Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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A Good Death

by John E. DeLaughter

I was dead to begin with. Of course, I didn’t see it that way; I was young, single, and well on my way to being rich. I’d just finished my MBA and joined one of the Big Three trading firms on Wall Street. If you had asked me, I had the world by the tail. Sure, my life was as solitary as an oyster, but I liked it that way. It kept things simple.

And then I met Death. An upset stomach, chest pains, and an irregular heartbeat that left me gasping forced me into the ER. The nurse gave me an EKG, shook his head, and ran to grab a doctor. They told me I had a-fib and maybe a heart attack, shot me with some chemical cocktail, and booked me into the hospital for an overnight observation.

I didn’t get much rest that night. Every two hours, the nurse drew blood to check my heart. And at 2 AM, Death came for me when the nurse sat me up and everything shut down. My vision collapsed, my hearing faded, and I fell back on the bed. Five minutes later, everything turned back on while the nurse loomed over me with terror on his face and his finger on the crash cart button. Death stood just behind his shoulder, looking into my soul with sympathetic eyes. I stared back, too frightened to be scared. With a slight shrug and a smile that would have made the Mona Lisa jealous, Death moved on.

Don’t ask me to describe Death. I can’t. Can you describe infinity? I can tell you that Death wasn’t a skeleton with a scythe or a ghost in a sheet. But I could spend all day telling you what Death wasn’t and still not give you an idea of what Death was. Death was Death in a “you’ll know it when you see it” kind of way. And Death was as real as the heart attack I’d just had.

Two months and three surgeries later, I was out of the hospital. I’d promised the doctors that I’d take it easy and avoid stress and red meat. Naturally, my first stop as a free man was the local diner where I had a bacon cheeseburger with extra bacon, cheese fries, a beer, and the Wall Street Journal. The next day, I was back in the office shouting buy and sell orders as if nothing had happened. Before long, my encounter with Death was just a memory.

I kept up the pace for ten more years, buying X shares of World-Wide Widget at $25 and selling Y shares of Spanish Prisoner Bonds for $50. What with the recession and the recovery and the need 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 still remember the party I threw when my net worth finally topped $10,000,000.

I had my second heart attack the day after the party. The first one had been annoying like a broken arm is. It’s an inconvenience but nothing serious. This one stopped me like a full-body cast after a three-car pile-up. You’re stuck in a bed with no way to do anything while the crash just keeps repeating in your mind. It happened while I was walking through Central Park; my entire body just collapsed. In a way, I was lucky; Central Park is full of tourists who haven’t yet gotten the “ignore them and they’ll go away” memo. One of them saw me fall down and called 911, then stayed with me while the world tunneled into absurdity like the closing credits of a cartoon. I was dead again, and looking straight at Death once more.

Death approached, looking me in the eyes. I’m not sure what Death saw there, but it must have been something. Death took my hand and tugged me to my feet. I looked down at my body where an increasingly frantic ambulance crew worked to bring it back to life. For some reason, I wasn’t frightened, just curious.

“What now?” I asked. “What happens next?”

Death showed me. Death tugged on my arm and we took a step. Suddenly we were standing next to a little girl’s body, curled up on a faded rug in a run-down house. She’d been beaten and starved until she looked like a concentration camp survivor. Only she hadn’t survived; a red trickle from the side of her head showed where she’d been hit once too often. Her father’s body was next to hers; he’d slit his wrists rather than face what he’d done. Their blood pooled together on the floor, closer in death than they’d been in life.

Still holding my hand, Death stroked the little girl’s forehead. I saw her life flash before my eyes. The good years, when her mother had protected her. The sad years, when cancer slowly ate away her mother’s life. The bad years, when her father punished her for living when her mother was gone. I saw the final beating, her father screaming about the mud on her shoes as he flailed at her with his belt. Hitting and hitting and hitting until the buckle cracked her skull, killing a little girl that just wanted her mommy back.

Then I saw what happened next. I saw the life that Death gave her; the life her father’s anger and grief had stolen. She grew up and went to school. She danced at the senior prom and was happy. She went to college and got a job and dated. She fell in love and married and had children. She grew old and finally passed on, surrounded by the ones she loved.

It wasn’t all good, of course; bitter leavened the sweet. She cried herself hoarse the day she found her 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 made the good times shine even more. In the end, she was happy. Then she vanished and Death smiled at me.

“Do you do that for everyone?” I asked, tears in my eyes.

Death 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 on his daughter. The father’s desperation when his wife left him alone with nothing but a mountain of bills and an ocean of sadness and a daughter who couldn’t understand. The father’s anger every time that his daughter laughed or smiled because it reminded him of his wife and twisted the knife of her loss. Then his last outburst and the sickening realization of what he’d done. His last act of atonement, trying to make up for murdering his child.

Just as with the girl, the father’s life didn’t end with his death. He survived and was sent to jail. The judge gave him the maximum sentence of life in prison despite a guilty plea. With 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 other way when the prisoners used him as an outlet for their anger and frustration. He took it silently, knowing that he deserved it. Finally, after twenty long years, one of the trusties tripped him at the top of a staircase. He tumbled down the steps and broke his neck. Then he vanished and Death smiled once more, a grimmer and more determined smile.

“We each get the death we create?”

Death nodded. With a sad smile, Death reached out and touched my forehead. I saw myself recovering from the heart attack, going back to my life and my money. Every few years, I’d move into a bigger office, buy a fancier car, and get a bigger mansion; I was successful beyond my wildest dreams. But with each new house and every new job, a few more of the people I knew dropped away. Before long, my whole world was 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 missed me enough to come looking. I ended up in the biggest mausoleum in the cemetery but nobody came to the funeral, not even the priest. Such was the towering loneliness of my success.

Death looked in my eyes, asking if I understood. There must have been something there because Death released my hand and suddenly, I was back in the land of the living, surrounded by medical personnel and the detritus of empty syringes and used shock pads. Death had let me go. What happened next was up to me.

This time, the hospital kept me for six months. This time, I meant it when I told the doctors I was going to change. What I didn’t tell them (because I didn’t want to move from the cardiac care center to the psychiatric ward) was that I’d changed because of what Death had shown me. And I spent a lot of time thinking about Death and why I’d been given that glimpse into eternity. Why would Death show me what happened to those strangers -- and would happen to me?

I didn’t know, but I could guess. Imagine that every day you had to show children how good their lives could have been, how beautiful life might have been but for ignorance and want. Consider that every moment you were doomed to tell parents how completely they had failed. What would that do to your soul? And what if you met someone who helped make a world where such things were considered just an unfortunate side-effect of doing business?

Every one of those people could have had a longer, better life but for the greed and neglect of people like me. I didn’t kill that girl and I didn’t drive her father to murder. But I didn’t do anything to keep it from happening, either. I might not be guilty but I was one hell of a long way from innocent.

It was time to free myself of the fetters of solitude and greed that had defined my life up to now; it was time to make amends for the misuse of my life’s opportunity. It was time to make mankind my business.

I took my fortune and started using it to help others; I walked abroad among my fellows and did what small good I could. I sponsored inner-city school kids and filled schoolrooms with free computers. I gave schools funds for materials and campaigned for better pay for teachers.

I worked with start-ups in Third-World countries. One of them invented a stove that cut the need for firewood and reduced pollution by 80%. Another released sterile mosquitoes across Africa, ending the threat of malaria. A third worked with women to create local businesses, making them independent and reducing the infant mortality rate.  It didn’t make things perfect, but it made them better.

The funny thing was I started doing this so Death would treat me kindly. But pretty soon I discovered that I liked helping others. Even better, I discovered that doing good was like getting 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 I’d wasted just making money instead of making a difference.

Then 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 final 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.

E-mail: John E. DeLaughter

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