Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
-- Gen. Douglas MacArthur
It fell to me to have to tell my mother she had been diagnosed with vascular dementia, a kind of first cousin to Alzheimer’s disease that gradually robs its victims of memory and other brain functions. My mother was never one for showing her feelings, and she remained true to form. She only winced when I gave her the news; that was it. She never brought up the subject again, and in time I suspect she forgot about it, along with almost everything else. Her life ended neither with a bang nor a whimper, just a slow fade to black.
The peculiar thing about this disease is that you die before you die. You might start by misplacing your car keys, something we all do. Then you can’t remember where you parked the car, which also happens to everybody from time to time. But soon you can’t find your way home, and eventually you forget that you lived there at all. Your life becomes like one of those trees that falls in the forest when there is no one to hear. If you can’t remember your own life, how do you know you ever lived it?
There are those who think of death as a kind of oblivion – not as the gateway to another life or even necessarily as something to fear but rather as nothing at all. Woody Allen once cracked that he wasn’t afraid to die; he just didn’t want to be there when it happened. And that could be exactly how it plays out. One moment you are alive, the next you are dead. And whatever happens in between, you’re no longer around to appraise the damage. To some, this might be terrifying – but it’s not clear why this should be so. Like small children who fight off sleep, we struggle against the inevitable, but our terror succumbs as soon as we do.
We regard death as more of a punishment than a reward, with heaven as the only possible compensation, however tenuous its prospects. We would risk eternal damnation as the alternative rather than entertain the possibility we might simply be snuffed out. How can we reconcile oblivion with the idea of a loving God? Not for a moment does it occur to us that a loving God might bestow it on us as a blessing.