The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead
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David Shields is the author of eight previous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Black Planet (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), Remote (winner of the PEN/Revson Award), and Dead Languages (winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award). A senior editor at Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, The Yale Review, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington.
Letter to My FatherLet the wrestling match begin: my stories versus his stories.
This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together–especially my dad’s, his body, his relentless body.
This is my research; this is what I now know: the brute facts of existence, the fragility and ephemerality of life in its naked corporeality, human beings as bare, forked animals, the beauty and pathos in my body and his body and everybody else’s body as well.
Accept death, I always seem to be saying.
Accept life, is his entirely understandable reply.
Why am I half in love with easeful death? I just turned 51. As Martin Amis has said, “Who knows when it happens, but it happens. Suddenly you realize that you’re switching from saying ‘Hi’ to saying ‘Bye.’ And it’s a full-time job: death. You really have to wrench your head around to look in the other direction, because death’s so apparent now, and it wasn’t apparent before. You were intellectually persuaded that you were going to die, but it wasn’t a reality.” So, too, for myself, being the father of an annoyingly vital 14-year-old girl only deepens these feelings. I’m no longer athletic (really bad back–more on this later). Natalie is. After a soccer game this season, a parent of one of the players on the other team came up to her and said, “Turn pro.”
Why, at 97, is my father so devoted to longevity per se, to sheer survival? He is–to me–cussedly, maddeningly alive and interesting, but I also don’t want to romanticize him. He’s life force as life machine–exhausting and exhaustive. Rest in peace? Hard to imagine.
Mark Harris, trying to explain why he thought Saul Bellow was a better writer than any of his contemporaries, said Bellow was simply more alive than anyone else, and there’s something of that in my father. D. H. Lawrence was said to have lived as if he were a man without skin. That, too, is my father: I keep on urging him to don skin, and he keeps declining.
I seem to have an Oedipal urge to bury him in a shower of death data. Why do I want to cover my dad in an early shroud? He’s strong and he’s weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow.
Our Birth Is Nothing But Our Death BegunA fetus doesn’t sit passively in its mother’s womb and wait to be fed. Its placenta aggressively sprouts blood vessels that invade its mother’s tissues to extract nutrients. A mother and her unborn child engage in an unconscious struggle over the nutrients she will provide it. Pregnancy is, as the evolutionary biologist David Haig says, a tug of war: each side pulls hard; the flag tied to the middle of the rope barely moves. Existence is warfare.
Human beings have existed for 250,000 years; during that time, 90 billion individuals have lived and died. You’re one of 6.5 billion people now on the planet, and 99.9 percent of your genes are the same as everyone else’s. The difference is in the remaining 0.1 percent—one nucleotide base in every 1,000.
You’re born with 350 bones (long, short, flat, and irregular); as you grow, the bones fuse together: an adult’s body has 206 bones. Approximately 70 percent of your body weight is water—which is about the same percentage of the earth’s surface that is water.
A newborn baby, whose average heart rate is 120 beats per minute, makes the transition from a comfortable, fluid-filled environment to a cold, air-filled one by creating a suction 50 times stronger than the average adult breath. I was a breech birth, the danger of which is that the head (in this case, my head) comes out last, which dramatically increases the possibility that the umbilical cord will get wrapped around the neck (in this case, my neck). I entered the world feet first, then remained in the hospital an extra week to get a little R & R in a warm incubator that my father guarded like a goalie whenever anyone came within striking distance. If I laid still for more than a few minutes, my father reportedly pounded on the glass dome. I wasn’t dead, Dad. I was only sleeping. All my life I’ve pretended to seek a cold, air-filled environment (danger), but really what I’m drawn to is that comfortable, fluid-filled environment (safety).
I remember once being complimented by my mother for not entering a playground when the gate was locked and my father being disgusted that I hadn’t climbed the fence. As a wide receiver, I would run intricate patterns, then stand all alone in the middle of the field, waving my hands, calling for the ball. I never dropped a pass, but when I was hit hard, I would typically tighten up and fumble. I was the best softball player in the neighborhood, but as we grew older, we began to play overhand, fast-pitch hardball, and I started flinching. Trying to beat out a ground ball, I would always slow down so that the throw to first base would arrive ahead of me and I’d avoid getting hit in the head with a wild toss. Batting, I was afraid of getting hit with the pitch; fielding, I dreaded bad hops off the rocky infield. I could run 100 yards in 10.8 seconds, but I had very long legs and the track coach insisted that I run high hurdles; I stutter-stepped before each hurdle to make sure I cleared it and came in last. Having never learned to dive, I jumped in the pool feet first. The swimming instructor dragged me to the edge of the diving board, positioned my arms and legs, held me in the air for a second, then dropped me into the pool. At the last instant, I turned my face, and water broke my fall like a bed of electric needles. What was I scared of? Why have I always been so afraid of getting hurt?
In the Bhagavad Gita, the human body is defined as a wound with nine openings.
A newborn baby is, objectively, no beauty. The fat pads that will fill out the cheeks are missing. The jaws are unsupported by teeth. Hair, if there is any, is often so fine as to make the baby (especially Caucasian babies) appear bald. Cheesy material—called vernix caseosa—covers the body, providing a protective dressing for the skin, which is reddened, moist, and deeply creased. Swelling formed by pressure during the passage through the birth canal may have temporarily deformed the nose, caused one or both eyes to swell up, or elongated the head into a strange shape. The skull is incompletely formed: in some places, the bones haven’t fully joined together, leaving the brain covered only by soft tissue. External genitalia in both sexes are disproportionately larger because of stimulation by the mother’s hormones. For the same reason, the baby’s breasts may be somewhat enlarged and secrete a watery discharge called "witch’s milk." The irises are pale blue; true eye color develops later. The head is very large in proportion to the body, and the neck can’t support it, while the buttocks are tiny.
The average baby weighs 7 1/4 pounds and is 21 inches long. Newborns lose 5 to 8 percent of their birth weight in the first few days of life—owing, mainly, to water loss. They can hear little during the first 24 hours until air enters the eustachian tubes. They miss the womb and resent any stimulus. They will suck anything placed in or near their mouth. Their eyes wander and cross. Their body temperature is erratic, and their breathing is often irregular.
At 1 month, a baby can wobble its head and practice flexing its arms and legs. At 2 months, it can face straight ahead while lying on its back. On its stomach, it can lift its head about 45 degrees. At 3 months, a baby’s neck muscles are strong enough to support its head for a second or two.
Babies are born with brains 25 percent of adult size, because the mechanics of walking upright impose a constraint on the size of the mother’s pelvis. The channel through which the baby is born can’t get any bigger. The baby’s brain quickly makes up for that initial constraint: by age 1, the brain is 75 percent of adult size.
Infants have accurate hearing up to 40,000 cycles per second and may wince at a dog whistle that adults, who can’t register sounds above 20,000 cycles per second, don’t even notice. Your ear contains sensory hair cells, which turn mechanical fluid energy inside the cochlea into electrical signals that can be picked up by nerve cells; these electrical signals are delivered to the brain and allow you to hear. Beginning at puberty, these hair cells begin to disappear, decreasing your ability to hear specific frequencies; higher tones are the first to go.
A newborn’s hands tend to be held closed, but if the area between the thumb and forefinger is stroked, the hand clenches it and holds on with sufficient strength to support the baby’s weight if both hands are grasping. This innate "grasp reflex" serves no purpose in the human infant but was crucial in the last prehuman phase of evolution when the infant had to cling to its mother’s hair.
My father reminds me that according to Midrash—the ever-evolving commentary upon the Hebrew scriptures—when you arrive in the world as a baby, your hands are clenched, as though to say, "Everything is mine. I will inherit it all." When you depart from the world, your hands are open, as though to say, "I have acquired nothing from the world."
If a baby is dropped, an immediate change from the usual curled posture occurs, as all four extremities are flung out in extension. The "startle reflex," or "embrace reflex," probably once served to help a simian mother catch a falling infant by causing it to spread out as fully as possible.
