'Good-Night, All'


THE book which I have spent a dozen years in writing will probably be published after my death, if at all. This is not because it is being held back for that event, but because the doctors do not guess time enough for me to see its publication take place. A cancer has sentenced me to death. An operation and kindly meant lies some time ago have proved futile, and recurrence seems to settle the matter.

Somewhere or other I read of a chap who had been sentenced to Sing Sing. He described a frank terror and a curious occasional impulse to commit suicide. The desire to ‘hasten the impending doom’ must be common, for I am told that occupants of death cells must be watched closely lest they cheat the State. Perhaps the passionate nature which first leads to the act that places him in the shadow of the noose also causes the unstable criminal to seek an earlier end. Perhaps his fear of death becomes so intense that the definite surcease from fear which death promises is an illogical but natural mental flip-flop. I cannot quite understand this because I am, so far at least, quite untouched by either fear or a desire to hurry the event. Nevertheless, very radical effects on me have taken place.

In the first place, I am relatively free from pain, so that I am not craving relief. By that I mean that what pain is present has been so long a companion of mine, and I have been able so long to ignore it, that I am aware of it only now and then. When I am aware of it, the awareness serves simply as a signal that I am not attending to affairs properly. Yet I assure you that I know to the last degree the full significance of the vulgar sentence, ‘He has n’t the guts.’ A liberal section of my colon was removed, and on occasion severe intestinal pains have made me realize the vivid value of the vulgarism. Nevertheless I have never experienced a pain, mental or physical, which did not yield to clear thought. Certainly none I have known was less desirable than death.

In the next place, I have a very good color and I am not thin. This relieves me from the anxiety of my family and the sympathy of friends. I can mingle with them in a normal way. My wife knows that I have been ill, but has not the faintest suspicion of the present fact. It has been a serious question with me whether this is either fair or altogether wise. I think it best, for the present, to keep her in ignorance even to the extent of what it cost me to let her spend this summer in the North apart from me and happy in the conviction that I am once more virtually well. There was something of the pang of our inevitable permanent parting for me when I said ‘Good-bye,’ but I know by that very fact that her pang will be severe enough without introducing it now to torture her from hour to hour. I cannot see that any good will come to her through knowledge of facts. What seems unfair, however, is that I should want to know were our positions reversed. Like many other things, this very practical problem in ethics and wisdom ceased to be of major importance once a course was decided. There has been a subtle alchemy at work in me which has quite changed values in many respects. At the same time I am more than occasionally amused and puzzled by my illogical retention of old habits of thought.

It seems that I ought to feel the need of haste, in view of the short while left to me, but instead I am less pressed for time than ever before. This is because I am not greatly concerned by so many little projects and busy ambitions. I have lost a good measure of that absurd sense of self-importance which keeps us all so very busy and hurried. Of all I have ever done, the only bit which maintains a permanent value in my sight is the writing of a book, and in that respect the world may disagree with me completely. I am not indifferent about it, but neither am I seriously concerned. On this side of the Door, I shall probably not know how people view the book. I accept this fact as I accept the uncertainty of a promissory note I hold, due two years hence and secured by a mortgage on property of very questionable value. Both the note and the book will prove important or unimportant to others, but they can be neither to me. I have dismissed them from thought with amazing ease.

In curious contrast, only yesterday I found myself not merely entertaining, but actually negotiating carefully, a business deal wherein my personal activity for several years would be a necessary factor for success. In action I tend to be quite as normal in thought as if I had forty years ahead of me. This may be explained partly by the fact that I have chosen work of a temporary nature which will pay well while my strength lasts. It is organization work wherein we are striving to unite altruistic ideals with the completely self-interested business activities of an industry. The contact with virile business-men, and the clash of strong wills which must be moulded to a somewhat alien purpose, lead my mind to greater concentrated activity. One cannot be in such a world unless a part of it, and it is easy to forget occasionally that I am perforce but a temporary actor on the stage. In most moods, however, I feel detached, aloof, calm, seer-sighted. I issue dicta with a finality which demands and, surprisingly, gains respect, as if a new authority had mantled my shoulders.

I shall leave as legacy a very small insurance and even smaller property values otherwise. Whatever I can earn one way and another and add to this will be vitally valuable. This situation is not so alarming as it might be. We are ‘well connected,’ as the saying goes, so that the more glaring dangers of poverty do not threaten my wife and boys. My wife is untrained and no longer a girl, but she has a great personal charm and a clear, practical mind, together with a very dignified and sweet beauty. These are assets in any business she may choose if she finds it necessary to work or desirable to be independent, so long as I can provide the capital for the painful transition period. It will be a very small capital, but by the time it is necessary I think it will be enough.

She is young enough to remarry. Once I should have been very unhappy at the thought of this. I have learned long since to love so greatly that it does not disturb me to think of it now. We have been so very happy together that it is difficult to imagine her happy alone. I want her to be happy, and believe her chances for happiness are greater if she should meet a good man after our pain of parting has ended. ‘Nature’ seems to have provided that life shall be protected by a quickly fading memory of emotions. One can remember that a time was painful or dear, but the pain or the joy itself is not re-created except by living so as to merit it. This is not done in the memory.

Thus briefly have I disposed of problems which ought, perhaps, to cause me greatest concern, but, like others not mentioned, they do not. They did cause me concern when I thought I had unnumbered years ahead of me, as we all assume. Now that the problems are imminent they are oddly easy to settle. They seem somehow unimportant.

What does seem important? That people shall read, understand, and use what I have written in my book? Yes; but, since no more that I can do will materially affect that, I have put it aside. What else?

Nothing. I feel as a fine tool might with a rust-spot on it which will cause it to be discarded. A scientist, so the papers say, has isolated the microorganism which is responsible for my rust-spot. I should like very much to benefit by the discovery, but the probabilities are too contrary to raise this desire to hope. I do not mean to imply that I am yielding supinely to the pronouncements of the doctors, lor they are frequently in error, even when unanimous as in this case. The probabilities are too much in favor of their opinions, however, to permit me to stick my head in the sand. A good friend of mine once refused to visit a doctor ‘ because I just know he will say I have cancer.’ In her case it was appendicitis and she survived nicely, but I can understand and sympathize with her feeling, in spite of its commonsense absurdity. Nevertheless I am glad to know the truth as clearly as they can tell it to me.

I am doing what I can, and what seems wise or promising. The chief fact of this is a certain reliance on the rightness of all things, which perhaps another might call ‘faith’ or ‘trust in God.’ I have examined Christian Science carefully, without subscribing to some of its doctrines. Earnest Scientists assure me that the error is mine when I believe there is error in the tenets of the faith. Perhaps I am not sufficiently afraid of death to surrender to the saving ‘science.’ Perhaps it is the reverse of this. At any rate that is where the situation stands now.

During the World War an oldwives’-tale superstition of mine was destroyed. I had believed that there was an all-powerful ‘law of selfpreservation,’ which caused one to struggle violently against personal destruction. Too many men have courted destruction for the sake of ideals to permit that fallacious supremacy of the ‘law’ to retain my credence, hence my lack of fear of death is not altogether surprising to me. Philosophically also, I can see no reasonable indication that death is a destruction.

I anticipate no wings, either of white feathers or black leather, but neither have I any conviction that the thing I identify as my personality will continue as I am now conscious of it. I am very confident of some sort of continuation, but not of continuity of awareness of it.

Here is the way this matter of life and death appeals to me now, quite apart from any philosophical conceptions I may hold. A generation of us embark on a great ocean-liner, called Life. Its port is Death. Now and then one of us falls off the liner. Behold, we are simply in port before the rest!

Perhaps we who fall off must reënter life and make the journey to the common port nevertheless. Once in port, mayhap we all transship to another liner. The idea of a life-process that we do not escape by death is logically appealing, so that I have it among the several hypotheses which I am not at all reluctant to test.

There you have it! Stripped of the sentiment which wraps about my mind from time to time now, and cleaned of all speculative guesses, the most enduring emotion I have is epitomized by the thought, ‘At least I shall know what is beyond that Door.'

That may be a matter of temperament. I have always peered at this Door with a certain zest. There was always gusto in my frequent query, ‘What next?’ I remember slipping when up in a tall tree, as a boy, and though a hot surge bathed my inner breast, and I scrambled to safety, nevertheless the dominating and completely cool thought was, ‘ What would it feel like to be dead? ‘ I was not afraid then, even though convinced that I should die if I fell. Similarly I am not afraid now, but curious. I am scrambling for a hand-grip on life as I did then for a hold on a limb, but if I miss the grip now, why—‘What next?’

I have tried to imagine what the sensation of death will be like. I have fainted several times in my life. There was a distinct distaste each time for the encroaching darkness, but never any dreadful horror about it. I have been under anæsthetics twice. Experience varies with individuals, but many have described their sensations as the same as mine: an encroaching darkness and a sinking, waving motion, not entirely unpleasant, until consciousness pinched off— then nothing until waking again.

I have slept nightly. This is quite different from the fainting or anæsthesia, in that I am rarely directly conscious of the process of going to sleep, although I always know that I was almost asleep if something disturbs me. Nevertheless I have occasionally been aware of that same gentle, swinging, sinking motion when passing into slumber, and a similar pinching-off of consciousness. Under the ether and in sleep some sort of mental activity goes on, for in the one case I babbled of many things and in the other I am often aware that I have dreamed, although I seldom remember the dreams. The ‘I’ seems to be separated from the consciousness more or less completely, so that I can scarcely say that consciousness continued, but certainly the ‘I’ did.

I fancy that just preceding death these symptoms of sleep will occur. Perhaps the similarity ends there. My whole experience with these states analogous to death, however, makes it easy to believe that I shall awaken again. I am not much impressed by the fact that I have never seen another person awaken from death, but neither am I impressed on the other hand by those who assure me of the fact of such awakening without having experienced it directly or indirectly themselves. I hope Thomas was ‘saved,’ for I also doubt the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, and need at least an equally effective proof of it.

I am an agnostic about this question of living again, after death, even though I have very clear and definite opinions on the subject. I am not skeptical of ‘after-life,’ but on the contrary find abundantly what is satisfactory evidence of a perpetual continuation of life itself. What I do not find is a clue to the exact nature of it or just how it will affect me. I shall be very much astonished if any of the various theories which I have heard or thought are correct. Any conceptions of spiritual existence which I have been able to glimpse are so very different from what I can imagine with my mortal mental equipment that I am more than prepared to find no remotest likeness to the ideas of men in the reality, if I shall be aware of the reality at all.

Ever since I can recall, I have been reluctant to go to bed at night. It has always seemed too bad that the day must end, that activity must be laid aside awhile. Even when very tired my mind has relinquished its busyness with poor grace. Sleep generally has stolen upon me subtly, so that a thought was broken off in the middle, as it were. Yet, beneath this slow-tosurrender activity is an impatience. ‘Come! Come!’ I feel. ‘You are delaying the arrival of to-morrow.’ And usually the busy mind compromises by thinking about the morrow. ‘What next?’

Sleep is sweet, once won. It takes real force of will to arouse the busy mind to business. The restfulness of lying there, slipping back into the beautiful peace of sleep, is as potent as was the zest for wakefulness the night before. How perverse we are — at least, I am! When I ought to go to sleep I dislike it, even when genuinely wishing to do so. I dislike to awaken again with equal intensity. We come wailing into the world and leave it with protest.

What shall to-morrow be? Perhaps another day like this. Perhaps it will be like my first remembered train-ride when I went to sleep in familiar Kentucky and woke up in Alabama. How marvelous and yet how commonplace Alabama seemed when my sleepy eyes peered through the sooty window!

My feeling now is chiefly akin to that of my little boys when they are sent to bed.

‘Come, boys, bedtime.’

‘Pshaw, Daddy!’

‘Now you know there is no use in protesting. Put up your books. Just think how nice to-morrow will be.’

To-morrow? Boys’ thoughts do not much dwell on to-morrow. To-day is sufficient, and a mere to-morrow, without some definite prospect to give it substantiality, has no virtue for them. We older ones, when our bedtime comes, are already living in tomorrow with our thoughts, but the children are not yet wise enough — or else too wise. Their ‘Good-night, all’ has a sincere disappointment and reluctance in it, which charges us with a tender amusement . They were happy to-day and will be happy to-morrow. Why, then, this ridiculous desire to preserve to-day?

May not our spiritual elders find us such children? Bedtime is here. Like a well-trained child, with honest reluctance, yet without fear, I am ready to say, ‘Good-night, all,’ and go to sleep.