A Good Death
by John E.
was dead to begin with. Of
course, I didn’t see it that way; I was young, single, and well on my
being rich. I’d just finished my MBA and joined one of the Big Three
firms on Wall Street. If you had asked me, I had the world by the tail.
my life was as solitary as an oyster, but I liked it that way. It kept
then I met Death. An upset
stomach, chest pains, and an irregular heartbeat that left me gasping
into the ER. The nurse gave me an EKG, shook his head, and ran to grab
doctor. They told me I had a-fib and maybe a heart attack, shot me with
chemical cocktail, and booked me into the hospital for an overnight
didn’t get much rest that night.
Every two hours, the nurse drew blood to check my heart. And at 2 AM,
came for me when the nurse sat me up and everything shut down. My
my hearing faded, and I fell back on the bed. Five minutes later,
turned back on while the nurse loomed over me with terror on his face
finger on the crash cart button. Death stood just behind his shoulder,
into my soul with sympathetic eyes. I stared back, too frightened to be
With a slight shrug and a smile that would have made the Mona Lisa
Death moved on.
ask me to describe Death. I
can’t. Can you describe infinity? I can tell you that Death wasn’t a
with a scythe or a ghost in a sheet. But I could spend all day telling
Death wasn’t and still not give you an idea of what Death was.
Death in a “you’ll know it when you see it” kind of way. And Death was
as the heart attack I’d just had.
months and three surgeries
later, I was out of the hospital. I’d promised the doctors that I’d
easy and avoid stress and red meat. Naturally, my first stop as a free
the local diner where I had a bacon cheeseburger with extra bacon,
fries, a beer, and the Wall Street Journal. The next day, I was back in
office shouting buy and sell orders as if nothing had happened. Before
encounter with Death was just a memory.
kept up the pace for ten more years,
buying X shares of World-Wide Widget at $25 and selling Y shares of
Prisoner Bonds for $50. What with the recession and the recovery and
to make money, I stopped going to the gym and I stopped watching my
diet and I
stopped caring about anything but what my bank account looked like. I
remember the party I threw when my net worth finally topped $10,000,000.
had my second heart attack the
day after the party. The first one had been annoying like a broken arm
an inconvenience but nothing serious. This one stopped me like a
after a three-car pile-up. You’re stuck in a bed with no way to do
while the crash just keeps repeating in your mind. It happened while I
walking through Central Park; my entire body just collapsed. In a way,
lucky; Central Park is full of tourists who haven’t yet gotten the
and they’ll go away” memo. One of them saw me fall down and called 911,
stayed with me while the world tunneled into absurdity like the closing
of a cartoon. I was dead again, and looking straight at Death once more.
approached, looking me in the
eyes. I’m not sure what Death saw there, but it must have been
took my hand and tugged me to my feet. I looked down at my body where
increasingly frantic ambulance crew worked to bring it back to life.
reason, I wasn’t frightened, just curious.
now?” I asked. “What happens
showed me. Death tugged on my
arm and we took a step. Suddenly we were standing next to a little
curled up on a faded rug in a run-down house. She’d been beaten and
until she looked like a concentration camp survivor. Only she hadn’t
a red trickle from the side of her head showed where she’d been hit
often. Her father’s body was next to hers; he’d slit his wrists rather
face what he’d done. Their blood pooled together on the floor, closer
than they’d been in life.
holding my hand, Death
stroked the little girl’s forehead. I saw her life flash before my
good years, when her mother had protected her. The sad years, when
slowly ate away her mother’s life. The bad years, when her father
for living when her mother was gone. I saw the final beating, her
screaming about the mud on her shoes as he flailed at her with his
Hitting and hitting and hitting until the buckle cracked her skull,
little girl that just wanted her mommy back.
