Editor’s note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party features this short story by our guest Nicola Bagalà, originally published by the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) on August 10, 2018, August 17, 2018, and August 14, 2018. In this story, Mr. Bagalà describes the experiences of a man discovering how salient it is to NOT biologically age and die. This was originally written in three separate parts, but combined in this single article. I hope you find commonalities in your life while reading this story so that you can be motivated in helping our species cure all diseases through innovations in science and technology.
~ Bobby Ridge, Assistant Editor, July 6, 2019
This is a fictional story about a man realizing for the first time, under rather unusual circumstances, that he has a deep desire not to age and die.
It’s been a few months already, yet that day still feels like yesterday. I am still not convinced that I didn’t lose my mind that day, and even if I didn’t, it’s changed my thinking quite a bit.
I was in a green grove in the local cemetery, sitting on a bench. As it is the piece of nature closest to home, I used to go there quite often. A small group of men, all at least in their 40s and wearing black suits and ties, had passed by just as the bells in the nearby church began ringing.
A new member joins the club, I thought, meaning the graves all around me.
Spending eternity in a place like that mustn’t be that bad, I observed, as another, larger group of people was heading presumably to the same funeral as the previous group. There were no preoccupations, no problems, only greenery and quiet as far as the eye can see; nothing but birds singing, squirrels slipping away from tree to tree, and people strolling as they came to see their dead. There certainly are worse things than this, I said to myself, especially if you’re alive.
“Very nice indeed, or so it would seem,” a voice from behind suddenly said. The person then came to sit right next to me as I looked at who was talking. I looked her up and down for a moment, trying to establish whether it was safe to remain seated or if I should spring up to my feet.
It was a really beautiful girl, about twenty years old. She had red hair reaching to her shoulders and icy blue eyes. She was leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, staring at the graves before us; she didn’t seem to care about my startled look. Judging by her attire, I’d say she too was going to the funeral, although she seemed to be in no rush to go anywhere.
“Indeed, I’m not,” she said, as if she’d read my thoughts, still looking at the headstones. “It’s pleasant here.”
“I beg your pardon?” I finally stuttered.
“It’s pleasant,” she reiterated, slightly turning her gaze towards me for a moment, and then back to the graves. “Isn’t it? It looks like a nice place.”
“Undoubtedly,” I nodded, hesitantly. She said nothing. She had a slight, intelligent-looking smile, which made her look somewhat pleased with herself, though not arrogant. It was as if she were waiting for me to say anything, as if she knew that I had something to ask.
The bells rang again.
“I’m sorry, miss,” I commented, uncertain, “but did you mean that the graveyard is nice or just that it seems to be?”
“It depends on your point of view.” I would have asked more, but she continued. “Are you in a hurry to go?”
Her question caught me off-guard. “Me? No,” I stammered, thinking for a moment she must be one of those young girls trying to hit on men one or two decades older. “It’s Saturday afternoon, and—”
“That’s not what I meant,” she interrupted me, looking away from me towards the church.
“Then what?” I asked, even though I should perhaps have left, annoyed by the way she was talking to me.
“You’re right,” she replied, apparently ignoring what I had asked her. “It’s a quiet, pretty place, perfect if you need to relax or reflect. However, I wouldn’t like spending here more than an hour or two. How about you?”
“Well,” I said, asking myself once again why I was even still having that absurd conversation, “that would depend on what else I had to do at—”
“How about if you were dead?” she interrupted again, still gazing at the many headstones, as if I wasn’t even there. “You wouldn’t have much to do if you were dead. How much time would you like to spend here, if dead?”
“What a silly question,” I replied firmly, trying to conceal how her mentioning my own death had upset me somewhat. I told myself that it was an absolutely normal reaction, and her question was really silly anyway. “Excuse me, miss, but if I’m dead, then it’s obvious I’ll be spending eternity in the graveyard, be it this one or another.”
“I didn’t ask you how long you’d be here,” she clarified. “I asked how much time you’d like to spend here.”
Her remark seemed to suggest she wasn’t too sound of mind. I quickly glanced around, desperately looking for people who might be short of a crazy relative on their way to paying the last respects to the dearly departed. Not a soul was in sight—except those that the graves were standing in for.
“I doubt my preferences would make any difference,” I said shaking my head, smiling as I would to anyone too mentally unstable to be safe to contradict.
“That’s true,” she nodded. “Then again, it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s such a pretty place that one would gladly spend eternity in it. I mean, there are worse things than this, especially if you’re alive.”
As I noticed the similarity between her words and my own earlier thoughts, I felt a lump forming in my throat. I was tempted to ask her what the devil she wanted from me, but then I told myself there was no reason to lose it for a simple coincidence, however disturbing.
“Indeed,” I nodded nervously.
She took a few steps toward a tall headstone nearby and knelt before it, seemingly to read the epitaph. That would’ve been the perfect chance for me to take my leave, but she managed to anticipate my move once again.
“Of course, there’s a small problem with this theory,” she said distractedly.
“What would that be?”
“If you’re dead, whether the place is quiet or pretty doesn’t matter to you.”
“Of course not,” I said, starting to feel fed up with all those truisms.
She turned toward me, feigning perplexity. “Then why did you agree with me, when I said one would gladly spend eternity here?”
“That’s just a set phrase,” I replied. “Things people say.”
It felt as if she thought she was the teacher and I the schoolboy.
“But anyway, what does it matter?” I went on, feeling I should retort something. “You just implied that if you were buried in the worst place in the world, you wouldn’t care in the slightest.”
She turned again, with an almost naughty smile, and she moved closer to me. “Normally, people don’t talk to me like that.”
What cheek! As if she hadn’t been agitating me this entire time!
“They don’t like talking about it, but it’s almost as if they feared me, you know?” she continued. “Almost reverentially, one would say.”
Who wouldn’t be afraid of such a nutter, I thought.
She turned abruptly and slowly started walking away with her arms behind her back. After taking a few steps on the grass, she asked out of the blue, “Say, are you afraid of death?”
“Excuse me?” I said, even though I had got that perfectly.
“You heard me,” she replied promptly, as she kept walking slowly away from me. I kept following her, telling myself the only reason I was doing so was that, clearly, she was disturbed, and it would be irresponsible of me to just leave. I was convinced that she should be attending the funeral at the nearby church. She was probably a relative of the deceased, and her relatives were understandably too shaken up by their loss to notice that she wasn’t there. I wasn’t certain I was right, but even if I was, I certainly couldn’t just pop up and interrupt the funeral to ask whether someone was short of a daughter or a sister. I decided I’d wait until the end of the ceremony, as it probably wouldn’t last much longer. Meanwhile, I’d try to understand whether my intuition was correct.
“So?” she insisted. “Are you afraid of death or not?”
“If you really want to know, I’m not,” I replied. “I see no reason to worry about something I cannot be aware of in any way.”
“You keep answering questions I never asked. I asked if you’re afraid of death, not of being dead.”
“So you mean the act of dying? I’m not afraid of that, either. Granted, I’d rather it be painless and not too drawn-out, but—”
“I really cannot take into account individual preferences. Be as it may, you say you’re not afraid?”
“I’m not,” I reiterated, ashamed of my own apprehension.
She hummed pensively. “I see. Then what reason do you have to sugar the pill?”
“Your set phrase. One of those things people say, that which we were talking about a moment ago. There are worse things than spending eternity in such a nice place. Why do people say things like that?”
Now I was starting to see things more clearly. She just had to be a close relative or friend of the person whose funeral was taking place right now. She must be so much in shock that she couldn’t even join the mass, her pain and anger fuelling all the bizarre things she kept saying. Notwithstanding that, she mustn’t have been too sane even prior to her loss.
“They say them to console who suffered the loss of a loved one,” I replied in an almost fatherly tone.
“How about to dispel the fear of one’s own death?”
“Well, that too, I guess…. In some cases…”
“You just told me you’re not afraid of death.”
“Indeed I’m not, but—”
“Then why were you thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad to spend eternity here? Why do you need to tell yourself that if you’ve got no fear to dispel or people to console?”
I stood speechless.
The graveyard was almost entirely silent, except for the incessant chirping coming from the treetops. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that girl, very weird at best, was just unbelievably perceptive or if she really could read my mind. Did she know that I had indeed thought that before, or was that just a lucky deduction?
I really didn’t know what to tell her, nor did I like the idea of having to justify my unexpressed thoughts to a complete stranger; thus, I tried to change the subject. Once more I had an uncomfortable feeling that she knew I was in a tough spot and wasn’t expecting me to answer her question.
“Are you here for the funeral?” I asked, bobbing my head to point at the church.
“No,” she replied.
“Was it a relative of yours, or…”
“I have no relatives, nor anything more to do with this funeral.”
“Anything more?” I asked puzzled, although ever more convinced she was lying, denying the truth to deny her pain. As she was used to, she ignored my question and changed the subject.
“Come,” she said. “I want to show you something.” She then headed off to a trail among the graves, as sure about where she was going as the cemetery’s caretaker would be, without even turning to see if I was following her—which I was, though in frustration.
She led me to an eye-catching headstone with a low-relief angel holding his forehead in despair. There was an inscription, too, which I guessed was a quote from the Bible or the Gospel.
I waited for her to say anything, but as she kept mum, I resolved to ask: “So?”
“The inscription. Read it.”
I couldn’t hold back a short grumble, annoyed as I was at her manners, but then I began: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” Once more, she kept silent, so I pressed her: “Well?”
“Do you believe that?”
“No,” I answered, happy that there appeared to be at least one thought in my mind she hadn’t already read. “I’m not a believer.”
“A great deal many others are, though.”
“Yes. So what?”
“Millions, billions of people believe, or believed, that death isn’t the end, and that some kind of afterlife is waiting for them beyond the grave. They believe there’s a place where they’ll somehow be able to live forever without pain or afflictions. If overcoming death is such a cornerstone of long-lasting religions with so many followers, then maybe the set phrases you’ve been saying are meant to console those who say them, rather than those who listen to them, in more than just ‘some cases’.”
“I never said people aren’t afraid of death,” I objected, fearing that I was clutching at straws. “I just said I don’t think that’s very rational, that’s all. People have a lot of irrational fears.”
“And as you said, you’re not afraid of death. That wouldn’t be rational,” she said, nodding slowly, as if she were finally understanding what I had been trying to tell her. “So,” she went on before I could say anything, “if I offered you, here and now, a quick and painless way to die, just as you wish, you wouldn’t be against that, would you?”
My heart skipped a beat as I felt adrenaline rushing down my body like a waterfall. She was crazy, all right, but just how crazy was she? Anyway, as weird as she was, I didn’t believe she was dangerous, nor did it look like she had anything with her that could be used as a murder weapon.
“I said that I don’t fear death,” I hurried to clarify, trying to keep my composure as much as I could, “not that I’m looking forward to death. I don’t wish to die now, but I don’t fear the moment of my death.”
“So you’re saying you would refuse my offer,” she concluded, nodding. “However, given that you don’t fear death, would you refuse my offer as you would if I was offering a meal you’re not in the mood for? Perhaps with a smile, a kind gesture of the hand, and a ‘no, thank you’?”
“Do you realize it’s homicide you’re talking about?” I said drily and quietly, trying to appeal to any shred of rationality she might still possess.
“How interesting that you should appeal to the outrageousness of homicide in a conversation about the irrationality of fearing death.”
Once more, I didn’t know what to counter, but whatever she might be getting at, I had no intention of letting her win the argument. Something unknown inside me was pushing me to prove her wrong at all costs, to show she was mistaken. I passed a hand on the back of my neck, casting another look at the church as I wondered how bloody long it would still take for the funeral to come to a close. The girl, always as cool as a cucumber, resumed her stroll among the graves.
“Listen,” I told her, trying to show compassion, “I understand the pain you must have felt when—”
“I already told you that I have no relatives,” she interjected. “He did, though.” She stopped before another gravestone. “Read his birth and death years.”
The inscription said 1946 and 1951, respectively.
“I see,” I said. “He died still a child.”
“A real tragedy, was it not?”
“It certainly was,” I conceded. Despite her stubborn denial, I thought that contorted discourse might be her way of telling me her story. Perhaps, the person she’d lost had died an equally early death.
“Is it irrational to fear tragedy? When this child realized he was about to die, was it irrational of him to be afraid? What about his parents?”
Since I had met her, each and every of her words had been uttered in the calmest and most peaceful of ways. Not once had she lost her aplomb nor betrayed any anger or sorrow. There was no enmity in her words but no indifference either. From where she was standing, I thought, she was simply discussing a topic that interested her very much, displaying exemplary cool-headedness and firmness.
“This is a special case,” I observed. “His death was very much premature.”
Without ever taking her eyes off me, she moved to a couple of graves a few steps away. “He was 67 when he died,” she said pointing at the epitaph on one of the headstones. “Was he ‘ripe’ enough for death that his passing cannot be considered a tragedy?”
“I… I know nothing about this man,” I attempted to justify myself.
“He took his own life. His health was deteriorating, and he could not cope. So, was this a ripe enough death?”
“How do you—”
“I just know.” The girl pointed to the grave next to the man’s. It bore the same family name as his. “After he died, she lived fifteen more years, though it was no longer the same without him. She had a heart attack, at age 85. Was this a tragedy, or was she old enough?”
“Look, what do you want me to say?” I burst out, spreading out my arms. “I’m sorry for these people, but death is a part of life. You must learn to accept it.”
“Not my problem,” she replied, puzzlingly.
“Oh, isn’t it now?” I asked, simply unable to conceal sarcastic defiance. I sat on the border of a flower bed, shaking my head in frustration and disbelief.
“No, it is not,” she replied, barely shaking her head. “Besides, not all that is part of life is accepted without question. For example, infant mortality. It was a part of life until you found a way to eliminate it almost entirely. Most parents of all times had to accept that, probably, some of their children would never live to be grown-ups. Yet, it is no longer so.”
“Whatever do you mean ‘until you found’? Are you an alien?”
“No,” she said, not bothered in the least by my sarcasm.
“Listen,” I said as I sprung up, determined to make things clear once and for all. “I don’t even know your name, and—”
“No, I don’t,” I went on undaunted, “and I’m getting tired of you acting mysterious. I tried to be patient, because despite your obstinate denying it, it’s glaringly obvious that you suffered a tremendous loss recently—quite likely the person in that coffin right now,” I said pointing to the church once more. “I am sorry for your loss. I mean it. I must admit that façade of absolute tranquillity you put up could fool anyone, but I can tell you’re shaken up. Do you want me to say that death is not a nice thing to think about? Fine, it isn’t. But it is inevitable. And at the end of the day, that’s good, because just like many other unpleasant things in life, death is also necessary.”
“It happens every time,” she nodded musingly.
“Every time you begin to realize that death is nothing like the indulgent metaphors you use to describe it, thinking of its inevitability pushes you to look for other ways to justify it. Bearing with a horror that is both inevitable and useless would be too much; and as it can’t be but a horror, you need to find it a purpose.”
“You’re blowing it out of proportion,” I objected firmly. “Granted, diseases, wars, and calamities cause useless deaths. They are horrors, I agree; that’s not the natural end of a human being, and indeed we do our best to avoid those deaths. But the circle of life must close itself for the common good. That’s not a horror but only the natural order of things. An endless life would also be meaningless and would wind up being a sentence to eternal tedium. Besides, it would be so problematic on so many levels I can’t even begin to count them.”
“What’s a human being’s ‘natural end’?” she asked, completely unimpressed by my speech.
I snorted in annoyance. “You’re just pulling my leg now.”
“All right, if you really want to play dumb. The natural end of human beings is death by aging. We are born, we grow up, we live our lives, and finally we walk into the sunset. You can see this kind of cycle everywhere. Without it, life itself wouldn’t be possible.”
“Are you sure,” she inquired, “that what you’re talking about isn’t just the umpteenth item on the long list of obvious and incontrovertible truths that were such only until someone had the effrontery to prove them false?”
“What the devil are you—”
“Can you claim without fear of contradiction that it is absolutely necessary for everyone to die, sooner or later, in order for life to continue? Are you ready to prove to anyone old enough that their death is as necessary as is due? If it was possible to avoid age-related decline and death, would you oppose that on the grounds of your convictions, thereby sentencing to death every human being present and future? Are you so sure of your stance that you would deem reasonable, right, or acceptable, to ask everyone to sacrifice themselves in its name?”
Under any other circumstances, I would have thought that this rapid-fire sequence of questions was pompous, arrogant, and rhetorical. I would have laughed right in her face, called her haughty, and left. However, she had spoken candidly, without an ounce of arrogance or conceit. She had uttered those words with the same tone as any other word since I had met her—the tone of someone patiently waiting for you to realize that maybe you share the same views as her.
“I don’t feel like I can make this kind of moral judgement,” I stammered after a moment. “Maybe… Maybe I wouldn’t be so sure about it, but anyway…”
“Yes?” she encouraged me.
“…I don’t think it matters. I don’t think anyone would want to live forever. Yes, yes, I know what you’re about to say: myths, stories, films, and what have you have been talking about eternal life for centuries. I know you were about to say that; I figured out who I’m dealing with by now.”
“Not yet,” she smiled, “but you’re getting there. Please, do go on.”
I didn’t even attempt to understand what she meant, and I continued: “In fiction, the gift of eternal life appeals to many. It’s an attractive prospect, but it always turns out to be a double-edged sword. Nobody who has seriously reflected on it could ever really want to live forever. Sooner or later, we would lose motivation; there would be nothing new to do, see, or learn. Knowing that life is endless would make us unable to appreciate it, just like we would be unable to appreciate a nice sunny day, if all days were.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s obvious!” I stammered again, angrily, after a few moments spent looking for a more convincing argument to no avail. “After a century or two, what do you think there would—”
“If two people having this same conversation three centuries ago had been alive today, they would have had innumerable things to do, see, and learn that weren’t even imaginable at the time. Are you sure that human progress on all fronts has already come to an end? Do you believe that life can be appreciated only if it’s short? Maybe these are just assumptions that you make to help you banish your fear of death from your mind. If there was a moment when one is tired of life, wouldn’t you rather decide for yourself when this moment has arrived? Death may come when your desire to live is still strong or long after you had already lost it, without asking for your opinion first—just like I didn’t before I began this conversation.”
Something in the way she pronounced that last sentence sent shivers down my spine. Speechless and short of breath, I peered at her for a few moments, trying to understand what was the answer to what I had thus far avoided to ask her. She held my stare without flinching. Finally, I resolved to ask.
“Listen, what the hell do you want from me?” I burst out, surprised by the hatred I felt for her. “Why don’t you go and dump your pearls of wisdom on somebody else?”
I had to defend myself. That’s what I felt. That was the reason for my hatred. I didn’t know why, but I felt threatened. The threat could be averted only by putting an end to the conversation and forgetting about all that bloody nonsense.
“There is only you and me here,” she noted, as if she was pointing out the obvious.
Indeed, the cemetery was absolutely deserted, and thinking about it, it didn’t seem as if anyone at all had passed by during our conversation, which I had estimated to have lasted about an hour. I must have got carried away more than I thought, since I hadn’t even noticed that the nice blue sky of that day had turned a leaden shade; roaring thunders announced an upcoming storm.
“Then go back to your relatives at the funeral,” I went on irritated. I was no longer showing her any respect, as I thought she had proved herself unworthy of it. “What’s taking them so long?!”
“There is no funeral,” she said. “There never was.”
“I’ve got enough of your rubbish!” I growled, quickly moving closer to the church door. “Of course there’s a funeral, look at the…”
The funeral announcement was gone, as were all the funeral wreaths. There was no sign that anything at all had happened in that church on that day.
“What the devil—they couldn’t just finish and clear out that quickly without us noticing!” I said nervously, looking all around the church for any sign that anyone at all was there. “They must have taken out the coffin, how could I have missed that? We’ve been here the whole time!”
She followed me, and looking at me compassionately, she said: “I told you. There was never any funeral.”
“Rubbish!” I shouted as a lightning bolt loudly tore the sky open. I probably looked much crazier that she was, and I was surprised that she didn’t seem to be afraid of that.