When Natalie was born, I cried, and my wife, Laurie, didn’t—too busy. One minute, we were in the hospital room, holding hands and reading magazines, and the next, Laurie looked at me, with a commanding seriousness I’d never seen in her before, and said, "Put down the magazine." Natalie emerged, smacking her lips, and I asked the nurse to reassure me that this didn’t indicate diabetes (I’d been reading too many parent-to-be manuals). I vowed I would never again think a trivial or stupid or selfish thought; this exalted state didn’t last, but still . . .
The Kogi Indians believe that when an infant begins life, it knows only three things: mother, night, and water.
Francis Thompson wrote, "For we are born in other’s pain, / And perish in our own." Edward Young wrote, "Our birth is nothing but our death begun." Francis Bacon: "What then remains, but that we still should cry / Not to be born, or being born, to die?" The first sentence of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."
Much mentioned but rarely discussed: the tissue-thin separation between existence and non-. In 1919, at age 9, my father and his friends were crossing train tracks in Brooklyn when my father, last in line, stepped directly on the third rail, which transformed him from a happy vertical child into a horizontal conductor of electric current. The train came rattling down the tracks toward Milton Shildcrout, who, lying flat on his back, was powerless to prevent his own self-induced electrocution. (When I asked my father why he changed his name, he said that his WWII sergeant "had trouble reading words of more than two syllables printed in the daily camp bulletin; he also had trouble correctly pronouncing what he described as ‘those god-awful New Yawk names.’ He said, in his thick-as-molasses Southern accent, ‘That name of yours, Corporal, is so danged long it wouldn’t fit on a tombstone just in case ya step on one of Tojo’s bullets when we go overseas. You should shorten it to something a grown man like me can pronounce. From now on, I’m going to call you Shieldsy.’ A few weeks later, Sergeant Hill shortened it to Shields. And Shields it was for the 36 months I was assigned to the 164th Quartermaster Company. I got used to Shields and, when I returned from the war, had it changed.")
I wouldn’t be here today, typing this sentence, if someone named Big Abe, a 17-year-old wrestler who wore black shirts and a purple hat, hadn’t slid a long piece of dry wood between galvanized little Milt and the third rail, flipping him high into the air only seconds before the train passed. My father was bruised about the elbows and knees and, later in summer, was a near-corpse as flesh turned red, turned pink, turned black, and peeled away to lean white bone. Toenails and fingernails crumbled, and what few hairs he had on his body were shed until Miltie himself had nearly vanished. His father sued Long Island Rail Road for $100, which supposedly paid—no more, no less—for the doctor’s visits once a week to check for infection.
Decline and Fall (i)All mammals age; the only animals that don’t age are some of the more primitive ones: sharks, alligators, Galapagos tortoises. There are different theories as to why humans age at the rate they do: aging is genetically controlled (maladapted individuals die out and well-adapted ones persevere); the rate of aging within each species has developed for the good of each species; an entropy-producing agent disrupts cells; smaller mammals tend to have high metabolic rates and die at an earlier age than larger mammals do; specific endocrine or immune systems are particularly vulnerable and accelerate dysfunction for the whole organism; errors in DNA transcription lead to genetic errors that accelerate death. All of these theories are disputed: no one knows why we age.
Schopenhauer said, "Just as we know our walking to be only a constantly prevented falling, so is the life of our body only a constantly prevented dying, an ever-deferred death." (Dad: "Why would a supposedly wise man want to think this way?")
"As we get older," the British poet Henry Reed helpfully observed, "we do not get any younger."
On average, infants sleep 20 hours a day, 1-year-olds sleep 13 hours a day, teenagers sleep 9 hours, 40-year-olds sleep 7 hours, 50-year-olds sleep 6 hours, and people 65 and older sleep 5 hours. As you get older, you spend more time lying awake at night and, once asleep, you’re much more easily aroused. The production of melatonin, which regulates the sleep cycle, is reduced with age, which is one of the reasons why older people experience more insomnia. By age 65, an unbroken night of sleep is rare; 20 percent of the night consists of lying awake. As I constantly have to remind my now light-sleeping father, people ages 73 to 92 awake, on average, 21 times a night owing to disordered breathing.
An infant breathes 40 to 60 times a minute; a 5-year-old, 24 to 26 times; an adolescent, 20 to 22 times; an adult (beginning at age 25), 16 times. Over the course of your life, you’re likely to take about 850 million breaths.
As a mammal, you get "milk teeth" by the end of your first year, then a second set that emerges as you leave infancy. When children start school, most of them have all of their baby teeth, which they’ll lose before they’re 12. By 13, most children have acquired all of their permanent teeth except their wisdom teeth. The third molars, or "wisdom teeth," usually emerge between ages 20 and 21; their roots mature between ages 18 and 25. As you age, your plaque builds up, your gums retreat, your teeth wear down, and you have more cavities and periodontal disease. The last few years, as my father’s gums have shrunk, bone has rubbed up against his dentures, causing pain whenever he chews.
Children’s fingernails grow one millimeter a week. Toenails grow one-quarter as fast as fingernails—one millimeter a month. Pianists’ and typists’ fingernails grow faster than others’. Fingernail growth is fastest in November, slowest in July, and less rapid at night. The first and fifth digits grow more slowly; in severe cold weather, fingernails grow more slowly. From age 30 until 80, fingernail growth slows by 50 percent. Contrary to myth, Dad, your nails and hair don’t keep growing after you die.
“David Shields has accomplished something here so pure and wide in its implications that I almost think of it as a secular, unsentimental Kahlil Gibran: a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth.” —Jonathan Lethem
Mesmerized—at times unnerved—by his ninety-seven-year-old father’s nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion—an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.
Shields begins with the facts of birth and childhood, expertly weaving in anecdotal information about himself and his father. As the book proceeds through adolescence, middle age, old age, he juxtaposes biological details with bits of philosophical speculation, cultural history and criticism, and quotations from a wide range of writers and thinkers—from Lucretius to Woody Allen—yielding a magical whole: the universal story of our bodily being, a tender and often hilarious portrait of one family.
A book of extraordinary depth and resonance, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead will move readers to contemplate the brevity and radiance of their own sojourn on earth and challenge them to rearrange their thinking in unexpected and crucial ways.
Praise for The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead“A double-memoir-commonplace book in which [Shields] presents his and his father’s life stories, lovingly encrusted with facts about aging and death (it turns out your soul doesn’t weigh 21 grams after all) . . . The result is an edifying, wise, unclassifiable mixture of filial love and Oedipal rage.” â??Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“Shields is a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating, at times hilarious writer. Approaching the flatline of the last page, we want more.” â??Stephen Bates, The Wall Street Journal “Enthralling . . . Fascinating . . . Ultimately, the humanity of Shields’ interior and exterior exploration is what makes The Thing About Lifeâ??and life itselfâ??worthwhile.” â??Meredith Maran, The San Francisco Chronicle “Shields undergoes his midlife crisis and comes out the other sideâ?? more accessible than ever before, more tender, `nicer.’ And yet The Thing About Life adroitly sidesteps sentimentalityâ??very hard to do when the core of it is a son’s love for his cranky, tenacious, irascible, geriatric, Jewish father. I love this book.”â??David Guterson
“[An] informative and occasionally unsettling meditation on [Shields’s] own aging body and his [97-year-old] nonagenarian father’s seemingly endless vigor and strength . . . He writes with great candor about the vitality of his father. . . Also woven into the text are clever quotes on matters corporeal from the likes of Wordsworth, Wittgenstein, Woody Allen, and Martha Graham. Shields’s memoir is a sobering, at times poignant, reminder that none of us gets out of this life alive.”â??Booklist
“David Shields has accomplished something here so pure and wide in its implications that I think of it almost as a secular, unsentimental Kahlil Gibran: a textbook for the acceptance of our fate on earth.” â??Jonathan Lethem
“It’ s a bold writer who dares to tackle head-on the subject of what it means to be humanâ?? something that David Shields does with an extraordinary mixture of tenderness, humor, and inexhaustible curiosity.” â??Jonathan Raban
“The Thing About Life grabbed me from the start. It’s extremely compelling, gorgeous in many places. I loved it. And I wish I had written it.”â??Lauren Slater
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