“Life has the name of life but in reality it is death,” writes Heraclitus. No Bronx boy, even one who has celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday, has enough chutzpah to argue with that. Yet having survived to so ripe an age, I find that when it comes to death, I prefer a more American voice, say, that of John Dewey, who didn’t spend much time thinking about death but who understood that experience was every bit as useful as philosophy in teaching a man how to face the sense of ending. Even Heraclitus must have heard the rumblings of memory as he approached the one indisputable reality of his life. For whether it comes at nine or ninety, death does not stamp any life a success or failure. Nor does death judge that life worthy or unworthy, good or bad. It simply pronounces it a life lived—and now ended.
Eighty-four years is a lot longer than I thought I was going to live when I first apprehended my own death as an actuality. I was eleven then, lying board-stiff in bed, in a large room of the small redbrick Julia Butterfield Memorial Hospital in Cold Spring, New York. Across from me lay another eleven-year-old boy, Jerry. I no longer remember Jerry’s surname. What I remember is that chance had seated us next to each other in July 1944 on a bus headed to a summer camp for working-class boys sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. That two-hour ride led to the discovery that we shared an avid passion for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which alone was enough to seal a friendship and make us eagerly ask to be placed in the same bunk. A fatal choice, as it turned out. Ten days later, Jerry lay choking to death in an oversized yellow balloon that the nurse called “an oxygen tent.” I lay across from him, aware of the prospect of my death for the first but not the last time.
No man of eighty-four need make his life sound more daring or adventurous than it has been. Unlike friends who fought in World War II or Korea, I never faced enemy fire. And although a New Yorker born and bred, I also never experienced being held up at gunpoint. In fact, I have never even seen a gun in this city other than in a police officer’s holster. Nor have I ever been in an auto accident more serious than a fender bender. Yet if the polio epidemic that killed Jerry in early August 1944 would leave me alive, it also left me with legs that remain susceptible to touch but are otherwise as dead as that proverbial doornail. As a consequence, I have lived seventy-three of those eighty-four years as a cripple, a word I use with care and deliberation and, yes, pride, if only because it affirms the price I have paid for its use.
Life as a cripple meant that my idea of what is normal would be considerably different from what those who aren’t crippled think of as normal. I thought it normal, for instance, to lean my twenty-year-old body across the open stairwell of a Lower East Side tenement after a party at which I had drunk too much, torso dangling in midair four stories above the landing as I hazily peered down while balancing my weight on my left hand and maneuvering my crutches down an iron-lipped staircase with my right hand. Think of a blind man feeling his way into the emptiness of a darkness that is even emptier because it vacillates like some thickening fog, and you have an idea of what it felt like to suspend my body in space four flights above that landing. Looking back, I see that episode as merely one more lesson in learning to live with dead legs, no different from the lessons taught me by New York winters, when I had to force my way on steel braces and aluminum crutches through slush-rippled streets filled with hidden traps and obscene dangers.
Life as a cripple meant that I lived on that much-talked-of existential edge long before I heard of existentialism. And it meant I had to live a life kissed by the allure of fantasy. Which is why I do not blush as I recall my professorial voice lecturing students at the City College of New York about the chilled ego of the narrator of “My Last Duchess” even as, in imagination, I see myself, whole-bodied and eager, playing baseball or boxing. Of course, I knew by then that I was never again to walk without those braces and crutches, let alone play baseball or box. Yet I was still willing to let fantasy shave that reality, too.
I have no argument to counter those who call such fantasies childish or adolescent. No doubt they are—which doesn’t make them less real or interesting or necessary. My life has been, I suspect, as rewarding as most—a satisfying career, a lovely wife, children and grandchildren who still give me joy. Yet there are moments when, like Faust, I would willingly sell my soul, not for knowledge, but for the plebeian chance to hit a baseball or a body one more time.
Those echoes of death Heraclitus insists upon were affirmed for me on a warm June morning three years ago, when I awoke from sleep feverish and disoriented. I phoned Dr. Charles Silvera, my physician for the past thirty years, and described my symptoms. Dr. Silvera sent his physician’s assistant to see me. She urged me to go to the hospital. I refused. But that afternoon my wife, unable to rouse me from an even deeper sleep, telephoned 911, and I was taken to Beth Israel Hospital. There, in the intensive care unit, I renewed my acquaintance with that eleven-year-old listening to a friend choke to death. Only this time it was Heraclitus’s voice, not Jerry’s. And for the next two nights and days, Heraclitus’s voice wooed me.
I do not know how close to death I actually was. Dr. Silvera tells me that I had experienced a serious infection of the urinary tract and that I arrived at Beth Israel just in time. I owe him a great deal and have no reason to dispute his diagnosis. But long since recovered, I now view that “just in time” with some skepticism. Not that I am skeptical of what happened to me on those two days and nights in intensive care. They were real enough to propel me back to that room in a country hospital where two eleven-year-old city boys fought for life. Yet while I recognize that feverish body in intensive care as my own, I am equally convinced that another me existed outside of that body—if not beyond its fate, then beyond its boundaries.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not speaking of what is usually thought of as a mystical experience. In eleven days I would leave Beth Israel still pretty much the skeptic I became when I plowed my way through Spinoza as a college junior. Yet, though not a believer, I was, like that same Spinoza, a Jew, in my case a Jew by choice as well as heritage. I like to think of myself as the kind of non-believing believer that the poet Robert Lowell found in the worldview of the Catholic agnostic Santayana: “There is no God and Mary is his mother.” I am a man who often finds himself in fervent prayer to a God in whose existence he claims not to believe. And in my case, let me be clear, I pray not in the name of history but in my own name.
