John Zmirak Must Die

No, really. All kidding aside. I mean it. I know it may be hard for some of you to accept. (For others, it might seem too good to be true.) But, barring the Second Coming, it’s absolutely certain: Someday, the Zmirak supply will simply run out. Sure, it will be for some the end of an institution, like the last Manhattan show in the Broadway run of Cats, or the final episode of Knight Rider (featuring David Hasselhoff). But it’s really going to happen, and if any of you have strong emotions on the subject, consider how I feel. For me, the prospect looms rather more ominously, acquiring perhaps a spurious air of epochal importance. Think of those creepy History Channel programs that (wistfully) depict a world without people; in one episode, there’s a close-up computer rendition of the Chrysler Building collapsing. Now imagine that it’s falling on top of me. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment.
Because, you see, I just this weekend received the news. Maybe the memo was going to my Spam folder, but I’d never before realized, down deep in the bone, that someday my bones will be gnawed clean by tiny critters and armies of microorganisms. That the self I’ve spent so many years buffing and honing to a fine polish of eccentricity will simply vanish from the earth, to face one of three grim fates:

a) Eternal punishment with the devil and all his angels, in the lake of fire where the worm dieth not.
b) Flames of purgation hotter than any on earth, that will burn away most of what I myself have contributed to the mixture, leaving at best a tiny nub of human identity, probably around the size of a roasted peanut.
c) Utter oblivion.
Given what I’ve been taught about options a) and b), I find myself daydreaming about ending up with c) — all of which goes to show you that atheism is the fruit of wishful thinking on the part of fearful people who dread the prospect of Judgment. When I read St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of the theoretical state called limbo — perfect natural happiness, marred only by the lack of the Beatific Vision — I’ll confess that my first thought was, “Can’t I just pick limbo? I never asked to play at the high-stakes table, and I’m not sure how I got up here. Let me slip away to the quarter slot machines and the skill cranes, and I’ll try not to make any noise.”
I wonder how many readers, if offered the certainty of limbo instead of the fear of hell, would take it, instead of holding out on the off-chance they’ll make it to heaven. Those tormented by scruples might even settle for less than an eternity spent playing checkers with Seneca, and embrace oblivion, instead of taking chances on hell. But those options aren’t on the table. Here we are, at the World Championship of Poker, playing against the Mafia, almost out of chips, and drawing to an inside straight. Still, the Dealer insists He’s on our side . . .
What brought these Lenten thoughts home to me this week was the news that yet another close relative of mine has been diagnosed with what is likely a serious cancer — one with grim survival stats. Grieved as I felt for her, I watched with self-disgust as my concerns quickly turned inward. My mind leaped in just a few minutes from the prospect of her suffering to blankly selfish thoughts: “That makes four out of four of my closest genetic connections, stricken with one variety or another. One beat it, but two are dead.” Which tells me not just that someday I’m going to die, but very likely how I’ll die: Slowly, over months, just like my mother and father did, surrounded by people feeding me false hopes and applesauce, while a TV flickers and the pain gets every single day more crushing, more soul-extinguishing.
Because what I’ve learned from watching cancer is, There’s Never Enough Morphine. For one thing, doctors can’t give you enough to ease the pain that comes at the end, hemmed in as they are by fear of lawsuits by — get ready — patients who miraculously recover and then sue their doctors for getting them addicted to painkillers. Yes, there really are people out there who respond to beating “terminal cancer” by doing this, with the outcome that thousands of patients like my mother end up screaming through some of their final days — until at last the doctors see that there’s no danger of recovery, and they open the floodgates of opiates, which typically (and mercifully) slows down breathing, sometimes stops it. Some persnickety ethicists out there complain that this amounts to euthanasia. I’d like a few moments alone with them in a cancer ward, with a bag of surgical instruments. I could teach them the redemptive value of suffering.
I’ll never forget my mother sitting at home on our couch (as she did until two days before she died — through a Catholic home hospice) with the computerized morphine drip that gave her steady, always insufficient doses of the stuff, as the tumor quietly thrived — a tumor she’d earned over decades through the Marlboro “Lungs for Clothing” trade-in program. (Which is really neat, by the way: You send them little pieces of your lungs, and they ship you t-shirts and jackets with their logo. Mom had quite a collection by the end.) Having spent the better part of 20 years at bingo and high-stakes poker games in church basements all through the Diocese of Brooklyn, and slightly addled by the opiates, my mother became convinced that the numbers on the morphine drip were part of a lottery — and if her number came up, she would “win” and get back her health. In her smoke-stained fingers she clutched the sterile medical plastic, squinting at the numbers on the readout. “Come on seven,” is the last phrase of hers that I can remember.
My father’s end was not much different, except that his doctors were at once kinder and less humane — acting really more like benevolent veterinarians. They gave him plenty of morphine as soon as the pain began and kept him in the hospital. What they didn’t do, and no one would let me do, was tell the man he was dying. Right up until he went into the final haze of painkillers, he expected that surgeons would find a way to remove the “adhesions” he believed were keeping him from eating. Instead, the stomach tumor had come back and was eating him — not that anybody did him the courtesy of telling him. At least I was able to get a priest in while he was conscious to hear his last confession. I’d managed the same for mom, and knowing that was a small comfort. But I’m still surprised how small.
Likewise, in the past few days as I’ve felt, in the pit of my stomach for the first time, my own mortality, I’ve been a bit appalled how little religion has seemed to help. I’ve had genuine scares before — heavy turbulence in an airplane, highway merges that seemed close calls, a mugger following me into darkened streets in Georgetown. And at those times, at the prospect of a quick and easy end, prayer came almost naturally: I asked for mercy and felt a certain confidence I’d receive what had been promised. Much different have been the past few days, spent in the imagined shadow of a very different kind of death, wondering if what faced my parents will claim yet another of my immediate family.
The pious thought, which some friends shared with me while each of my parents was dying, that they were “doing their purgatory here on earth,” seemed to me technically and theoretically sound. But here’s a problem that faces smooth-talking apologists like me: Has anything this person did on earth — indeed, all the worst things piled up — really merited the kind of slow anguish that seems likely to lie ahead? As neatly as your mind can fit this notion into its orthodoxy grid, it’s hard to wrap your heart in it. It’s better, surely, than the secular alternative — that suffering is meaningless, useless, redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even Marlboro sweatshirts. I was reading a self-help book recently, and in it one person insisted that “God (or the Universe) wanted me to learn from that experience.” I hope she clears up which is which, because whatever God wants for that woman, what the Universe wants for each of us is clear: to break down the subatomic particles out of which each of us is made and scatter them randomly through empty space.
My intellect points me to the crucifix to show me that our way is not only better, but it is Good. As I am learning, that makes it no less terrible.
So I’m making practical plans. I will offer as much comfort and as many prayers as I can to my sick family member. For myself, I’m planning a steady diet of antioxidants and regular visits to the doctor. But if what’s beginning to seem like a family curse does indeed fall upon me, I intend to be prepared. Instead of wheedling with doctors over the legal liability issues that accompany pain management, I will spend my time doing two things: praying, and engaging in the kind of dangerous sports that, while they’re not intrinsically evil, up to now I’ve avoided. In between trips to Confession and attempts to gain indulgences, I will sky-dive, base-jump, walk tightropes if I can find them. If all else fails, I plan to sneak into Mecca and preach the Faith. Indeed, I’ll read aloud from my Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song. It just might be my only chance (quoting my mother) to “win.”


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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