When the World Contracts Upon You

by Mark Butterworth (Jan. 2007)

A lot of people have made small fortunes by writing long, somber articles for the New Yorker about the world when it suddenly contracts upon them. They get an illness. They suffer from depression. Bad memories from childhood flood their present. They learn they are going to die soon from an incurable disease.

I won’t be able to write that 20,000 word essay or the small, exquisitely sensitive book of 120 pages that makes the bestseller list in the style of East Coast erudition of secular detachment and sublime, but narcissistic self- regard. Why not? Well, because no one will pay me for it even if I could capture that mood of self-deprecating solipsism which does such wonders for enhancing one’s sorry victim status; and two, because my story doesn’t qualify. My illness is not new gotten, and my death is not as immanent as it ought to be.

People often say regarding institutional tragedies that they fell between the cracks of the bureaucracy, and thus disaster occurred because the remedies remained locked away and the person with the key was always somewhere other than where he ought to have been.

It happens in journalism, too. Some stories fall between the cracks of well trodden literary byways and narratives. Sickness or dying stories have a certain arc to them. A person becomes suddenly very sick. There’s your instant drama. And she (almost always a she, these days) descends into an Underworld of medical treatments, clinics, tests, hospitals, operations, rehab, and all the people who provide color and depth in the form of doctors, nurses, paramedics, care staff, patients, and family. Lots of material to mine there, and plenty of quotes to include along with your minute feelings as you respond to every new development good or bad.

The person either gets well or learns to live with a new reality, but always carries her wounds of psychic shock. She’s ascended to a new level of compassionate awareness of human suffering.

Dying stories, though, aren’t quite as dramatic since inevitability turns them into post-mortem letters to the world. We are meant to weep a little bit at the passing of some sad, serious, yet wry soul who catalogued every change in mental temperature right up to the last moments as a legacy to her talent or promise.

My story, though, doesn’t sing with that plaintive, soon to be keening, voice. Mine is moribund. It doesn’t move forward very much or sit entirely still.

**

When my mother was dying of lung cancer in her late fifties which included a brain tumor (the effects of cigarette smoking - one of the few reliable pleasures of her life), I asked her if she had any dreams or premonitions of an afterlife.

“Not at all,” she told me. She died as she lived: an unrepentant atheist.

I am her complete opposite: a repentant, Trinitarian theist.

My mother had no religious experiences of any kind that she would recognize as such and she died very bravely, while I have had just about every kind of religious experience that I have ever read about (and I have read widely and extensively in the literature of faith), and I face death doubtfully at times now.

When it comes to dying, I’ve been there and done that already once.

I had a heart attack three days after the terrorist attack in New York on 9/11/01. Yes, the stress undoubtedly had something to do with it since my subsequent fury was very great at the time (and has hardly subsided since. After many years of irenic religious belief and practice, I found that I can still be a very good hater.).

I was delighted to discover in the midst of great physical agony that when faced with immediate death, I had no fear of dying whatsoever. I had no fear for my immortal soul or that death meant annihilation. I was completely willing to submit to it, but there was one catch. I thought I was too young to die. (A cliché that, but true.) I was only forty-nine after all, and I still had a daughter to raise and a wife to keep company.

I didn’t die, of course, because incredible medical technology and drugs were delivered in time by super competent people to avert the tragedy. Yet, subsequently, the next four years plunged me into a mild depression. (When you have solid faith in God, despair never gets as great as it otherwise might. I know. I’m a before and after person.)

Even though I hadn’t been afraid to die, if that was to happen, I didn’t experience anything of God in that moment. I had had a fantasy that God (as many psalms promise) would be there in my greatest moment of need like an angel to carry me away to Heaven; or if not that, embrace me in a manner to make the pain endurable. Only Jesus is supposed to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Instead, I was treated no differently than a dog in the jaws of a lion, or a soldier blown apart crying for his mother.

There are moments of death when there is a moment of submission and everything becomes like a painless dream. Many people have experienced it.

Then there are moments when others witness someone dying and swear there are angels present and they actually see their loved one’s incorporeal body rise from the corpse and ascend heavenward. I don’t doubt it.

Soldiers talk about seeing their buddies give in to death in a peaceful acceptance, and then they also talk of the horror of their screaming buddies experiencing the torments of the damned in unmitigated pain.

But that’s not my present story. That’s simply a lesson in death I got five years ago.

The result of my interrupted death was that I needed to know why God would do that to me (or anyone). Why isn’t he reliable according to Scripture which so many of us trusted? That brought the issue of theodicy back into question for me along with another problem: Original Sin. I no longer believed that Man was responsible for his imperfect condition (which included death and misery). No, God had created a universe with death, conflict, and disease built in. Why?

Those questions were later solved to my satisfaction after a few years of patient thought, and I had thought I had also put the question of personal death to rest because of my prior experience, but it was not so. I was going to have to face a second death like Lazarus.

**

It is not enough, of course, that I have heart disease. Prior to that I have suffered with a lifelong skin disease; the kind that proves the joke where an intern is told to choose dermatology as a specialty seeing as how your patients don’t die, but never get better, and don’t call you on weekends for emergencies.

If you have ever seen The Singing Detective, you can gather some idea of how hideous psoriasis can be. Mine is of that variety, but some very nasty drugs have kept me relatively “clear” for decades. One drug began to hurt my liver, though, and make me very ill and so I switched over six years ago to another drug. Now that has affected my kidneys and I was told that within a year my renal function would be shot, I would be very ill and needing dialysis and a transplant.

It appeared that I had few alternatives and suddenly my world contracted to the self-piteous knowledge that as rotten as my life has been regarding my health, it was about to get seriously more rotten.

**

I have often been praised by my wife for not being a great complainer but in acting fairly stoical in the face of my physical difficulties. I don’t bore other people with a litany of my woes only because I know how tedious it is to endure it from others; and I have long abandoned the strategy of demanding to know from God -- why me? But that’s only because it’s ineffective. Otherwise, I keep a fairly strong running commentary going with the Lord about my condition. Not quite like Tevye’s in Fiddler on the Roof, nor as accusatory as Ivan Karamazov’s in Dostoevsky’s novel, but nevertheless a bit childish in the way of feeling like a jilted friend, hurt but still wanting reconciliation.

“Lord, you can fix this relationship at any time. You know it and I know it, and I still hoping you care for me enough to be there when I need you to be.”

There is no response, of course.

Instead, you discover that when you know you’re going to die, when your illness or disease has turned mightily grim -- you step into a limbo like dimension. In movies, they have the camera look through the character’s eyes which light upon people doing ordinary things like walking down the street, eating a sandwich, talking on the phone, but all these things look surreal or unreal. How can all these trivial actions go on around me with such complete indifference to the fact that I’m going to die?

But I’m not going to die today. Later I will die and I can see it coming, being whittled down in pieces, so what can I do now?

I once had a job that involved deliveries to nursing homes. It always got to me observing the sad, decrepit people half comatose in wheel chairs or lying on beds in the common room, their wrinkled bodies barely covered as the TV presented a soap opera to slack mouths and dull eyes.

Seeing that, even those without religion are forced to emit a prayer for themselves and their future.

In my present case of slow decline and long term misery, some people think about killing themselves. I don’t consider that an option, yet I am deeply aware of the benefit of a sudden death.

We have been raised in the West to believe that death in war is a terrible thing, and to view a battlefield is no doubt grim and terrifying, yet the true fear of soldiers is not death necessarily but grotesque wounds and a lifetime of limits and agonies.

I’ve also noticed that in many cases, the young don’t wish to live as much as the old do. Youth is the time for sacrifices to be made, for youth is strong, resilient, and capable of great devotion and loyalty.

Older folks cling to life not so much out of fear, but in recognition of its pathetic value as Achilles roused by Odysseus from the underworld declares it’s better to be a slave on earth than a king in Hades.

As much as I may hate this world, everything I love is here. As much as I may wish to discover the glories of eternal life, everything I love is here.

Even if I love God, there’s nothing stopping him from being here, too, if he wants to be, so why don’t we just roll up all this silliness, this mortality trouble, and leap up to the Rapture, the Apocalypse, the whatever it takes to satisfy the soul and cut to the chase of this human race?

Nope, you get old or ill or both and you’re stuck with how incredibly tough the human body can be when it comes to dying naturally. The thing just clings and clings to life just when you don’t want it to while on the other hand, some relatively healthy old fellow makes it to ninety without much trouble and simply doesn’t wake up one morning.

There is simply no justice in the world. Only luck it seems.

**

When it occurred to me (in the deepest sense) that everything I love is here, I also realized over the course of a few days that I had time at least to accept saying goodbye. It’s a matter of getting used to the idea that all one’s enjoyable habit’s, food, drink, scenes, furniture, art, music and so forth are dispensable. Loved ones are not dispensable, though.

**

Fortunately, over the past few weeks when it appeared that my kidneys were doomed to fail, a change in medication had a surprise effect. I no longer took the destructive drugs yet was able to enjoy a remission of my skin disease. I never know how long these good periods will last, but I’ve found that life works better when you can maintain a little hope. Not false hope, but merely the belief that tomorrow you may have a good day after all.

It is a curious thing, though, when you suddenly feel the world contract upon you, and life looks like you are viewing it through the wrong end of binoculars. I occasionally think that everybody ought to have the experience of it from time to time, but then I consider that people often handle the sudden onset of their mortality gracelessly. Still, I think its better to be prepared for death when possible.

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