June 8, 2016

The End of the Alphabet

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.”

That verse, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed opus, Hamilton, feels slightly strange in our current context.  It is a verse firmly rooted in its time: death was more visible, more evident during the Revolutionary War than it is now, and Mr. Miranda knows this. In fact, death is something we actively avoid mentioning in contemporary conversation, so much so that when someone mentions imagining death so much”, we worry about their mental health.

The avoidance of the talk of death—death itself, of course, is unavoidable, for now—may be due to many factors, including our longer lifespans, our improved healthcare systems, reduction in military warfare, and better access to clean water and education. These factors, while good for humanity and its wellbeing, have made it unnecessary to regularly deal with loss, and as such, unnecessary to know how to talk about death and loss.

This propensity to ignore death is changing. A slew of scholarly articles and books have been published in the past few years trying to spur a widespread conversation about dying, and groups like Death Cafés have been instrumental in bringing people together to face the inevitable, long before we once did. Advance planning for death makes the grieving process easier for everyone involved; being able to talk about the end of our lives makes that advance planning possible.

We may not all end up imagining death so much it feels more like a memory, but the less we hide from dying, the more we can make sure we do it well.

When he was told he had less than a month to live, Ambrose Zephyr pulled out his journal, his A-Z record of aspirations, and began a journey to cross off as many experiences from his alphabetical bucket list as he could.

This is the premise of C.S Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, a debut novel that is less about life and death than it is about the acceptance and realization of our impermanence. After his diagnosis, Ambrose and his wife Zipper (the true protagonist of the tale) set off on a whirlwind world tour to see all the places and do all the things, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar, he wanted to do before his death. Along the way, we learn more about the relationship between Ambrose and Zipper than we do about each individual character, or the journey that they are on.

In the end, The End of the Alphabet is just that: a study of relationships, whether between two lovers, between a man and his impending death, or between a woman and the realization that death comes for all of us, often unexpectedly. Mr. Richardson introduces these relationships on the surface level; a longer novel may have had more room to explore the nuance within each one, and that shallowness is the only failing of the story.

Yet, it is a large failing. Just as we are starting to understand Ambrose’s and Zephyr’s relationships to death—the book is excellent at helping us understand their relationship to each other—it ends, perhaps abruptly. The ending is indicative of our current social sentiment: it’s easy to talk about love, and much harder to come to terms with dying.

I have never had a bucket list. When asked about what I want to do before I die, I can not rattle off lists of places to visit or adventures to have, but instead the much simpler goal of wanting to live a life where I make someone smile, every day.

This is not a satisfactory answer, for most.

Most of the people I know have a bucket list; I realize now that the notion of the bucket list is the closest we come to talk about our impending deaths without mentioning our transience. It is easy for us to talk about the end of life by imagining what we want to accomplish before the end—essentially, it is easier to talk about dying by instead talking about how we want to be living.

What would I do if I was told I had one month to live?

Unlike Ambrose Zephyr, I would not take off on a global voyage to pursue dreams that I have never realized. (I do not fault those that would, and in fact, would encourage them to chase those goals with vigor for as long as they can.) Instead, I would engage in reflection, in contemplation. I would want to discover what my life meant to those I have loved, and attempt to make amends with those to whom I have caused pain. I would console those whom I would be leaving behind, and think about the legacy I am leaving them.

In short, I would do all the things I should be doing now, but do not do because I am not forced to face death so clearly, presently.

I have not yet reached the end of my alphabet, but it is not too early to start thinking of what I will want, what my loved ones would want, when I do.

→ Marginalia