An Essayby Abigail Thomas
Death usually hovers in the back of my mind, but it’s fall, the virus is surging, I just had my seventy-ninth birthday, and death is front and center. If I should be unlucky, or careless, or just plain stupid, the virus would do me in, sure as shooting. Maybe it’s time to think realistically about death. But death is hard to fathom, so I come at it sideways. I do what I usually do when I’m curious or stumped: I grab the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots to see if the word dead began differently. The word miracle comes from a root that originally meant “to laugh, to smile,” and I’ve always loved that. If dead evolved from something else, maybe I can evolve along with it, take the ride humankind took, the long way around to face a fact. So although I can’t find my glasses, and the light is dim, I read that dead came from the Indo-European root dheu-3, and I flip back to the roots section, and for one brief ecstatic moment I think that dead evolved from the verb to flow. How my spirit soars. What a fantastic surprise. I can get behind that, flowing out an open window and evaporating like mist. It is so much more appealing than the cold hard fact of dead. I’m having such a good time now that I look again, only to discover that I mistook dheu-2 for dheu-3, and damn it, dead has always been just dead. Of course it has. Dead is dead is dead and there’s no story here. I want to end this conversation, I want to change the subject, but I can’t. I need to think about dying, I want to face facts. One day I will be dead as a doornail, and what will that be like? Well, I’ll be dead, so all I can do is try to think about what I think about that.