awful death simulation.
I feel like I am O.K. with some versions of my own death. Like, maybe I go for a nice long walk, then I have dinner with my wife and daughter, maybe a phone call with an old college friend, and then a meteor hits the earth. Sign me up for that death. Or maybe this: I take a guitar lesson with Paul Simon. He teaches me “The Boxer” and then, for no justifiable reason, I play the song perfectly—like, better than Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park in ’81—and after I play the final note Paul looks over at me and says, “That was really good, Mike.” And then the building explodes. So obviously, in that scenario, we both die instantly and the headline reads, “Paul Simon and Unknown Comedian Die After Perfect Jam Session.”
There is one last death scenario I’d be O.K. with. To recap, so far it’s:
1. Dinner with my family and then a meteor.
2. Simon & Birbiglia followed by explosion.
The third and final death scenario I’m O.K. with is my wife and daughter and I go to the beach and have a bonfire, which is prepared by bonfire professionals who make sure it’s not too hot but perfect for s’mores. And we make s’mores—no, wait, that’s after we make a bonfire pizza, with dough flown in from Frank Pepe’s, in New Haven. So we do pizza then s’mores and then my wife leans over to me—privately, because our daughter is only five—and she says, “If anything ever happened to you, I want you to know that we would be O.K. and that you’ve given us more than we could hope for in three lifetimes. So, God forbid anything happens—we will be fine.”
And then I say, “I love you both.”
And I walk into the water and am eaten by a shark. Quickly. The key there is “quickly.” And the headline reads, “Unknown Comedian Killed by Shark After He Kills with Thousands of Audience Members.”
Those are the ways I’m O.K. dying. But, these days, it’s much grimmer than that. It’s hacking coughs and scorching fevers and ventilators and intubations and people sharing their final words with their families through a bad connection on a cell phone.
So my only remaining hope in this terrible simulation is that, if I find myself in a hospital, hooked up to a ventilator that is about to be taken from me—that I will be aided by an adequate amount of medical delirium to actually believe that the last thing I see is Paul Simon, leaning over to say, “Mike, you played that final note perfectly.”
Some people have recently described the air in New York City as heavy. I don’t think that’s exactly right. The air has a weird crackliness to it. There’s something about living in a place that has experienced so much death in such a short period of time that changes the physics of a place. There is an electricity to the air, a nervousness that seems to permeate everything, As well it should.
As I write this essay 12,199 people have died of coronavirus in my city. The actual numbers are probably higher. Who knows what the real toll is, what with nursing homes refusing to disclose numbers and many people dying without ever getting a test or getting to a hospital? And people are dying here in surreal ways, the way they die in movies. The husband of a friend is found dead in his car. My friend’s father in law is found dead watching television in his house; he had been like that for three days. I know a handful of people who have died., Mostly parents of friends. They are not young, but in a normal world they would have another decade or two. Instead, they have been taken by coronavirus in what seems like a blink of an eye.
And yet, outside my window are flowers, spring in empty Manhattan continues unabated. The flowers don’t care that no one is there to witness them bloom. The streets continue to be empty except for the occasional ambulance. In my neighborhood, the ambulances do this little beeping thing now, not a full siren anymore, and perhaps they don’t need a full siren since there is no traffic. The stores are all closed except a small gourmet food store and a pharmacy which is selling both pandemic supplies (masks, and pulse oximeters) and fancy Manhattanite supplies (expensive candles and skin creams). Life here is both terrifying and oddly mundane. Most of my day is spent inside; occasionally I’ll go for a walk. I see my one friend from six feet away. I watch a lot of television. I write my pieces. My mother and stepfather continue in their apartment alone, 20 blocks away, but I haven’t seen them in five weeks. My in-laws occasionally call in a panic, desperate for us to leave to the city.
But what they don’t understand, what they can never understand is that New York is not a habit; it’s an addiction. To New Yorkers, New York isn’t something you casually use and then abandon when you realize it could be fatal. I always knew New York was fatal it’s just fatal in a slightly different way now. When I grew up here in the 1980’s, I was only mugged once. Most of my friends were mugged multiple times–it was kind of what happened here. Right now, it’s not the crime that kills you. In fact crime in New York is down 22 percent. Right now it’s this mysterious, dangerous virus that kills. But the idea that New York can be dangerous, and bad for your health, that’s always been part of its sometimes explicable charm.
And life here can still feel oddly normal. Sometimes, if I close my eyes, everything can seem for a minute or two, like it was before March. But then there’s the silence — the lack of traffic, the lack of construction, the lack of life– and I remember it’s mid-April and we have been in lockdown for more than a month now.
The feeling here is that things are getting better, that our curve is flattening, I talked to a doctor friend who confirmed this and said cheerfully that they were “no longer going on bed checks and finding dead bodies.” There’s a cautious optimism in New York City; it’s quiet but you can feel it percolating, just under the surface. Yes, things are getting a bit better here, people are no longer dying in their cars as much. Hospitals no longer have lines around the block outside of them.
On Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that 540 people had died the day before due to coronavirus, less than the 630 the day before. A newscaster on NY1 just said, moments ago, that we are “trending in the right direction.” Yes, this is better than previous days but it doesn’t feel better. We’re supposed to be celebrating the fact that fewer people are dying here every day, but a lot of people are still dying every day.
New York is used to tragedy. We New Yorkers have survived AIDS, 9/11 and catastrophic hurricanes. And, yes, we will survive coronavirus. But not without some very profound scars.