I’m nearing completion of my newest novel, A Retrospect in Death. A Retrospect in Death begins with a man’s death. The reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist, as yet unnamed—he could be any man or every man—learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life—in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way.
A Retrospect in Death is a story about discovery. You think you know yourself? Perhaps you only think you do. Do those closest to us know us better than we know ourselves; or do they, as we often insist, know jack? Consider that only in death can you really know, and understand, who and why you are—or were. And then ask yourself: At that point, is it too late? Does it even matter?
A Retrospect in Death is a cerebral read, especially the prologue, which amounts to a lengthy soliloquy, which I suspect may turn off some readers. Still, I think it successfully sets the tone for all that follows. Therefore, I post the prologue and hope for feedback, comments, yes, even criticism.
“It may be that we have all lived before and died, and this is Hell.”
I exhaled, fought to draw another breath—just one more in a lifetime of breaths—heard my own death rattle, and followed the light. Muted voices, although I could make out no words, and the sound of someone sobbing thrummed softly in my ears. A hand on top of mine; soft, delicate. Feminine. A woman’s hand. Someone I knew. But who?
The light dimmed to a black blacker than the blackest night as the voices and sobbing faded; I heard nothing, not even the ringing in my ears that had become familiar to me in my old age as my blood pressure inched ever upward. I might as well have been deaf.
I was dead and I knew it. A general feeling of indifference, which I’d associated with the acedia others had come to associate with me, washed over me.
In living I had feared death; yet in dying, despite the crushing weight of too many regrets, I feared I hadn’t lived enough.
Fear of the unknown, or an instinct for survival?
In death I was relieved to have left behind the hardship, to no longer hear the rhythm of my heart counting down its finite number of beats, feel the burn of my blood pushed, seemingly against its will, through plaque-hardened veins.
I waited for what could’ve been a moment, a month or a millennium, suspended somewhere between belief and disbelief. No glimmer of light illumined me or my surroundings (if it could be said that I was in fact somewhere or anywhere), nor did a sound vibrate against whatever essence my being had become.
It occurred to me that, while alive, I had often questioned (especially as I felt my time growing shorter) the definition of death, although I had never truly alit upon a faith of what I might find on the other side. To me, the hereafter was what I’d left the comfort of my easy chair to seek in another room only to realize I’d forgotten—What am I here after?
No white-haired, bearded and robed divinity waited to judge me for the life I’d led, the choices I’d made, the sins I’d committed, my few successes, many failures, the good I’d accomplished, the hurt I’d inflicted upon others or had inflicted upon me by others the result of my choices (“You choose the women in your life who hurt you,” I recalled a voice telling me during the time I walked among the living; always accountable so that others could deny their own accountability); nor had any of my loved ones, family, friends, or enemies—any of those who’d preceded me to this dark place—greeted me upon my arrival.
Arrival. But to where?
I waited again for what could’ve been a moment, a month or a millennium.
In life, as I tired of living, of the aches and pains both physical and emotional associated with the aged, I became convinced that once I left the world of the living I would not, could not, be coerced into ever coming back.
At best difficult, life is designed to end in death—the ultimate failure. With few successes, still fewer moments of happiness here and there interspersed, no matter how hard one tries, failures are paramount. Death is life’s only reward. A paradoxical thought I’d often, in life, punished myself for having. I didn’t want to believe it; yet it had become a sort of mantra to me. But I was old, alone, lonely, frightened, dying, and, unlike Oscar Wilde’s literary creation, I had no portrait in my attic to hide the shame of my transgressions. If I could see those sins mirrored before me during my morning shave, surely anyone could. But by then my universe had become miniscule, with me at its center, and I was so preoccupied with self I couldn’t see that the world around me had no time or concern for an old man dying: no country for old men.
For that reason alone I should have sought God.
But his seeming absence from the world and my life, that he never whispered in my ear at those times I needed most to hear words of acceptance, encouragement, assurance, left me doubting him. Believers say he never turns his back on anyone, so maybe I just wasn’t listening. Still, those footprints in the sand Mary Stevenson wrote about? I was convinced they were mine alone—they surely weren’t deep enough to account for the additional weight of one carrying another.
Most believe, or want to believe, that something more must exist after death, to perhaps give living, suffering, meaning, or something to which to aspire or win, as is taught in the bible. Or is it simply ego that prevents accepting that dust to dust means just that?
Faith, where God is concerned, is belief in a being whose existence can neither be proved nor disproved. That his existence can’t be proven doesn’t prove he doesn’t any more than an inability to disprove his existence proves he does.
Still, I believed, while alive, in intelligence behind creation. The reality to which I referred as the universe around me, while faithfully believing my next breath was promised, didn’t just will itself into existence.
So I’d lived my life largely on faith: that each morning I left for work telling my first and only wife I’d see her at the end of the day is but one example of a faith in a limitless number of days. Why then was it such an insurmountable step for me to accept the presence of a greater thinking thing, even if he had more important matters to tend to than responding to my pitiful pleas for guidance, leniency?
While alive, in the wake of Shirley MacLaine’s claim to previous lives, I briefly considered reincarnation. To return to make restitution? Come back, as the opposite gender, born in another country to another culture, to bear another, different set of hardships, forced to endure great oppression, to be tested by either poverty or great wealth, to be blessed with love, family and good fortune, or cursed with aridity? How could I ever hope to make amends for a previous life? Indeed, how could I even hope to apply the lessons I’d learned if I had no recollection of my previous lives? How come, for that matter, anyone returning from a previous life claims to have been Cleopatra or Nero, or some other notable historical figure? Why does no one ever recount a former life as a Christian torn asunder by the lions for the amusement of the Romans?
Too New Age for me. I grew sullen, withdrawn, choosing to disbelieve in a fifth season, rejecting the concept of transmutation instead of death.
Still, a part of me yearned for a do over.
I waited for what could’ve been another moment, a month or a millennium.
In death I began to question the meaning of life as I realized that death in and of itself is no reward for wrongful living or living in general, only a release from a self-imposed purgatory the result of self-loathing, the product of self-judgment that we’ve failed to live up to standards set by someone else—an anthropomorphic deity with little understanding of the hardship of being human who sets impossibly high standards and, in his perfection, judges us against those standards while warning us against our judging each other; someone who blessed us with five senses and filled the world with myriad wonders to pleasure those senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell—a dog’s sense of smell is four hundred times more sensitive than a man’s; but is a mutt, limited cranial capacity and lack of opposable thumbs notwithstanding, judged unfairly for losing itself in a world rife with smells that tempt?), but forbade us from overindulging in the music that moves us to joy, the food and wine that sate our hunger and thirst (a voice from my past intruded upon my thoughts: “All things in moderation”—the voice might have belonged to my father, a man more intent on passing down the wisdom of others than nurturing a son); the touch of a tongue to our lips, on our neck, in our ear, elsewhere, that moves us to ecstasy, the sight of a beautiful woman who inspires us to greatness or the launch of a thousand ships (“best to gouge out one’s own eyes than to admire beauty because such approbation leads to desire and sinful thoughts”—the words of a savior passed down during a Sunday school lesson, a savior who advised that attachment to all things worldly was but a barrier to achieving eternal bliss), and who sent a son (his own embodiment in flesh) to prove that temptation can be overcome and to teach that before one can aspire to doorhood one must first be willing to be a doormat.
I cursed myself for my overt blasphemy. These were not the thoughts of the innocent boy who, while in grade school, wrote in shaky block letters with great affection Mother’s Day cards to his loving mother.
Yet death, as I’d borne it these past minutes, months or millennia, seemed only to imitate my loathing toward living. Death—mine at least—was punishment for the way I’d lived. Living mostly in a reactive fashion, I’d won little reward; while in looking to death as reprieve, I’d found no respite.
At that moment a vibration reverberated throughout my being; because all my senses had atrophied over my guessed at millennia during which I’d heard, felt, smelled, saw, tasted nothing, it seemed thunderous:
“I am …” it said not in words, and I waited patiently, as I’d done for millennia, for it to finish telling me who it was.
J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings and One Hot January (new from Second Wind Publishing).