This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.
Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.
Ron: Am I going to die?
Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.
Ron: Okay, when will I die?
Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.
Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.
Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?
Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?
Don: Maybe you have a better question.
Ron: Like, How will I die?
Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?
Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?
Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?
Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.
Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.
Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.
Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?
Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.
Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?
Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?
Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?
Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?
Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?
Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.
Don: Is that really true?
Ron: Pretty close.
Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?
Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!
Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.
Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.
Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?
Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.
Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.
Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?
Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”
Don: I thought you were joking.
Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.
Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!
Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.
Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.
Don: While you’re still alive, right?
Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.
Don: A what?
Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.
Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.
Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?
Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?
Don: How do you propose to do that?
Ron: Imagine. How else?
Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?
Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.
Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?
Ron: No, none of that.
Don: At peace?
Ron: No peace. No war.
Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?
Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”
Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.
Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.
Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.
Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?
Ron: Did what?
Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.
Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.
Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.
Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.
Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.
Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.
Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.
Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.
Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.
Ron: But would I care?
Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.
Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…
Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.
Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?
Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.
Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.
Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.
So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.