John Long died on Sunday morning, October 12, 2014. Because he chose to.
I had met John Long, J.D., a year earlier due to his letter to the editor in “The Secular Review,” published by the Center for Inquiry. He had taken issue with widespread and, in his opinion, misguided linking of atheism and political liberalism. For years, John had been a libertarian and also a contributor to freethought causes.
Years ago, until the Republican Party came to be so thoroughly entangled with—and, I believe, compromised by—the religious right, my moderate economic conservatism tilted me toward the GOP. Like John, I experienced no incongruity between political conservatism and unwavering atheism. So when John’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 emails on the topic.
That brief discussion turned into a year of almost daily emails though we never met in person. His sharp mind and secular mindset were always ready for a discussion about economics, politics, and philosophy—often sprinkled with the playful intellectualism of sacrilege. He had strong and carefully contrived opinions about economics. He thought economist Thomas Pikkety was “wrong, wrong, wrong” and that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to purchase insurance was constitutionally questionable, to touch on two of a host of issues. We shared our admiration of Carl Sagan and even a poem or two, notably “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” in Sarah Williams’s poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil.” I enjoyed for most of a year our interchange on topics that had no greater emphasis on death than would naturally occur between those of a philosophical bent.
We argued whether political and social conservatism is more vulnerable to being infected by religion than is religion by political and social conservatism. Can economic conservatism, then, be expected to suffer most in such contamination, as seemed to happen as a result of the Moral Majority and its later iterations? Similarly, is the “purity” of secular humanism predictably conflated with political and social liberalism? What has secular humanism to lose in such a mixture?
Although we began our interaction focused on liberalism/secularism issues, as the year went on we increasingly shared bits of personal information. To say we became close friends would be an overstatement, though we certainly learned a great deal about each other’s lives. We each had a penchant for getting facts straight and spellings correct. Within two weeks of his death he took time to nail me on an issue of grammar. Like all such exchanges between us, he was not playing “gotcha,” but simply honoring veracity and accuracy. Those energetic, almost daily exchanges exceeded my hopes in initially writing him, but his decision about his deteriorating physical condition added a wholly new feature.
A word of background: Atheists can feel differently about death even while agreeing it is final, not a transmission to an afterlife. In fact, there are among us differences even in the definition of atheism, from certainty there is no god to the simple lack of belief in gods. Slight differences had led to the rewriting of the Humanist Manifesto. So while I cannot represent the views of atheists, I should briefly characterize mine, for it came to pass after a year of emails my discussion with John took an unexpected turn from academic discussions about death to 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 18 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 to was, drive to drove, lust to lusted, love to loved, write to wrote, and, of course, breathe to breathed.” I strain against the notion that I will miss such a seminal point in my existence!
I can remember no significant disagreements between John’s concepts of death and my own. Our mutual tendency to intersperse moderately meaningful philosophy with lighthearted word play filled the emails. 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 13 billion years, and even then didn’t pay much attention to the few decades it will have had us, our having lived as if “between two bookends of non-existence” or “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 a big deal, are as frightened by death as anyone? Jesus, they believe, got a head start on the afterlife phenomenon . . . sort of a beta test. Good thing it was believed to have worked, for it enabled St. Paul to say that if it hadn’t come out right, the whole religion would have had to be scrapped. What Paul, the persecutor formerly known as Saul, didn’t mention was all those other faith-celebrities who’d beat Jesus to it.
Toward the end of summer 2014 John told me that the burden of physical ill health was increasing and would soon become unbearable. He had been undergoing dialysis twice and sometimes three times a week, his strength was deteriorating, and he was somewhat confined to his apartment. His situation was not burdened by money worries, for his training in law and accounting, along with his keen intellect and skills with investing had brought him financial success. He saw no reason to go on.
“My kidney function,” he wrote,” had been declining for at least ten years and at the time of my hospitalization my GFR (glomerular filtration rate) had just slipped below 20 (normal GFR range is 90-137). My doctor knew I was close to inadequate function months earlier and had had an arteriovenous graft for access to my circulatory system surgically implanted months before to give it time to heal before it was put to use. Medicare begins paying for dialysis below GFR 20. Above that level while you will suffer from uremia you can still clear as much fluid as you take in. GFR 20 then; my latest blood test two weeks ago recorded a GFR of 8. Therefore, last year’s effects should be accelerated.”
In September he made the decision to forego continued dialysis, letting his body—the body that had for months or years been set against him–decide the day and the time of his death. On September 23, John 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 the 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.”
I found it interesting—and encouraging—that knowing he would die in a few days, John maintained his interest in his lifetime bridge achievement and in what seemed to be his favorite science fiction films. His breezy September 27 note 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!”
John’s 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!” As to his interest in science fiction, I asked him to visualize the headline, “Man Delays Death in Order to See Last of Starship Troopers TV Series.” John 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.” We laughed about Woody Allen’s quip, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
“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 John “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.”
John 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 emailed me, “I had my best day in a 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 not a 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, John 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.”
“Yesterday I went over my estate and my instructions to my heirs. I’ve done everything I can to make a good sized estate simple and to minimize taxes. 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 John’s active connections with the same issues that had long been important to him—political, economic, and philosophical items like libertarianism, atheism, and citizenship. I asked, “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 future species are 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 knew my soaring expression could be completely full of crap. Despite the opportunity impending death brings to think more broadly, more focused on the universe, I might in such a period of concentration be consumed with a boil on my knee.
“I don’t wish to minimize the fact,” I told him, “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 to mine. But that is what I will miss. Emails, 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 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.”
John reported that he’d seen his “long time addiction therapist/counselor to say good-bye on Friday and Dylan Thomas’s 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.
Five days later, October 13, I received a call at 9am from one of John Long’s sons that John had died on the previous morning, Sunday October 12. His intention to control his own demise was fulfilled. His interest in intellectual banter had continued until he 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 frank sharing of a person’s approach to a secular death was as educational as it was poignant and inspiring. John’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, no “deathbed conversion” (a far rarer event than theist lore has it). He died fully convinced he was approaching non-existence where “self” loses meaning in a twinkling, where the brain’s magnificent ability to create mind becomes only a tangle of a hundred billion lifeless neurons. John’s effortless, calm conformity between philosophy and behavior exhibited for me an impressive integrity.
He understood that we live until we die—not a complicated thought, 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.
Post note: Quotations are from emails that passed between John Long and me unless otherwise noted. I published a shortened version of this post as “The Chosen Death of John D. Long” in Free Inquiry, Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016, vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 33-35. I am indebted to Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, for permission to reprint this original version, slightly longer than that which made it into print.