John Long died on Sunday morning, October 12, 2014, because he chose to.
I had met Long a year earlier due to the publication of his letter to the editor in the Secular Humanist Bulletin (Fall 2013). He had taken issue with the widespread and, in his opinion, misguided linking of atheism and political liberalism. For many years, Long had been a libertarian and also a contributor to freethought causes.
Until the Republican Party came to be so thoroughly entangled with—and, I believe, compromised by—the religious Right, my moderate economic conservatism had tilted me toward the GOP. Like Long, I experienced no incongruity between political conservatism and unwavering atheism. So when Long’s letter appeared, I set out to find him, seeking a brief discussion on this matter to which it seemed he’d given more thought than I. He agreed to exchange a few e-mails on the topic.
That brief discussion turned into a year of almost daily e-mails—sadly, we never met in person. Long’s sharp mind and secular worldview were always ready for a discussion about economics, politics, and philosophy—often sprinkled with the playful intellectualism of sacrilege. He had strong and carefully wrought opinions about economics. He thought economist Thomas Pikkety was “wrong, wrong, wrong” and that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that individuals purchase insurance was constitutionally questionable, to touch on only two of a host of issues. We shared our admiration of Carl Sagan and even a poem or two. For most of a year, I enjoyed our interchange on topics that had no more emphasis on death than would naturally occur between those of a philosophical bent.
Although we began our interaction focused on issues of liberalism in secularism, as the year went on, we increasingly shared bits of personal information. To say that we became close friends would be an overstatement, though we certainly learned a great deal about each other’s lives. Those energetic, almost daily exchanges exceeded anything I had hoped for when I contacted Long initially, but his decision regarding his deteriorating physical condition added a wholly new dimension to our relationship.
A word of background: atheists can feel differently about death even while agreeing that it is final, not a transition to an afterlife. While I cannot represent the views of all atheists, I should briefly characterize my own, for it came to pass that after a year, the nature of my e-mails with Long took an unexpected turn—from academic discussions about death to consideration of a very concrete instance of one man’s death.
“When I die,” I had written in another setting, “others will say, ‘John’s dead.’ But I, John, won’t be aware of it. I might have been aware death was imminent—‘this plane’s going down,’ ‘that eighteen-wheeler is coming right at me,’ or merely ‘oops.’ Perhaps I will have been aware of the darkening silence of fading consciousness. But my death itself will be other people’s business, not mine. My death will belong to others, not to me. (You could say I’ll be the last to know. That’d be wrong, of course, since the memo won’t even be coming my way.) All my verbs, so personally relevant, will switch immediately into past tense: is→was, drive→drove, lust-→lusted, love→loved, write→wrote, and, of course, breathe-→breathed.” I strain against the notion that such a seminal point in my existence—its end—is something that I will, even must, miss! But the conclusion seems unavoidable.
I can remember no significant disagreements between Long’s concepts of death and my own. Our mutual tendency to intersperse moderately meaningful philosophy with lighthearted wordplay filled our e-mails. We decided, for example, that in death we will not have “lost” our lives. We might have been in the process of losing life, but having done so, there will be no one to have lost anything. The universe will have gotten along without us for over thirteen billion years and even then will not have paid much attention to the few decades it will have had us, our having lived as “between two bookends of non-existence,” as “a piece of the universe that woke up,” as Dale McGowan put it in Atheism for Dummies. We will have been—indeed, already are—quite temporary, hardly a blip on the screen, and that not for long. As Christopher Hitchens said in his memoir Hitch-22, it’s “not that the party’s over . . . it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence.” It is easy to see why the afterlife belief is so compelling and how it provides such unexamined power to religious dogma.
Incidentally, isn’t it strange that religious believers, for whom an afterlife is such a big deal, are as frightened by death as anyone else?
