“So who’s gonna watch you die?”
Fifteen years after I first heard that line in the chorus of a Death Cab for Cutie song, it remains one of the most devastating questions I’ve heard. It was a gut punch to me because I didn’t know the answer for myself — and I still don’t.
In the song, “What Sarah Said,” the singer recalls being in a hospital watching and waiting as a loved one dies. (You can listen to the song below.) He recounts all the sights and sounds and smells of the intensive care unit. Then he says what’s really on his mind:
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said:
“Love is watching someone die…”
I’ve been thinking about life and death even more than usual lately. I keep thinking that the real answer to the question — of who’s going to be there — is about mutual trust. So who do you trust — who also wants to trust you?
My father’s recent brush with death — and the uncertainty surrounding his future — have obviously influenced my thinking, but I had already spent more time than most thinking about the cycles of life and death. I see the certainty of death as the thing that makes life so precious. Knowing life will end makes me desperate to avoid wasting any of the painfully few days I have.
Is there anything more lonely than death?
As far as we know, death is the one thing in life which each of us must do completely alone. The best we can hope for is to have people around us — people who genuinely love us and people who we trust — giving us comfort and sharing the vigil as we wait for death’s arrival.
If I were to die right now, I don’t know who would be there — and that makes me profoundly sad and afraid.
The people who watch us die are typically the family into which we were born — parents, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles — or the family we create for ourselves — husbands, wives, sons, daughters. There are also other friends who might be there, but the people we love and trust most tend to be among those two family groups.
Which of those people are there for you at the end depends on the choices you make for many years.
One of the last things my father said to me on the day I saw him briefly a couple of months ago was, “I will die a bitter man.” It was supposed to make me feel guilty, but it just reminded me that he really will die in bitterness. I feel empathy and sorrow for him, but I know he’s where he is in life now because of the choices he’s made for many years.
None of his three children are there for him. None of the women he’s loved — and who loved him — will be there for him. For every one of us, his actions pushed us away and destroyed trust. In the end, all he has are the hospital staff and a few decent and loving people who have known him for only a few years.
I don’t have a family anymore, at least not in any functional sense. My family of origin was doomed by years of dysfunction which we all handled in our own (very different) ways. There’s little left.
My desire to create and build a new family for myself hasn’t brought me what I need. Not yet. When I divorced years ago — a “friendly divorce” from someone I have nothing but high regard for — I assumed I would quickly marry again. I’ve been engaged twice since then and I’ve backed out both times. I regretted my choice in one case but I know I made the right decision in another case.
It’s rare when I even find someone I’m interested in, but those few times haven’t led to what I had hoped. As I think about the women I’ve loved or who have loved me, I see them in very different ways when I think about death.
Would I trust her if I were dying?
Would I want to be the one taking care of that one as she died?
I realize with sadness that I couldn’t trust that one. She destroyed all my trust and wasn’t who I thought she was. Another one I realize tenderly would have been there for me and I would have been there for her. And I move on through a very short list, seeing some good and some bad.
But whatever has happened — and no matter why it happened — I’m alone now. My decisions have left me alone. With no one to be there with me if the time suddenly came for me to die.
This saddens me and it hurts me. It makes me regret not having made better choices — about who to trust and about who to give my heart to.
It makes me feel incredibly alone.
I expect to be around for many decades, but I could die tomorrow. Any of us could. If death came for me tonight, there would be no one there. Even if I made it to a hospital to die, I would die with strangers.
And that brings into stark focus what the stakes are for me.
I don’t want to end up like my father. I want love from my family. Since I don’t have the family I started with in life, my only hope is creating a new one. I’ve known that for years. I’ve craved that for years. But somehow, it doesn’t seem to have brought me to where I need to be.
I want a wife who I love and trust so much that I know she would be there to watch me die if it were necessary. I want someone who loves and trusts me so much that she knows with all her heart that I would be the one to hold her hand and kiss her cheek if the time came for her to die. I would be there with her all of the way.
It sounds so simple. It looks simple in movies. But real life is rarely that simple.
Something has to change for me. I have to make choices that bring me the family I need. I don’t want to die bitter and alone.
I know my choices are ultimately responsible for who’s there when I die, but I feel completely lost about what my choices right now ought to be. It’s terrifying.