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May 9, 2002
My favorite of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's six surviving paintings is called "Nearer My God to Thee." This lovely canvas, says the artist, "depicts how most human beings feel about dying." Featured, a nude figure, old and stricken in years, screaming face an ashen-green, frightened to death; rather, frightened of death, its nails clawing vainly at the sides of the ever-triumphal pit.
Says the artist, "Despite the solace of hypocritical religiosity and its seductive promise of an after-life of heavenly bliss, most of us will do anything to thwart the inevitable victory of biological death."
In 1983 I took a nasty fall. In due course most of my body would be riddled with deep bruises. During the brief seizure that ensued, I thought only of how to pull the air into my lungs. Then carefully, as if to be sure I did it right, I would methodically but oh so weakly push the air back out again.
Knowing these were the final moments of my short life, it occurred to me that I ought to pray. After all, three years in the grip of Christian fundamentalism had only recently come to an end. But any benefit from entreaty would by now be limited to my Destiny. And completely lost on me during that entire Tour of Duty was any opinion that life after death was life at all.
So I focused my quivering body on the matter at hand: "Push! Out!! The air goes out now! Now, in! In!! Make the torso move so the air comes in!" In the state of injury, paralyzed (but just in case!) this is how it went for several minutes. The state of my eternal state I subjugated, in less than a moment, to the slim prospect of more life.
Zealous Christians, delighted to extort from a man his very name if doing so might win a single convert, have slandered every hero daring to denounce that shocker of a fish story, God's plan to rescue us from the God who'd cast us into the Hell He made.
My hero, Thomas Paine, died in fear and agony (the aspersion went), frightened by the clinking chains of devils. Calloused by repetition, these reports of his passage to "'ere his beginning" took on the sensationalism of the Gospels themselves. Paine, crowed pulpit after pulpit, was literally frightened to death by God -- Tom's reward for having published his honest opinion of the Bible.
Last month* my medical advisors all said I might be losing my 27-year-old battle with Hepatitis C. The pain was enough for me!
I was fearful, but not of what was about to happen to me. I asked who might keep my work, "Positive Atheism," available. Ever before have I been part of a team; this toil I've shared with no other. PAM is my baby.
Alone, I cried for Blue Steel, born under my headboard not four years ago and easily my favorite buddy since. Often I collapsed in abject wailing: Steely would soon lose his Daddy. Setting free all restraint (because I still could!), I'd lay as the other cat would press her head into my face. "No!" her eyes seemed to cry out! "Only you know how to open those cans of food!"
Did I ponder death? my own death? my fate lurking for me beyond yonder bend? No. While on the brink of never, I thought only of life, of that one shot to survive, of who will survive me. Why did I think only of life? Simple! Life is all I've ever known; life is the only situation I ever will know.
An earlier version was inadvertantly printed for the first run of the Print Edition: this is the intended version, and reprints will eventually reflect these changes.
This issue is late due to delays caused by Cliff's illness: we chose to continue the date sequence for the sake of collectors.
The date at the beginning of the text is that of the magazine issue's publication.
Copyright ©2002 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon