Choosing Life

Prologue: An Appointment with Death

Some of us make it through childhood without directly encountering the grim reaper’s handiwork. Others are less fortunate.

One particular morning back in 1972 I was riding my bike to school. Milton Senior in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (as the country was called in those days), was named after Sir William Milton−as opposed to the poet−and has to this day as its motto the Greek for “quit ye as men”. As all attendees soon discover, this actually means “taking your punishment as a man” however far distant manhood might be in reality.  You’ve doubtless picked up the drift:  discipline was tight and being late was never an option.

On this stunning sunny morning, I was making good time with no need to rush. From a nearby treetop a grey crested lourie yelled its defiant dismissal, “Go away!” The road, canopied by iridescent jacarandas in full blossom, was deserted. On either side countless bees droned purposefully amid the earthy aroma of the fallen flowers that carpeted the pavements. The only sound at odds with serenity and freshness was the muted early morning buzz from distant arterial routes.

As I cycled along Park Street, the growl of a diesel engine began to penetrate the stillness.   A few seconds later, a refuse truck clattered exuberantly around the corner behind me.  For the next few minutes the truck and I played hopscotch with me passing it each time it stopped to ingest−with loud clangs−the contents of metal bins placed at gates along the street; the truck roaring past in turn as it sped to the next collection point.  The cheerful attendants worked to a precise drill, alternately clinging to the truck and leaping off with boundless energy to collect bins, all the while whistling instructions to the driver and calling to each other in Matabele, their mother tongue. The era of disposable plastic garbage bags was still light years away. Then it happened.

From the opposite direction came a grey Morris eleven-hundred. The driver, a woman of indeterminate age, was heading for work. She wasn’t speeding. In today’s parlance she was positively crawling.  At the precise moment that she passed the refuse lorry one of the ebullient workers leapt from the truck  . . . directly into her path.  Obviously he hadn’t seen the car.  I don’t think he ever did.  The impact was shocking, death instantaneous, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details.  I don’t remember the driver’s face, to be honest.  It was too long ago; only the gaunt look of horror.  In a way, the refuse man was the luckier of the two.  He didn’t have to live forever after with the horror of that memory. For him all the pain and uncertainty of this life was in that fleeting moment swept away.

Scenes such as this occur with hellish frequency every day all around the world. However common such encounters with death may be though, they’re never welcome for they bring to mind the inevitability of our own mortality. Regardless of how brave we pretend to be about the prospect of our own impermanence, in truth it is tempting to view life’s path as an artist’s perspective of a highway: broad in the foreground then narrowing and disappearing into a haze on the distant horizon.  Significantly, the terminal is never visible.  But just as the hapless refuse worker never dreamed that the Matabele dawn he woke to on that fateful 1972 day would be the last he’d ever see, there are no guarantees for any of us as to the length of the road ahead.

Since none of us who have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness expect to die any time soon, it may be tempting to postpone thinking about the Big Question, that is, what happens to us after we take that last breath.  But what if it happens suddenly . . . sooner than we expect?  As Shakespeare so eloquently intoned-

To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.1

Human beings stand apart in many ways from all the other inhabitants of this planet of ours. One of these is that we, the humans, are the only species aware of the inevitability of the death of our physical bodies. This may be connected to the fact that we alone are capable of abstract thought. From the dawn of our existence, mankind has been concerned with the afterlife.  The Egyptian pyramids with origins that date back to 2500 BC and Brazilian pyramids which go back even further all seem to have been designed with a two-fold purpose: to serve as tombs, but more significantly,  as a means for spring boarding the dead into the next life.

Today as all know, opinion is divided.  Some believe in life after death. Others view this as so much superstitious mumbo-jumbo: a stubborn refusal to accept the finality of death by a bunch of super-egotists. And within these broad groups, there are endless subdivisions. Some who believe implicitly in life after death maintain that it is something that will happen to everyone, regardless of the way in which we live our lives on earth.  Others cling to the idea that an afterlife is the prize for good behaviour in this lifetime.

This essay seeks to unpack some of these issues and provide food for thought. Just one word of caution though, some of the matters discussed are not for the faint heartedThe issues are real life-and-death matters, but more on that later. Click on the ">>> next page" icon below to proceed.

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1Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1