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Terminal illness brings up thoughts of death

Sat., March 29, 2014

I’m working here under an odd confluence – once in a lifetime, actually – of events.

I recently finished reading the most delightful book on cosmology that I’ve encountered lately, Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” Cosmology, as I imagine you know, studies the birth(s) and death(s) of the universe(s). More accurately, the origin and development of the universe, but I have death on my mind right now.

As did Holt, when nearing the completion of his book and musing, “And what is the endpoint of this longed-for journey of expiation, atonement, and restored unity? That warm maternal sea from which we emerged – that eternal home of contented unconsciousness. Nothingness.

“It was while I was in the midst of entertaining such seductively woolly notions that I got some news. My mother was about to die.”

After finishing Holt’s book, I turned to Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s new book, “Surfaces and Essences: Analogy As the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.” I’ve had it for a few months, but have been holding it in reserve, kind of like a kid’s last piece of Halloween candy. (Hofstadter has always been one of my favorite mind treats.) And while I was engaged in their introduction to category and concept making, a few new ones spontaneously came to my mind, one after another, over the course of a day.

“Deathday” was first. OK, not very original, just an easy analogue of “birthday,” right? What about “deathday cake”? As in, “Should I go buy a slice of deathday chocolate, if and when?” A bit morbid, maybe, but certainly not a concept that I’d ever entertained before. Then finally (so far), into my head popped, “It’s the first day of the rest of your death.” I think that one might actually be an original, but who knows?

All this because my mother is also dying (of metastasized colon cancer) and I think cosmological musings are very apropos, as universes are like people, in that they eventually run down and out of energy. At least, usable energy. Also like people. Vel’s energy and Vel herself are all but gone, and she’s been “any time now” for several days, so it won’t be much of a coincidence if I receive word while writing my column here.

In musing about death, which I do frequently, all part and parcel of my understanding of what it means to live a philosophical life, I often entertain the notion (raised by many others) that death shouldn’t be of much concern. Why? So many reasons, but one of my favorites asks, “If the eternity before you existed was of no concern to you, why should the expanse after you die be a bothersome notion?”

Good question. I was “not,” and certainly haven’t spent any time worrying about that former state of not being, so why should I worry about a future “not”? And as Erasmus put it, “When I am, death is not. When I am not, death is.” And good old Ludwig Wittgenstein put it best:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

I imagine that if my eventual death is anything like my mother’s – relatively quick, in a decline and shutting down of, well, everything – I’ll experience a gradual diminishment of my present moment. That my awareness of who I am, where I am, who might be with me, all will very gradually just fade into nothingness.

That sounds nice.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via email at


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