Toward the end of summer 2014, Long told me that the burden of physical ill health was increasing and would soon become unbearable for him. He had been undergoing dialysis twice, sometimes three times, a week. His strength was deteriorating, and he was somewhat confined to his apartment. His appraisal of his situation was not colored by money worries, for his training in law and accounting, keen intellect, and skills with investing had brought him financial success. He simply saw no reason to go on.
In September, Long made the decision to forgo continued dialysis, letting his body decide the day and the time of his death. On September 23, he wrote me that “I now can only walk 30–40 yards and stand for a few minutes. I’ve had my legs give way three times in the last week. My doctors want to do a lumbar MRI to check for spinal stenosis. That would really solve nothing as, if positive, it would lead to back surgery and weeks or months of recovery and rehab. Even that outcome along with debilitating dialysis three times a week is unacceptable. . . . Tomorrow will be my last dialysis session and I see a hospice representative right after. My demise should take 8 days to two weeks from tomorrow.” (It actually took about two weeks longer than he expected.) Two days later, he reported, “This is a circus and my family won’t start getting here until Saturday. A nurse yesterday, another today. Delivery of a hospital bed, an oxygen concentrator, and other hardware including oxygen bottles; FedEx delivering two packages of drugs.” He received a call from a social worker and another call from a pastor, though I am sure the latter was not of his choosing. He said he wanted to be rude, but “couldn’t manage that,” adding “I feel no anxiety. What I do feel is a sense of wanting to get this over with.”
Though Long knew he would die in a few days, he maintained his interest in one of his passions—bridge—and in his favorite science-fiction films. His investment in his bridge performance was no idle engagement; witness his September 25 reply to my inquiry about sharing what had become a deathwatch story with others. “It’s fine with me if you share our correspondence whether my identity is known or not. My only concern at this point is that my situation not be generally known to my competitors during my final two or three bridge games Friday, Saturday, and Monday. It would be really morbid if every time they looked at me they saw a dead man, particularly since just a Thursday ago they honored me for reaching 5,000 points with a cake and a little party.”
“It is testimony to the human spirit,” I assured him, “that your concern should revolve around a weekend of bridge. I love it! Your 5,000+ points shall live on unsullied!”
His breezy note of September 27 read, “Off for my last bridge game and then to get my sister at the airport. Ciao for today.” Later that same day he was able to exult, “Won my last bridge game!”
Knowing his interest in science fiction, I asked Long to visualize the headline, “Man Delays Death in Order to See Last of Starship Troopers TV Series.” He was up to the kidding and, in fact, saw the irony and humor in his situation more frequently than I did. “Interestingly,” he said, “my cell phone battery is dying too. Maybe we’ll track together.” On another occasion, he observed, “Here’s a good one. It just occurred to me my death bed is awaiting me in my living room/dining room and I pass it every time I go to the kitchen.”
“I’m reminded,” I told him, “how bizarre this conversation would appear to most people. I’m happy that you approach this part of life so matter-of-factly. Your resoluteness is an encouraging example to others even though I’m certain you’re not looking to be anybody’s hero. I don’t like the prospect of losing you in late September or early October, almost exactly one year from our first exchanges, but I’d like it less if you had no choice in the matter.”
I told Long, “My wife thinks I am treating your death with too much frivolity. My response to her was that I think we understand each other on this matter and that I would expect the same matter-of-fact treatment from you. However, she might be right; it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to rely on her to save me from being an ass. So we have a few more days as long as you are up to it—our impiety, our irreverence, and our constant awareness of how fleeting and insignificant we are. Truth is, while I do minimize your death for you, I do not minimize it for me.”
Long chose to use some of his remaining time attending to Christmas gifts. With no reference to the irony, he told me, “Wrapping what I already had seemed to be the logical thing to do.” In fact, his accounts of ironies and even fun were scattered through the days he had remaining. Just after the specifics of his impending death had been worked out, he e-mailed me, “I had my best day in at least two years yesterday. I feel as if a burden has been lifted. Right now I just wish things would move a little faster. This is not a grave situation except literally. Shakespeare said, ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’”
Then again, in early October, he announced, “Believe it or not I’m having fun. I spent time last week rearranging my investment accounts to minimize taxes and gain maximum tax avoidance from step-up in basis for my heirs. I took what few losses I had so they could be deducted leaving nothing but unrealized gains which will disappear. I’ve written detailed instructions for my heirs. And this morning I essentially finished the tax return for the stub period. My trust picks up from that point and will have to file its own return. I cannot imagine a better organized estate.”