“What the hell do you want?! What the hell do you want?!” I shouted again.
“I only want you to understand something that, deep inside, you already know.”
“What? That death is horrible? A tragedy? A disgrace? That there is some kind of holocaust going on without anybody noticing? What do you know if that’s what I think?”
Once more, she stared at me silently. Her silence was worth a thousand words.
“Moonshine!” I shouted in her face. “Everything is completely normal, and it’s perfectly fine as it is! Am I going to be dead someday? Everyone is? Fine by me! There is no holocaust, no disgrace, and no tragedy!”
“I wonder if you would still think that,” she mused, asking herself more than me, “if rather than by headstones we were surrounded by the poor bodies buried underneath.”
I didn’t know why, but suddenly I felt terrified that that horrible scene might be happening right behind me, as if driven by some kind of supernatural force. Petrified and short of breath, I stood silently, listening to her once more, jolting at the slightest sound coming from behind.
“It gives life its meaning and makes you appreciate it, spares you the tedium of too long an existence, even begins the afterlife… it’s the end of a cycle, a relief from the chores of life, a sunset, a quiet and peaceful rest, an eternal sleep…” The girl chuckled. She was wearing the same benevolent expression she always had, which made her even more unsettling. I said to myself that, if the dead were really rising from their graves behind me, I’d rather know than let them take me by surprise.
I turned abruptly.
The headstones were exactly where I had left them. I sighed deeply, in relief, slightly shivering at every blow of the cold wind from the upcoming storm.
“Is this how you imagine me?” I heard her ask from behind.
In that moment I was sure that, had I turned, I would see the girl transformed into a horrible cadaver. I swallowed hard, and once I found the courage, I turned quickly towards her. Luckily, I was wrong again.
“You really don’t come across as someone who doesn’t fear death,” she commented.
The dim glimmer of rationality left in me insisted that the girl was simply disturbed, and I was just letting the circumstances deceive me. Yet, I could not resist the temptation to finally ask her something that, in truth, I had already been tempted to ask her long before.
“Are you… are you death?”
“Is this how you imagine me?” she asked again, in a particularly eloquent tone.
It could not be. None of it made sense. How could such a beautiful girl ever be—
“I am not as beautiful as you think,” she chuckled almost timidly, looking away for an instant. “I am not a release, a sunset, quiescence, or an eternal sleep. I am nonexistence, oblivion, nothingness, annihilation, the loss of yourselves, destructor of possibilities and dreams. I don’t give life meaning, nor do I give anything; I take without giving. I am what is when you are no more. I am what is when even hope is lost. I am the end of all.”
“It can’t… It cannot be…” I stubbornly denied, shaking my head in panic. “That’s just nonsense… You… You’re crazy!” Quickly, I moved away from her to the exit, walking backwards to keep my eyes on her. She showed no intention of following me. “Stay away!” I ordered, regardless, pointing my finger at her threateningly. “I want nothing to do with you! Stay away!”
“I am glad you finally understand it,” she said, almost relieved.
I quickly turned around and ran away. I crossed the exit gate and kept running, and without ever looking back, I headed to the closest tram stop. I didn’t need transportation to get home, but I had an urge to get far away from that girl, whoever she might be. The passengers on the tram looked somewhat alarmed by my hasty and disorderly entrance, and were casting fleeting and diffident glances at me; regardless, the sight of normal human beings felt like being able to breathe again. I hurriedly collapsed on the first available seat, and only then did I notice with great stupor that it was late at night. I had no idea how that was possible; it was barely past midday when the girl approached me, and there was no chance it could be that late now. Yet, according to my wristwatch, it was past 10 P.M. To hell with it, I didn’t care; all that mattered was getting far away from that unsettling nutter and getting home as soon as possible. I took a deep breath and tried to relax, mentally calculating the stop at which I should get off. I couldn’t help looking around, every now and again, just to make sure she wasn’t there, among the passengers, observing me with that disturbingly benevolent air of hers.
He might have run away from the girl, but he cannot run away from himself.
I feel ashamed admitting to this, but I proceeded with wariness all the way to my door. That late at night, I didn’t meet anyone in the hallways or in the elevator. At first, I didn’t even want to take the elevator, as I was afraid that the girl might suddenly appear before me when the doors opened as I got in or out; however, for some reason, the idea of taking the stairs felt even worse, nearly terrifying. After hesitating some, I chose to take the elevator. Once I reached my door, I inserted the key in the lock, and after a moment of hesitation, I began turning it. At each turn, which echoed sinisterly in the hallway, I stopped as if to check that the sound didn’t attract the attention of God knows what supernatural creatures lurking in the dark. Absolutely nothing looked different than usual, yet I felt like a character in a horror movie.
I opened a crack between the door and the frame, stuck a hand in, and frantically searched for the light switch on the wall. “Finally home,” I said in an annoyed and embarrassingly loud and shaky voice to no one in particular, while still searching for the switch with no success. Once I found it, I flicked it, and as soon as the light went on, I pulled the door wide open, ran in, and finally slammed the door shut behind me.
I stopped on the doorstep for a moment and looked around, making sure no one was there. I pushed open the sliding door of the coat rack all of a sudden, to catch by surprise whoever might have been hiding in it; relieved that nobody was there, I hung my coat. I took off my shoes and went to the restroom, while still exploring my surroundings guardedly, trying to convince myself I was now calm and no longer afraid.
I washed my face, trying not to look at the mirror for fear that it might show one reflection too many.
Oddly, I wasn’t hungry at all, but I did feel like having a hot drink. I fixed myself a hot chocolate. I left the boiling hot mug on the table and sat down.
That girl was not death. She couldn’t be. Death is not a creature or an entity; it has no legs or arms, and it does not speak. It’s just an abstraction, a metaphysical concept, the name we give to the status of a living being that is no longer such. She was just a poor devil who had lost many of her marbles, or maybe she was shocked by the death of a loved one, or both. Granted, many sinister and unsettling coincidences had happened, and at the end of the day, I am quite impressionable, but it had all been just a trick of fate, nothing more. I wouldn’t be the first person to lose track of time, not notice a storm coming, or just plain not pay attention to what was going on around me. The girl wore black, but maybe she wasn’t there for a funeral. Maybe the funeral was over without me noticing it, or maybe it was true that it never happened—after all, a few suits and ties headed towards a church don’t necessarily mean that anybody died. I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen any funeral announcements or flower wreaths.
It was an interesting story to tell at my next Halloween party, nothing more.
It was really disturbing how she seemed to be able to read my mind. She had replied to my questions or objections before I could even finish saying them in more than one occasion—sometimes, before I could even finish thinking them up. I’d rather believe she was absurdly intelligent, or even a telepath, than accept that she might actually be death.
Even assuming she actually was death, why would she come to me and speak ill of herself? To persuade me that death is an evil and we should stop sugar coating it? To what end? What would she expect me to do? To “kill” her where she was standing and set the world free from death?
Ridiculous, I thought to myself, shaking my head.
At any rate, that’s not what death—I mean, the girl wanted from me. In her words, she wanted me to understand something that, deep inside, I already knew. But I didn’t share her views at all; I mean, death is part of the natural order of things, I told myself, and even though hardly anyone is happy to die, that’s just the way it is. Death is necessary. Sure, I must admit that the whole of human progress hinges on the search for ways to improve quality of life and avoid death for as long as possible, and there is no reason we shouldn’t prevent deaths that actually are preventable or that happen too soon; that’s why doctors, hospitals, and safety measures exist in the first place, but…
Too soon, I repeated mentally. She had stressed that point a lot. I stood up, leaving my chocolate to cool down on the table, and I took a few steps towards the window, where I stopped to look at the downpour I had barely managed to avoid.
When is it “too early” to die? In your thirties? Forties? Sixties? I had never thought about it before, but now I couldn’t help but wonder about something that the girl had asked me. Suppose for the sake of argument that we didn’t grow old; imagine that we just grew up and that our health didn’t inevitably begin deteriorating sooner or later. Would we still think it isn’t “too early” to die at age 80? As a matter of fact, one might think that the reason why we normally think it is acceptable to die after your seventies is that it just happens and we can’t do anything to prevent it. Maybe it is not because of wisdom that we accept death at later ages without feeling outraged and without putting up a fight, like we do in the case of “premature” deaths; maybe we are just putting a good face on a really bad game.
No; no. Normally, the average lifespan is more than enough to live your life as a normal human being; it’s more than enough for you to grow up, go to school, get a job, and start a family, for example. Though it is also true, I was forced to admit, that human life is structured as a function of its duration and our health at every age. If we were always perfectly healthy, we would have no need to plan for old age, because in a way, it would never come. Maybe retirement would turn into just a holiday of a few years, and after your batteries are charged again you would be able to start over, perhaps in a different environment or even a new job, maybe.
What about the traditional milestones dictating the rhythm of our lives? Are they all one can aspire to? Is your life complete once you have had a career and grandkids? Is that time to die? What about people who never managed, for one reason or another, to do all they wanted to do before death? If death really must come, why must we first endure years of constant decline and deterioration—not only our own, but also that of our loved ones?
These issues had always seemed to be too far into the future to concern myself with them, but then I realized that, one day, they would be my problem too. It’s not like I didn’t know it; I did. Yet, somehow, the notion hadn’t really sunk in. I had always felt as if there was infinite time between me and old age. Being old and diseased, slowly heading to the grave, had always seemed to be somewhat of an unlikely and fanciful occurrence; laughable, even, and I laughed at it more than once. I had always thought that I laughed at death because I wasn’t afraid of it in the slightest, but now I was growing more and more suspicious that, in truth, I might have been whistling past the graveyard all along.
I suddenly moved away from the window and grabbed the mug on the table, hoping that a few sips of chocolate might help me calm down and ease the pain coming from the lump that had formed in my throat. Swallowing was hard and hurt, as if a tangle of old, withered knobby roots ran through my throat. My breath was heavy and labored, my hands were shaking, and my wish not to be left alone was so strong that even the company of the very girl who had unleashed this nightmare would have been preferable to the solitude of my flat.
I shook my head repeatedly. I wanted nothing to do with any of this. I didn’t give a damn whether the girl was right or not, nor did I care whether I agreed with her or not. All that I wanted to do was to put the lid back on Pandora’s box and bury it deep under the ocean so that it could never be found again. I wanted my old life back, the one I had and was perfectly content with up until that last, cursed morning: my job, my friends, the usual rhythms and milestones that everyone goes through. The ones that everyone goes through because everyone does and no one has much of a choice.
She’d planted the seeds of those thoughts in my mind, and they kept blossoming, nullifying my efforts to extirpate them and convince myself that I was as happy with the finitude of human life as I always had been; anxiety had me in a tight grip as I realized that I was no longer able to believe that old lie. Pragmatically, I told myself that, whether I liked it or not, old age comes for everyone and is inevitable; torturing myself like this would have no point. Debating whether or not it was right or desirable for every life to be abruptly terminated after years of deterioration would accomplish nothing but ruin the time I had left before deterioration would begin for me. I simply had to get over this.
Maybe, the girl would have said that this too was sugaring the pill.
I was exhausted, anxiety eating me alive and thoughts tangled up. Like a huge spiderweb, the more I tried to break free, the more I was enmeshed. I took a sleeping pill and resolved to put an end to that terrible day. The next day, I figured, I would wake up serene, as if nothing had ever happened.
Right after you wake up, there is a brief moment when you don’t yet know how you feel. That Sunday morning, that moment was even shorter than usual. The same anxiety as the previous night assailed me even before I could get out of bed.
The clock on the shelf said it was 11:30. I had slept almost 12 hours straight, but I wasn’t rested at all. Tired and depressed, I got up with difficulty, with a constant feeling of imminent catastrophe. I cast a glance out the window, and I noticed that the sky was clear and bright again. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the streets too were perfectly dry, as if it hadn’t rained for days. Indeed, the sun seemed to be very hot.
Near the sink was dishware that I hadn’t noticed the night before; I must have left it there at least since Friday night. I hoped some coffee would help cheer me up at least a bit, and I took a mug from the cabinet without even looking.
I left the coffee maker grumbling on the stove and went to wash my face. I looked terrible, which was no surprise, since I had had a terrible night. My sleep had been studded with horrible nightmares, although I hadn’t woken up screaming; rather, I’d been tossing and turning all night, moaning in my sleep nearly incessantly. I recalled a labyrinthine indoor cemetery; people dying of old age all around me, claiming to be very happy about it while I desperately tried to make them understand it was wrong; me and the graveyard girl, together somewhere in my old high school, as if we were classmates; me assisting my mother on her deathbed, listening her accusing me to make excuses for something; and many others which I thankfully almost didn’t remember at all.
I went back to the kitchen to pour my coffee, noticing in passing that I was using the same mug as the previous night. Apparently, I had been so much in shock that I wasn’t even aware of washing it and putting it back in the cabinet.
I drank my coffee and managed to push down a few biscuits. Not only was I still anxious, I hadn’t changed my mind either. That unexpected and visceral desire to avoid old age and death, and the realization that no stale moralism would be enough to extinguish it anymore, were still there where I had left them the night before. At the same time, I had a second, equally strong desire that the former could somehow disappear and take my anxiety down with it, setting me free from that apparently insolvable dilemma.
For some reason, I had an urge to check something on the Internet. According to statistics I found after a few moments spent searching, about a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, of which about a hundred thousand die of old age. I realized that out there was an army of people who, just like me until the day before, didn’t think that the loss of those hundred thousand lives was a problem at all; rather, they probably thought that it was good that most people died of old age; otherwise, they would have died of something else and thus “prematurely”. This army of people was basically shrugging at two thirds of all deaths that happen every single day. Maybe there really was a constant holocaust to which no one was paying attention.
I backed away from my computer. I was blaming people for their indifference, but what else could they do? They were right: if you do not die of old age, it’s because you died of something else first. What was the better option? There didn’t seem to be a third one, and nearly everyone would choose to die later rather than sooner. The girl, I said to myself, would probably have said that this was a sign that the idea of dying is much more disturbing than people like to admit, and it upsets far more people than we think. Apparently, showing distress was acceptable only during a funeral; in any other circumstances, death is either ignored or justified, at least when it comes to death by aging.
The girl indeed.
I really didn’t think I would be able to talk about this with other people without coming across as a lunatic; I myself had thought that the girl had lost her mind. I was full of doubts and questions, and I wanted nothing more than to put an end to that oppressing anxiety. The previous night, I had screamed in her face that I didn’t want anything to do with her any more, but now I felt that, as crazy as she might be, the girl was the only person I could talk to about this. She might be able to answer at least some of the very questions that she made me ask myself.
The problem was that I had no way to find her. I had no idea who she actually was, what her name was, or where she lived. There was no way to trace her. The only thing I could think of was going back to the graveyard, hoping she was still there for some reason. I knew that this was a forlorn hope, and even if I did find her again strolling among the graves, I had no idea how she could actually be of help. I doubted she had any idea on how not to die of old age without dying of something else first. Regardless, I wanted to see her. It was worth a shot.
I left home, heading again to the graveyard. The day was even hotter than I had imagined, and as I had observed before, the flower beds were so dry that it really didn’t seem like it had rained at all during the night. On my way to the graveyard, I noticed that I looked at people differently, whether they were chatting with acquaintances, jogging, or just annoyed because they were late for the bus. It was a day like any other in the life of those people, and probably none of them spent much time thinking that sooner or later those days would be over or that health is in short supply. Equally probably, I thought, nearly all those people would agree that, from their perspective, none of those things was a problem. This thought made me feel as if I were the only sane person in a loony bin—which, paradoxically, led me to question my own sanity.
Then again, if those people had realized what I realized, wouldn’t they just end up like me and become prisoners of their own anxiety and of the thought of being stuck in a horrible situation with no way out? Wasn’t it better to lie to yourself for the sake of serenely living out the time you have left? As the girl had tried to make me understand, maybe this is why most people refuse to take this step: once you do, there is no turning back, and you must accept the consequences.
Lost in my own thoughts as I was, I didn’t realize that I had already made it to the entrance of the cemetery. Distraction wasn’t the only reason, though. The cemetery was hardly recognizable, as it was surrounded by scaffolding, crush barriers, and signs warning away trespassers. By the looks of it, the construction site must have been there for quite some time already; it certainly hadn’t been hastily pieced together that morning. I looked around for a while, confused and stupefied. There was no doubt that I was in the right place; I recognized the very same gate through which I had literally fled the night before, but it was closed and locked, and it bore a sign stating that it had been under renovation since two weeks ago. Dumbfounded, I explored the entire perimeter of the cemetery, but the sign was clearly correct. There was even a notice on the church saying that functions wouldn’t take place for a few weeks, and they had been suspended for a while already.
I was sure then that there had been no funeral the day before. Nor had I actually met that girl, apparently. I couldn’t have even set foot in that cemetery in the previous two weeks.
I stood there where I was, looking at the cemetery speechless, almost dazed, wondering if I had gone mad. After a few moments, I began walking away, heading home again, trying to no avail to find an explanation for the events of the previous day—assuming they had even happened.
Once I was home again, the dishes near the sink caught my attention once more. I thought again about the mug that I didn’t remember washing. Maybe I hadn’t washed it; maybe I didn’t drink that chocolate Saturday night, and maybe I dined at home, neglecting to do dishes. Maybe there had been no cloudburst. If that were the case, then the whole encounter and the rest of the events of that night had all been dreams.
All the neighbors I spoke with confirmed that not a single drop of water had rained the day before; however, I wasn’t brave enough to ask my acquaintances whether they remembered spending the day with me. For days, I kept wondering what had actually happened until I gave up and accepted that the entire experience must have existed only in my mind. Probably, I reasoned, unconscious thoughts had been bubbling up for a while and had finally burst out, making that surreal experience come to life as some kind of a dream. I cannot tell for certain whether I had this dream Saturday night or I had had some sort of hallucination; I can’t explain the extreme realism of the experience, and the only way to explain the amnesia would involve me sleeping through all of Saturday. I spoke to a psychotherapist some weeks later, and although I didn’t tell him everything about my experience, he said that I was sound of mind. I hope that’s true.
Despite my conviction that the girl was a dream or a hallucination, for months, I kept hoping to bump into her again, though in vain. More than once, I was sure that I had spotted her among the crowd, or recognized her as a passerby, barely avoiding making a fool of myself nearly every time.
It’s been months now. I have given up and accepted that the girl doesn’t really exist and that I will never see her again. Maybe I will dream about her, but I haven’t been so lucky thus far. In any case, that girl has profoundly changed me. Now that death herself has come and spoken to me to her own detriment, I won’t be able to look at her as I used to anymore—or rather, as I thought I did. Luckily, my anxiety has been mitigated somewhat, mostly turning into a desire to find a way out of this vicious circle that has cost and still costs millions of people their lives. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t even know if this is at all plausible.
The girl will hardly be able to give me any of the answers I need, so I will have to look for them elsewhere. I am afraid that many people would think my point of view on death is presumptuous at best and that they would hardly take me seriously.
However, somewhere in the world, there might be someone else to whom she has spoken like she did to me.
Now a life extension advocate at the beginning of his journey, he finds himself in a tough spot. We don’t know if, in his fictional world, science has begun realizing as it did in ours that aging is amenable to medical intervention, nor do we know if versions of LEAF and similar advocacy organizations exist there as well. Luckily for us, in our world, the situation is much clearer and it’s looking good; our understanding of aging is deep enough to envision interventions against it, and a very supportive community already exists. If you wish to join it, find out how here.
Nicola Bagalà is a bit of a jack of all trades—a holder of an M.Sc. degree in mathematics; an amateur programmer; a hobbyist at novel writing, piano and art; and, of course, a passionate life extensionist. After his interest in the science of undoing aging arose in 2011, he gradually shifted from quiet supporter to active advocate in 2015, first launching his advocacy blog Rejuvenaction before eventually joining LEAF. These years in the field sparked an interest in molecular biology, which he actively studies. Other subjects he loves to discuss to no end are cosmology, artificial intelligence, and many others—far too many for a currently normal lifespan, which is one of the reasons he’s into life extension.