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When death is no longer an abstract

My Dad, top row at right, at Harvard on a Neiman Fellowship in 1955, before the responsibility of caring for six children derailed his exceptionally promising journalism career. Rather than working late at the office and climbing the career ladder, he would come home to cook dinner for us.

Is there any obsession greater than death? No matter how hard we try to hide it, isn’t the popularity of crime fiction an indication that we humans remain, as we have for thousands of years, obsessed with the idea of no longer being here?  We are driven to wonder…. Where do we go? Where do our loved ones go? Do we linger, somehow, in this world? And if it is true that readers of crime fiction are, perhaps, more obsessed with death than most people — what does that say about the writers of crime fiction? Surely, we are the most fascinated by death of all? We spend our days thinking and writing about nothing else.

But the truth is that death is benign when you are writing about it. All those words, the plot, the puzzles, the mysteries surrounding it are artificial buffers that protect both the writer and the reader from truly experiencing the ultimate power of death. These buffers allow us to dance around it, poke at it and flirt with its finality without actually feeling the incredible pain it can bring into our hearts. Reading and writing crime fiction is a talisman of sorts — maybe if we steep in it enough as entertainment, it will pass by our door in real life?   This is impossible, of course, and when you feel an all-too-real threat of death that hits close to home, it looks and feels very different.

I have been lucky in my life. Even at my age, I have experienced relatively few losses. Yes, I have lost a friend who died far too young. I have even lost a sister, which was like losing a part of myself. She had always been there in my life and then she was gone forever. But her conduct in the face of impending death was one of such bravery and fierceness that her death was less a passing and more of a battle that left me filled with awe at her spirit. I have lost a parent as well, when my mother passed away almost five years ago. But she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade and when her body finally gave up its burden, we had long since come to terms with having lost her.

Now, though, death has become so much more than an abstract. My father, frail in health at age 86, survived a night two years ago that no one, most especially the doctors, thought he would make it through. Four times that night the doctors came to us to confirm that we had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order” on him and four times we confirmed it. He did survive that night, though, fueling my belief that, somehow, my family had cut a deal with death to pass us by. Since then, my father has been living with his heart working at 25% capacity, no small feat for a man who towers at over six feet tall. As it turns out, as we had always suspected, he really does have the heart of a lion. It has been steadily beating over the past two years and this tenderhearted, uncharacteristically sweet man has been with us for far longer than we expected. His life has become more limited, of course. He is confined largely to his bed at his nursing home. But in that time, it is as if his essential nature has distilled and burned even brighter, endearing him to staff even as it has made it more inconceivable to his children that we might lose him one day. This is no ordinary father, mind you. He did the heavy lifting when we were children, taking care of us in addition to working full time. When you have six children, this is an accomplishment that borders on the heroic.

A few days ago, the bones in one of his legs — brittle and weak from disuse — broke for unknown reasons. Yesterday, he underwent surgery to have a titanium rod put into his leg, a procedure necessary if only to stop the excruciating pain his broken bones caused him. It was high-risk surgery because of his heart problems, but once again he survived his brush with death with flying colors. He has amazing fortitude. But no one in our family has the luxury any longer of pretending that death is going to pass by our door forever. As a reminder, while I was visiting him in the hospital yesterday and the nurse was checking his respiration, he simply stopped breathing. He became completely inert and his chest stopped in mid-breath. Five seconds ticked by, then ten as the nurse and I waited for him to begin again. Thirty seconds passed before the nurse thumped his chest and shook his shoulder, startling him into breathing once again. But it was a reminder that not even a larger-than-life man is immune. Those who love him are all too acutely aware that every health crisis he endures, and every day that passes, is a gift that will not last much longer. For now, we are grateful that he is still with us but we are also all too aware that the inevitable day draws near.

For someone who writes about death from the comfortable distance of fictional characters and with the ability to stage the emotions surrounding each death, the inevitability of real death coming to someone I love so dearly is truly a game changer. It is forcing me to reevaluate every word I write in my book-in-progress, and it has surely caused me to care more about the reality behind my fictional insistence that, when we die, part of us remains with those we love. It has become harder to write my current Dead Detective book knowing that the central theme of it is no longer an abstract. You see, I am now attempting to convince myself that my unwavering belief that the dead stay with us will be rewarded. But, in the end, I think it will be good for this book. If we crime writers are to serve our readers well, death must be more than a plot point. It must be more than an abstract. We must feel it in our hearts. Having less of a buffer between me and death will surely make my book better — and I know that honoring my commitment to writing the best book I possibly can will make my writer father proud, wherever he is, when the book comes out a year from now.

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