I saw what happened next. I saw
the life that Death gave her; the life her father’s anger and grief had
She grew up and went to school. She danced at the senior prom and was
She went to college and got a job and dated. She fell in love and
had children. She grew old and finally passed on, surrounded by the
wasn’t all good, of course;
bitter leavened the sweet. She cried herself hoarse the day she found
husband in bed with her best friend. Her daughter died overseas,
fighting in a
war she never understood. There were hard times and sad times but they
good times shine even more. In the end, she was happy. Then she
Death smiled at me.
you do that for everyone?” I
asked, tears in my eyes.
took me to the girl’s father
and touched his forehead. Again, I saw a life flash before my eyes. The
father’s childhood, where he learned the harsh discipline he inflicted
daughter. The father’s desperation when his wife left him alone with
but a mountain of bills and an ocean of sadness and a daughter who
understand. The father’s anger every time that his daughter laughed or
because it reminded him of his wife and twisted the knife of her loss.
last outburst and the sickening realization of what he’d done. His last
atonement, trying to make up for murdering his child.
as with the girl, the father’s
life didn’t end with his death. He survived and was sent to jail. The
gave him the maximum sentence of life in prison despite a guilty plea.
only minor variations, from then on, every day was the same. The other
prisoners despised him as a child-killer. The guards would look the
when the prisoners used him as an outlet for their anger and
took it silently, knowing that he deserved it. Finally, after twenty
years, one of the trusties tripped him at the top of a staircase. He
down the steps and broke his neck. Then he vanished and Death smiled
a grimmer and more determined smile.
each get the death we create?”
nodded. With a sad smile,
Death reached out and touched my forehead. I saw myself recovering from
heart attack, going back to my life and my money. Every few years, I’d
into a bigger office, buy a fancier car, and get a bigger mansion; I
successful beyond my wildest dreams. But with each new house and every
a few more of the people I knew dropped away. Before long, my whole
limited to me and my money. I didn’t have friends; I didn’t even have
acquaintances. And when I died, it was three weeks before anyone even
enough to come looking. I ended up in the biggest mausoleum in the
nobody came to the funeral, not even the priest. Such was the towering
loneliness of my success.
looked in my eyes, asking if
I understood. There must have been something there because Death
hand and suddenly, I was back in the land of the living, surrounded by
personnel and the detritus of empty syringes and used shock pads. Death
me go. What happened next was up to me.
time, the hospital kept me for
six months. This time, I meant it when I told the doctors I was going
change. What I didn’t tell them (because I didn’t want to move from the
care center to the psychiatric ward) was that I’d changed because of
had shown me. And I spent a lot of time thinking about Death and why
given that glimpse into eternity. Why would Death show me what happened
those strangers -- and would happen to me?
didn’t know, but I could guess.
Imagine that every day you had to show children how good their lives
been, how beautiful life might have been but for ignorance and want.
that every moment you were doomed to tell parents how completely they
failed. What would that do to your soul? And what if you met someone
make a world where such things were considered just an unfortunate
of doing business?
one of those people could
have had a longer, better life but for the greed and neglect of people
I didn’t kill that girl and I didn’t drive her father to murder. But I
do anything to keep it from happening, either. I might not be guilty
but I was
one hell of a long way from innocent.
was time to free myself of the
fetters of solitude and greed that had defined my life up to now; it
to make amends for the misuse of my life’s opportunity. It was time to
mankind my business.
took my fortune and started using
it to help others; I walked abroad among my fellows and did what small
could. I sponsored inner-city school kids and filled schoolrooms with
computers. I gave schools funds for materials and campaigned for better
worked with start-ups in
Third-World countries. One of them invented a stove that cut the need
firewood and reduced pollution by 80%. Another released sterile
across Africa, ending the threat of malaria. A third worked with women
create local businesses, making them independent and reducing the
mortality rate. It
didn’t make things
perfect, but it made them better.
funny thing was I started doing
this so Death would treat me kindly. But pretty soon I discovered that
helping others. Even better, I discovered that doing good was like
rich; the more you did it, the more you could do it
and the more you wanted
to do it. Making
the world a better
place was not only profitable but fun. My main regret was all the time
wasted just making money instead of making a difference.
yesterday, the old pain came back. I’d been eating right and
exercising, but there is just so much medical science can do. So, I
took to bed
and arranged my affairs as I waited for my old friend. I let out my
breath, closed my eyes, and lived. It was a good death.
© 2023 John E. DeLaughter
Bio: John E. DeLaughter is a
retired planetologist who lives on a sailboat with Missy the cat. He
says he is a terrible singer.
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