Like most people, I’m terrified of death. There are probably some folks who have come to terms with their own mortality, either because they believe in an afterlife or because they are obsessed with the undead (as in a 1997 episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). But I’m comfortable assuming that, like me, the majority of human beings hesitate to confront the fact of their inevitable death, and the death of people they love. Amidst a global pandemic that has killed thousands of people in the United States and throughout the world, while simultaneously renewed attention has turned to racism and violence in the forms of police brutality, health disparity, and income inequality, I have been thinking about death. A lot. As a graduate student with a longstanding love and appreciation for research, I have turned to my familiar strategy of reading and preparation to grapple with this new focal point. The problem remains, however, that no amount of research can actually prepare me for the inevitability of losing my own life or that of the people I love. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried.
I should preface this by saying that I have the immense privilege of being young and healthy and that I have not yet experienced the loss of anyone close to me through either the coronavirus or police violence. That is not the case for many people throughout the United States, and I recognize the luck I have been gifted. But I am a woman of color in a country that has not historically valued the lives of its residents of color, particularly Black and Indigenous folks, and I am in a unique position to understand this historical problem. As a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I have read extensively on the history of slavery, on U.S. imperialism, on racial capitalism and violence and the harm continuously enacted on communities of color in the United States and beyond its borders. I have been trained to see the broad strokes of government policy and the resulting devastation on individual lives, which have never been more obvious than at this particular moment. So I know that I am not safe, that the people I love are not safe, and that I need to consider what it means to experience this particular form of precarity.
I’ve been especially concerned about my father. He is safe and healthy as of now, for which I am immensely grateful, but he is a large Black man living in a country where large Black men are seen as a threat, and where our current healthcare systems do not support Black people in the ways that they should. I cannot understand what it feels like for him to walk in this world, and I am cognizant of the differences between my more privileged mixed race experience of the world and his. But I love him, and I want him to be here with me for as long as possible, and so I worry. He is a delightful man, conscious of the world’s inequity but forever cheerful and positive. He makes friends wherever he goes, and I often refer to him as “the King of Riverside,” as it is impossible to visit any stores or drive down any streets in our hometown without him being greeted enthusiastically by friends and family new and old. Last year we celebrated his sixtieth birthday, a milestone for any human but particularly one for Black men living in the United States, where life expectancy rates for African Americans remain significantly lower than for white people. In a pandemic which has proven to disproportionally affect people of color, while police violence against Black people continues to make headlines, I am scared for my father’s life, for my uncles and aunts and cousins and for Black folks across this country who deserve better than what they have been given.
How do I get through my days when my father’s safety feels threatened? How do I justify my decision to live three states away from him and my mother and my sisters when I don’t know how much time we have left together? How do I write and take walks and live my life when I feel fear permeating every inch of my body? These questions are not mine alone, I know many people are experiencing similar queries every day in these uncertain times and in some cases have asked themselves similar questions for a long time before this particular moment. How do we live with this fear of death?
I tackled this last question with the strategies that have served me well as a graduate student, museum professional, and person living with a lot of anxiety for many years: reading and preparation. I call my dad multiple times per week to harangue him about wearing his mask and staying home and to ask whether he has experienced any symptoms. I bothered him about creating a living will and about his advanced directive and homegoing preferences.* I bought a book entitled The Art of Dying Well and read it with my partner, highlighting and taking notes and trying to understand as thoroughly as possible what the end of life looks like, how I can prepare, and how I can protect myself and the people I love. I bought life insurance for myself and asked my partner to do the same, talked with my sisters about what to do if I pass suddenly or if our parents do, made a note of where all the important documents in my apartment are located. I did everything I could to plan around death, to think about logistics, to be organized and methodical about the thing that scares me most.
And then I picked up a book called Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler. Diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at thirty-five, Bowler writes about contemplating her own death when it seemed so near. As a historian of the American “prosperity gospel,” she acknowledges the myths she’d absorbed, consciously or not, from the people she’d studied and from her years living in the United States in a culture obsessed with platitudes around sickness and death. Though my experience is obviously vastly different from hers (she is slightly older than me, married, with a young child, and diagnosed with advanced cancer), I found her thoughts about life and death incredibly familiar. She writes about her life as a planner, always looking ahead to the next thing, busying her mind with the possibilities of the future rather than immersing herself in the present. She admits her preoccupation with control, calling it “a drug, and we are all hooked.” Through her incredibly well-written meditation on mortality and uncertainty, I realized I had been guilty of many similar obsessions with control and futurity, and that I had still not addressed the real problem of my fear.
I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to do so. It’s reasonable to be concerned with Black precarity, and it makes sense to complete paperwork that will protect ourselves and our families when we are confronted with death. But I cannot control my dad’s life, and in immersing myself in the terror of his passing I will miss the wonderful moments I have with him now. It is hard to live far away, but I get to talk to him as often as I’d like, and he is just as delightful over the phone as he is in person (though I cannot access his amazing facial expressions, which is unfortunate). I think he’s already figured this out: he knows that Black life is not guaranteed, he lost both of his parents too early and he attends at least one funeral a week. But he approaches his days with optimism and joy and surrounds the people he loves with care and affection as much as possible. I will still mention masks in every conversation we have, but I am also going to follow his example and enjoy my life and his right now instead of focusing on the possibility of their absence. Instead of doing all that research and preparation to cope with my fear, maybe I should have just asked my dad.
*Homegoing is a term some Black folks use to describe funeral/memorial services. Family and friends are able to celebrate their loved one’s life and mark the occasion of their returning “home” (to heaven or to God). The term originated during slavery, when enslaved people thought death meant that their soul would return back to their native home in Africa.
Gaila Sims is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation, entitled Imprimatur of the State: Interpretation of Slavery at American History Museums, explores how state history museums exhibit on the history of enslavement in the United States. Originally from Riverside, California, she received her M.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018 and her B.A. in History and African American Studies from Oberlin College in 2011.