Life is fragile, use it roughly. Wrest from it all you can. Love in it what you’ve got. For once it begins to end, the greens in your fridge will rot less quickly than you do.
I know because it’s just happened to my dad.
On Jan. 1, my father announced with some pride that he was the only one in our small family who’d made it through the holidays without getting sick. On Jan. 2, he awoke with a fever. On Jan. 3, he was dead.
By the time the coroner sent his body back to the mortuary two weeks later, it was so severely decomposed that the funeral directors beseeched my mother and me not to see it. We were just beginning to sort through vegetables he had bought to make my little girl fresh juice that day. Most of them were still good.
Wolfgang Nehring was a scholar and a gentleman, a stoic and a romantic, a handsome devil who kidnapped the woman he loved out of the home of her boyfriend in 1964 and married her immediately thereafter. He was an impassioned lover of German literature; a powerful hiker, swimmer, and prose stylist; an idealistic and demanding university professor; and—surely to his shock—an unparalleled grandfather to his exceptional little grandchild, Eurydice.
When Eurydice contracted acute leukemia at age 1, my dad searched high and low for medical advice and visited her in the hospital every day for seven months until she healed. His own hospital experience was less successful: After being wheeled into the emergency room by his general doctor in response to sudden back pain that left him unable to walk, a high fever, vomiting, and a loss of balance, he was sent home without any treatment and died within four hours.
Had this swiftest of exits occurred 20 years down the line, it might, in fact, have been graceful. But my dad stood at the brink of a new life when he was felled by a 20-hour infection and failed by the medical profession. His body was in the best shape it had been in 20 years—100 percent cancer-free, as the coroner intoned to me on the phone: Every organ was apparently healthy. (It is only, ironically, a coroner who can give you so clean a bill of health: No other doctor can conduct as thorough an examination without putting the patient at high risk.) Moreover, his horizons were widening, his imagination deepening, and his spirit filling with a fresh kind of love.
Death, it turns out, does not respect our plans for personal improvement. It does not rank us as human beings or decide who’s deserving of its favors and who isn’t.
Often it repulses those who flirt with it daily and who long—half or whole-heartedly—for its embrace. Often it rapes those who ignore it or spend years engaging its enemy, life. We must get away from the idea that there is justice. We must get away from the idea that the universe is benevolent—either to the good or to the “healthy.” The only person to whom the universe is benevolent is the person who squeezes all life into a chestnut in his palm and squeezes its juice—the one who grabs quality regardless of quantity.
In the Italian and English Renaissance, this was a cliché: “Carpe diem,” they called it, “Seize the day for tomorrow you shall die.” Princes and poets alike used it to get their heartthrobs to sleep with them more quickly: “The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there, embrace,” coaxed the 17th-century lyricist Andrew Marvell. But the transience of our lives is not just an argument for lovemaking. It is an argument for loving. An argument for loving children. Experiences. Tragedies. Destinies we may not have thought intended for us, but which we can make our glory. My dad, when he died, was still director of graduate studies in UCLA’s German Department, but he had begun to plan a new existence in Berlin or Paris, a life of philosophical writing—the Montaigne chapter of his career. His relationship with my mother was the most tender and gentlemanly I recall seeing it. His relationship to my daughter was a thing of resplendent beauty.