Convinced that I was dying, I became intensely aware of all that was around me. The voices I heard around me were strikingly clear and distinct. They somehow justified the duality of being both an old man with a life-threatening infection and a disembodied self observing that old man. When a nurse noted that my blood pressure had fallen to seventy over forty, this other me could barely keep from applauding. Floating over the still-corporeal me, it understood that this was a dangerously low blood pressure. But because I had been treated for high blood pressure from my late twenties onward, a low number filled me with a buoyant sense of harshly won triumph. I was like a lifetime .220 hitter who unexpectedly has a .280 season, swept up in the promise of a new achievement as I mulled over the prospect of telling Dr. Silvera how low my pressure had fallen, an expectation even more exhilarating than the prospect of dying.
I felt growing sympathy for that dying body on the bed, as if this new ethereal self were betraying him. Perhaps that was why, on my second night in intensive care, as it stared down at that body on the bed, my ethereal self suddenly began reciting the Shema, that call to faith with which Jews have affirmed the unalterable oneness of God for three thousand years. Reciting words I had learned as a boy in Hebrew School, I was aware that I was no longer a believer. An Orthodox Jew would probably deny my right to the Shema. But words belong to those who voice them, even when those words are fueled by the certainty of doubt. The Shema could be claimed by a skeptic like me, too. It even could have been claimed by that courageous lens-grinder before he was interred in his churchyard grave in The Hague. The Shema uttered by my out-of-body self was more than an incantation. It was the outpouring of a man who was both corporeal and incorporeal, a man awaiting an end to endings. And as I recited it while gazing down at that body on the bed, the imminence of death seemed remarkably peaceful.
Although I welcomed Sidney Stein’s voice the next morning, it was a voice that evoked a curious sense of disappointment. Unlike Heraclitus, Sidney was speaking not of death, but of life. I was out of danger. The antibiotics had done their job. The fever was gone—and my out-of-body self gone with it. I would be leaving intensive care that afternoon. Still, that Sidney be the bearer of good news concerned me less than my overwhelming desire to tell him how content I had felt hovering over that body struggling to survive, convinced that its mortality, my mortality, was slipping away second by second. I wanted to tell Sidney of the mystical weight of my falling blood pressure. That Sidney was a physician meant less to me than the fact that he was the man next to whom I prayed at High Holy Days services at the Brotherhood Synagogue, a man learned enough to serve the congregation as its gabbai, reader of the weekly Torah portion.
I have no doubt that he would have listened to me with understanding and empathy. Yet I couldn’t speak about what I wanted to speak of. Sidney knew me as a rational man. And to be rational was to deny out-of-body experiences. Or, at the very least, not to speak of them to other rational men. I still cannot explain why I was unable to tell him what I was burning to tell him. How to speak of an out-of-body self to a man who had heard me pray my agnostic Jewish prayers eight months earlier at Yom Kippur?
Perhaps it wasn’t shame alone that kept me from telling Sidney all that I had experienced on the verge of witnessing my own death. Perhaps I was afraid he would offer me some medical explanation for what I had seen, proving that I could not possibly have witnessed what I thought I had. Yet old men should exist beyond such explanations. If I am to seek shelter, let it be with a nod to Heraclitus and a tip of the hat to Dewey, even as I accept having been forced back into the ranks of rational men.
It is not art and philosophy alone that bring a man to face the prospect of his ending. It is, instead, the hunger to endow some sort of order on the world he is about to depart. Isn’t that what I was really after as I gazed down at that body on the bed? And when that boy of eleven had stared at that yellow oxygen tent across the room, wasn’t he trying to impose on his universe the kind of order conveyed by the great Yom Kippur prayer, Unetaneh Tokef: Who shall live and who shall die? Neither the God Spinoza rejected nor the God the Shema addresses can change the naked roll of the dice that we call life. That eleven-year-old boy who choked to death in an oxygen tent seventy-one years ago could have been me, and that boy lying board-stiff in bed thinking about death for the first time could have been Jerry. Then he might have lived all these years, and the consciousness I call my own would have ended.
Jerry choking to death is just as vivid a memory as my floating above my body in intensive care. In neither instance did I choose life. But life chose me. A polio virus decided it had feasted on enough of my body to end its march before reaching my lungs, and seventy years later antibiotics healed me. I cannot say that the life I have lived has been good or bad. But it has been interesting enough to teach me that Heraclitus was only partially right. If death resides in the voices of all men, then life, to its everlasting glory, still insists on being heard.
Leonard Kriegel’s most recent book was the memoir Flying Solo.