He also wrote, “I have no sense of wanting to experience every remaining minute to the fullest. I am just going to try to fill the time with interesting things to do which is the same thing I’ve been doing for all the years since I became financially secure and didn’t have to worry about getting along day to day.”
I was interested in Long’s active connections with the same issues that had long been important to him—political, economic, and philosophical items such as libertarianism, atheism, and citizenship. “Is there a tendency, “ I asked him, “for you to slowly withdraw from such immediate issues in order to focus more on vastly broader ones, like the state of this species you were born into, or like the future species to be born from the ashes of this one? I don’t know where I’d gravitate in your circumstance, but I think I’d be pulling away from issues specific to this time, this domicile, even this specific species. But I could be completely full of crap. I may be consumed with a boil on my knee.
“I don’t wish to minimize the fact that within another week, when the John Long I now know no longer exists. I likely still will, and a part of my intellectual life will be less interesting, less anticipatory of the next perspicacious point of view, or challenge. But that is what I will miss. E-mails, bridge scores, estate calculations, and dialysis drudgery simply won’t come up for you. As we both agree and have discussed, your death is my problem, not yours.”
The closest John came to becoming emotional was on September 25 when he wrote me, “It’s been interesting corresponding with you this last year of my life. I did not expect a relationship to be so intellectually stimulating as the average person is something of a dolt and even the above-average ones are not open-minded. Please stay in touch. I don’t expect to begin feeling the effects until Monday or Tuesday. I’ll probably start on morphine late next week. Until then I want to hear what you have to say. You’re near the top of my list to be notified by my sons when the time comes.”
I thanked him for his intent to keep writing as long as his physical and mental condition allowed, then added, “Without meaning anything mawkish by the comment, your situation and your resolve have become precious to me, valuable and integral to the discussions we have had all along. Lead the way, friend, I’ll not be far behind you. Stay in touch as long as it benefits you. It always benefits me.”
Long reported that he’d seen his “long time addiction therapist/counselor to say good-bye on Friday and Dylan Thomas poetry came up—‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the passing of the light.’ Bullshit. Fighting the inevitable when it’s otherwise painful and demeaning is worse than silly. It’s inane, egotistical, self-centered.”
That was the last I heard from John Long.
Five days later, on October 13, I received a call at 9 a.m. from one of his sons that Long had died on the previous morning, Sunday, October 12. His intention to control his own demise had been fulfilled. His interest in intellectual banter had continued until he had weakened too much to go on with it. Of course, he did go quietly “into that good night,” for by then the night was truly his friend and came at his invitation.
I benefitted from my year’s interaction with John Long, particularly the final few months of his life. The honor of frankly sharing a person’s utterly secular approach to death was as educational as it was poignant and inspiring. Long’s choice of a passive suicide removed part of the social stigma, to be sure, but may have freed him to be more contemplative in that the mechanics of a contrived death did not crowd out his philosophical focus.
Many theists would be surprised that there was no last-minute grasping for admission to an afterlife. John Long died fully convinced that he was approaching nonexistence, where “self” loses meaning in a twinkling, where the brain’s magnificent sustenance of mind becomes but a tangle of dead neurons. His effortless, calm conformity between philosophy and behavior exhibited, for me, impressive integrity.
He understood that we live until we die—not a complicated thought but, in fact, a very simple one. Though the chemicals of life so precisely assembled inexorably yield to entropy, it is not the entropy that sets us apart but the preciousness of life that for a short while wins the race.
The atheist’s death, so exemplified by John Long, is a death without pretension, without mirage. Until the last moment, we live to live.