[OPINION] A death to wish for

I do not know what moved Seneca, the Roman philosopher and dramatist, to say this: “Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” 

The idea of practicing – and subsequently preparing – for the mortality that will inevitably claim us fascinates me endlessly, even if death itself (so terminal, so mysterious) terrifies occasionally. I would love very much a rehearsal for this shuffling off the mortal coil; providing oneself a blueprint for the last of one’s days, which involves an acceptance of finitude, has an allure to it that feels very much like purpose. 

A good death is an achievement that’s rarely reached. Many of us would find tragedy to be the marker for our end; more often, there will be an ignoble forgetting; and sometimes there is also our life serving as unfortunate remonstrance. I remember Harvey Dent’s cutting – and ultimately ironic – observation in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (I see the truth of this often, and it is a tragedy.) But do we have a choice with how we can be remembered in the eventuality of our death? The caprices with which we play dice with living are difficult to ascertain – but not impossible to do.

Death as life’s celebration is a unicorn. Sometimes it takes a formidable, creative spirit to execute – just how the great writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando did it. A giant of Philippine literature and the arts, she died on August 20, 2020, unleashing from many an outpouring of love and admiration not just for the formidable work she did in the name of Filipino culture but also for the vastly creative way she led a truly remarkable life. “There will be no need for funeral services,” the family announced, understandable given the strictures of the lockdown – but then again, Gilda already had her wake years before, in 2012. At the age of 82, while still in good health, she had commanded her friends to give her a vigil she herself could attend and get to appreciate while still alive – and from the missives of that wake, there was indeed revelry and tributes and meditation and ritual, done in the celebratory mode that was exactly reflective of how she lived. There was dancing, too. “Dance me to the end of love,” Gilda would later write about that celebration in her column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She would live 8 more years. 

In 2013, a year after her wake, Gilda wrote: “During the novena I heard again those passages in the Prayers for the Dead that always made me teary eyed: ‘Bring her into your paradise, where there is no more grief, or mourning or sadness, but peace and joy with your beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.’” 

Here was a woman who stared Death in its face, and danced with it. Here was a woman who knew death was coming, but also knew enough that the life she led had been an instrument for creativity and mentorship. Here was a woman who took death, and made it an end to wish for. 

Death as a challenge in the name of legacy is even harder to accomplish – especially if it also means sparing most of everyone else your outward show of pain and your struggles for the sake of achieving something great.

Chadwick Boseman was only 43 when he died. His youth is part of what shocks us about his death, and which lends us to pronouncing words like “untimely,” “premature,” or “unexpected.” But what also shocks us about his passing is the newly revealed context of his meteoric rise in recent years: apparently, between the grueling demands of shooting and doing press for an assortment of films like Captain America: Civil War, Marshall, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and the forthcoming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he was also undergoing countless surgeries and chemotherapy for colon cancer, first diagnosed in 2016, the year he broke through in his all-too-brief career in film. 

I can only imagine Chadwick receiving two different kinds of news that very year – that he was going to play the lead in the first Marvel film ever made of a Black superhero, but also that he had stage 3 cancer. He chose to embrace both, fighting his disease secretly on the side, donning the challenges of embodying an assortment of Black heroes: not just T’Challa’s Black Panther, but also Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, in Marshall, and James Brown, the legendary African-American singer, in Get on Up – on top of earlier playing Jackie Robinson, the legendary African-American baseball player, in 42. These biopics of Black legends, coupled with his recent work with the legendary Spike Lee in Da 5 Bloods, and his posthumous turn in an adaptation of a play by the legendary African-American playwright August Wilson, feels very much like parts of a grand design by an artist who knew what he wanted to do while he still had time.

And all throughout this public rise and secret struggles, there was this: consistency and undeniable talent. What was most attractive about his persona, aside from his charm, was that bristling vulnerability that simmered under his physical show of strength. We had no idea. He once said, “The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” I think that should be his epitaph, the great summation of his life. 

There is a video of him taken during his press run for Black Panther, which, with hindsight, hits differently now. In that interview – and we would know now that he was already keeping his diagnosis under wraps – he talked about corresponding with two Black kids with terminal cancer. They told him they were hanging on only until the film’s release – which gave him the boost to do the work for Black Panther well, if only to be the best representation of these kids’ hopes and aspirations. But they never lived to see the finished film. Then he broke down. We had no idea.

Here was a man who stared Death in its face, and decided to shape purpose with it.

When the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron died in 2012, I had no idea I would be so devastated. The aftershocks of this devastation still continue to this day, to be honest. Her body of work (all those movies, all those books...) and her life (all that love for cooking, for reading in bed, and for friends...) were seriously aspirational for me.

Like Gilda, Nora seemed to know just how exactly to live – and then to use how she lived to tell her stories. This is catnip for a writer like me. “Everything is copy,” she once professed. And how splendidly she demonstrated that philosophy all her life, from her novel and subsequent screenplay of Heartburn (which dramatized her marriage to and divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein), to her play Love, Loss, and What I Wore (co-written with her sister Delia, which collected the stories of their female friends), to her various essay collections (which collected her journalism and her often amusing takes on everything, even the loose skin on her neck), and to the documentary on her life (which is titled, of course, Everything is Copy). She mined her own travails at love (as well as that of director Rob Reiner’s) in the screenplay of the wonderful 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally, which became her lasting contribution to the genre of romantic comedy, on top of those she later directed on her own, including the equally wonderful Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.

But how she chose to lead the last years of her life was for me an outstanding act of legacy-making. Diagnosed with terminal leukemia, she chose to buck her usual philosophy of “Everything is copy,” and kept her illness a secret. And then she began writing bestselling books of essays, and then a Broadway play. She also wrote and directed Julie & Julia, starring her great friend Meryl Streep, who once played her in the film adaptation of Hearburn. Julie & Julia, her last film, would become a critical and commercial triumph, and also served as a melding of two of Nora’s greatest passions – cooking and filmmaking.

She also did this: in the last two years of her life, she called on friends and family, one by one, asking them out to lunches and dinners, to Broadway shows and concerts, to exhibits and lectures – talking and spending time with them without telling anyone this was her way of saying goodbye. And then she died, surprising many.

Here was a woman who stared Death in its face, and saw a blueprint for goodbye: as an artist who remained creative till the end, and as a beloved who did not believe in the fuss of farewells and cares but believed in the more tangible bonds of food, art, laughter, and love. 

Gilda, Chadwick, and Nora – they rehearsed death well, and in learning how to die they lived life with the deftness of great spirits. Theirs are truly the deaths one can wish for. – Rappler.com

Ian Rosales Casocot teaches literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents.