"And that is the way we think. You can't win. It's a lose/lose situation."
"Who is it that said, 'Man is the animal who knows he must die'?"
"Just about everybody; Yeats talks about it, Heidegger talks about it. The difference between us and the animals is, according to this theory, that we have a consciousness of the limitation to our life and to our times, precisely because we have a concept future. Animals don't have that concept. It was interesting to me when I was reading J.M. Coetzee's book, Disgrace, which I talk about in one of the chapters.
"Disgrace is a marvelous book. Remember in that book, he ends up being in this room where dogs are euthanized, and the narrator or authorial voice says that they, the animals, know; he can tell that there's a way in which the dogs know that they're about to die, they become frightened."
"Why," I asked, "do you think that people deny to themselves, to the very end, that they are going to die?"
"I don't find that difficult to understand. I think that the mind can't take it in. I think even when people do understand they're going to die that what they imagine is a fantasy. I don't think that the mind is capable of imagining its own annihilation, so that even when people decide upon suicide, they're fantasizing a kind of retrospective look at themselves. They imagine the soul detaching itself from the body and looking down at the funeral."
"What do you think happens to you when you die?"
"We all have beliefs. We believe that the dead go into some place; we believe that they're near, even though they're far. They're far and near at the same time. We believe in ghosts. We try to talk to them. We also believe that we have to tend the body, the remains, that are left behind, because we somehow, in some part of ourselves, still think that the dead are there in that form because we've never known them in any other form. So, it's the most impossible thing to imagine.
"Wealthy people are more likely to have extraordinary last-minute interventions that leave them suffering, entangled in technology. This is another of our problems -- we believe we can beat it. There's this society called The Cryonics Institute. They freeze you, and when the technology is going great, then they'll resuscitate you and you'll see what things are going to be like in the 21st Century."
Ms. Gilbert laughed a laugh that reminded me of cocoa and puffy marshmallows. "Yes. The 21st century. Where you find out whether your books have all been trashed and shredded. A friend was waiting on death's door, and she called me to say, 'Oh my God, I read about this cryogenics.' That is exactly what her husband's son, from his first marriage, had proposed to her husband. He was insisting that her husband pay this, I don't know, $200,000 fee, which you give to the Cryonics Institute so that he could be frozen. The son was going to do that himself, and the son believed that this would be a way that he and his father would be able to come back to life, in 500 years or something, with this new, amazing technology."
"So many poems," I said, "are poems that mourn the death of a loved one or face the fear the poet feels at his own death."
"I think that's true in one way or another. But, particularly, and now in the last 100 years, there have been poems that have insisted on talking in such an incredibly specific and testimonial way."
"Sharon Olds," I suggested.
To which Ms. Gilbert added the late Thom Gunn. "But," she said, "you can trace that back to the First World War poets. And even beyond that to people like Whitman and Dickinson who seem to be so out of step with their time because they didn't want to talk about dead babies turning into angels. They questioned the pieties of their culture."
Ms. Gilbert mentioned her mother. "My mother was very amusing on this subject the last year of her life -- she died at 97 -- and I wrote a lot of poems about that. That's another one of the deaths that shaped my thinking as I worked on this book. She said to the doctor, 'You know that Woody Allen joke,' she said, 'where Woody Allen says, "I've dealt with my dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens."' She said, 'It's not the way I feel, it's the opposite way, I just don't want to die. I don't mind if I have to suffer a lot and be sick, but I want to go on living.'
"She wanted to know how the story was going to end; what was going to happen to this grandchild. Was that other grandchild going to have a child of her own? She wanted to see how everybody was going to keep on living. And that's another thing we can't stand contemplating, that we won't know."
I agreed. "It's awful to know the narrative will be torn from you."
"Yes. The narrative goes on and you don't get to go on finding out about it. I think that's another reason why cross-culturally and trans-historically we have these visions of the dead as being somehow still with us. We imagine that they're with us because they can't stand being excluded from our lives; they're angry at the thought of being excluded from our lives so they hover at the edge of our lives. But also, they're with us because they want to know how it's going to happen. How in the hell is it going to go on?"
"Who wins the card game?"
"That's right. That's right. I remember trying to encourage my mother, who was at the end suffering from a kind of dementia, to pay attention to the 2000 election, because I knew what she was like, and I knew that would get her hooked on the narrative. But she couldn't focus on the television set. That's an interesting metaphor, isn't it? She couldn't focus on the speeches and on the television set, and she was no longer that interested in the narrative. So."