Once in a while it’s good to reflect on your own mortality. What better time than your birthday?
On September 7, 2014 I felt something strange in my arm whereby it seemed to be vanishing. Like a cartoon being erased as the animators joked at their work in the shows, I sensed my body wasn’t mine. It slowly progressed from the fingers through hand down the arm. I felt like I was seeing someone else’s arm. It progressed down the torso to my right leg and to my right toes. I was having a stroke. What I felt was not anger, sadness, or joy, but indifference. The myth, “Your entire life flashes before you when you die,” did not occur--and I believe it is probably a myth. What I did ‘see’ was the cornice of my ceiling meeting two walls and what appeared to be an illusion of a dark black back cover of a book--the book of Mike--closing on me as the last chapter and end. I am to die now. Your last thought is not of earthly troubles, but that you can’t say goodbye to those you love. An indifferent regret. This might be the threshold where what is in your control is now not in your control. In my instance, an almond size volume of neurons were lost to multiple ischemic infarctions by the basal ganglia and the Circle of Willis. I fell half-paralyzed, spliced spatially, with no sensation or proprioception. Now the left side had the double burden of carrying the weight of itself and the right side like dead fish flesh somehow attached to it. I managed to crawl to my cell phone to call 911. When I realized I was no longer dying I was thrilled with utter happiness. I was never more in the present. I now was experiencing the sheer joy of being alive. The nurse said I was the happiest patient they ever wheeled in Mt. Sinai. I enjoyed the present in the ER for a while, at least. I even told jokes and said, “If I die today, please tell my family I had a wonderful life and I love them.” Nurses were brought to tears seeing my right hand, slightly clenching, responding favorably to the tPA IV treatment. That was nine years ago. On Saturday I celebrated my 59th birthday with my mother out on Long Island. I am still in the process of recovery to this day. Life is mostly out of our control except for our impressions within it--which are quite extraordinary, precious and most joyous. 😊
Hi, thanks for this. I found it very consoling. I watched a friend die today of a heart attack, on a Zoom call. It was very shocking. I am trying to cope. I appreciate your writings.
Happy belated birthday, Dr. Pigliucci!
Thank you for sharing this quote: “Just as with storytelling, so with life: it’s important how well it is done, not how long. It doesn’t matter at what point you call a halt. Stop wherever you like; only put a good closer on it.” (Epistle 77.5-20)
It made me think about some of my favorite books and songs. The length doesn't matter, the quality does. Same goes for life.
Happy birthday, and thanks for this. I have a similar reaction to the funerary portraits used for the mummies of first century AD Egypt. Not specifically Roman perhaps, but in the Roman sphere of influence. There is an immediacy to these paintings, done quickly as the encaustic method demands, that I find breathtaking. These are people that you could see walking down the street today. The Louvre has an extensive collection. I imagine the Met does as well.
Happy Birthday! Thanks for the reminder to pay attention. I hope this trip around the sun is your best yet.
Happy birthday, Massimo! And thanks for reinforcing my conviction that spending time on my lifelong hobby (or, to be precise, my hobby for all but nine of my 55.6 years) -- astronomy -- is time well spent.
Professor Massimo, I'm sending my very best wishes, may you enjoy a wonderful 59th year. Thank you for this thoughtful meditation, for your classes, books, appearances and writings, all of which bring bright and vibrant focus to living each day as fully as possible. You enrich many lives. Cent'Anni !
Welcome reflections and a beautifully-curated mix of activities. Just finished “And, Finally” by the Brit, Dr. Henry Marsh, a brain surgeon with some training in philosophy who is confronting mortality. Happy to recommend both of his very thoughtful and provocative books — along with each of yours. Last, wondering if the first two words of your penultimate paragraph are right. With thanks,
And happy birthday!
My birthday is coming up and I have a tradition of reading "Life in the Light of Death" during my birthday month. I find it grounds me for the coming year.
Happy birthday. And thank you for sharing this thought
I love this thought. The last photo reminds me of where the filmmaker John Hughes died. He was also 59. Had a heart attack near Columbus Circle while he was taking a walk. I regularly reread this profile of Hughes after he died to remind me of death that it could come for me as it did for him -- while walking down the street. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/03/john-hughes-201003
https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/off-the-coast-of-modernity-2c5?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email Maybe try this link instead--earlier one failed
An absolutely beautiful observation, Massimo. Thank you.
One thing writing does for one is to offer hope of an existence that goes on after this one. Not all of us can get to be Senecas or Shakespeares, with something approaching eternal life. But we can still hope for an afterlife in this sense.