Thanatos Hangs Out

Three men in their late twenties were drinking beers and playing video games one night in a high rise apartment, somewhere in San Diego’s Gaslamp District. Death appeared and said, “Hey there, dudes. Don’t get up, finish your beer. Enjoy it, it might be your last.”

Alan jumped anyway. “Holy crap! You… I… are we going to…”

“Die? Of course. You all are. What you mean is, ‘Soon?’ Well, far as I know, I’ve only got one slip here for this visit.” Death turned His hourglass upside down and set it on the coffee table, next to the salsa bowl. An eerie calm descended. All three men blinked a few times, as Death’s spell of Acceptance of the Inevitable took hold. Although Death knew that on young men such as these, its effect would only be temporary, it was nevertheless the only way He could have a conversation with His client, and the effect did not need to last very long.

Brian was the first to ask the Grim Reaper, “So, who is it? Who are you here for?”

“Dunno. I don’t get told until the last moment. No, no — please don’t bargain, it’s tedious. By the time it gets to Me, the decision’s been made. I’ve got no discretion when the time comes. If you have a complaint, that gets routed to Fate. That goes for after My visit, too.”

Calvin said, “So what do you want?”

Death leaned His sickle against the wall. “I don’t often have a lot of spare time between My appointments. But I’ve got about ten minutes here, so I thought I’d take a short break before My schedule catches up to Me and I get slammed again. That’s about the time you two were planning on leaving Brian’s apartment here, right?”

“Yeah, pretty much, I guess,” Calvin said, “We hadn’t really talked about it.”

“Fair enough. Just do what you were going to do. Talk to me. See, I don’t get to find out what most of My clients are thinking. I mean, I’m sure they’re not happy about Me coming, but beyond that. What if it’s you I’m here for? For lack of a better phrase, could you live with that?”

“But I just got engaged!” Alan cried. “I want to have a family with her and enjoy a lifetime of love!”

“Yeah, and I just started my own business!” Brian protested. “I want to succeed and grow wealthy!”

“What about my friends, my family? My dog!” Calvin seemed distraught, despite Death’s calming magic. “I don’t want them to feel bad, to have grief for me! Grief is awful, it’s painful.”

“Of course you have some regrets, some things aren’t complete. There are always regrets and mistakes, there are always things left undone. Almost no one has completed all their missions by the time I show up. And yes, those left behind will grieve, some of them mightily and with great pain. They’ll mourn you. Then, almost all of them will eventually move on. The holes in their hearts won’t go away, but the pain will dull with time, become part of their emotional backgrounds. Trust Me, I’ve seen it billions of times. And it’s not a bad thing. Don’t you want them to be happy even after you’re gone?”

“It would be nice to be missed, but of course I want them to move on, too,” said Brian. “That’s part of what loving someone is, wanting them to be happy. Even when I’m gone, I want them to be happy.”

“So,” Death said, “this isn’t about them, it’s about you. Are you reasonably satisfied with what you’ve been doing so far in life? Was it worth the candle?”

“Wait,” Alan said. “What do You mean, ‘worth the candle’?”

“Sixty seconds ago, none of you were thinking about Me at all. Now, you know one of you has…” Death checked his Movado watch, an onyx face with obsidian sweeps and tarnished platinum Roman numerals. “Let’s call it eight and a half minutes left. And maybe another has about eight and a half years left. And the third makes it all the way to 85. No one gets to know how much time they have. Are you happy with how you’ve used your time so far?”

“I guess,” said Calvin, “That depends on what’s next, after You take us.”

“Ooooh, that.” Death waved His bony hands over one another, back and forth, waving off the query. “No help for you there. ‘Next’ is not My department and Judging is not part of My job description. Maybe Fate has some ideas for you. Unless She doesn’t.”

Alan said, “I don’t think I’ve had enough love. My parents and my sister, a couple of girlfriends. Never knew any grandparents, they all died when I was a baby.”

“Sorry about the grandparents, man. Like I say, I don’t control My own work schedule,” Death said. “But what about your friends here? If this is your last night, haven’t you spent it in the company of friends who love you?”

“Guys don’t talk about that a whole lot, but yeah, there’s the love of friends too. I suppose you’re right, I’ve had my share of love even from these dudes.” Alan nodded his head, but then stopped, considering that it might all be about to end. “I suppose there’s worse things than laughing and being with your friends right up until the very end.”

Brian said, “I’ve had my share of love, too, I guess, but can you ever have too much?”

“No. Or money, or sex.” Calvin jumped in.

“That’s interesting,” Death observed, “Sex, I get sometimes. But I don’t ever really talk about money all that much with My clients. Luck complains in the cosmic break room that it’s all you mortals ever talk about. But She’s wrong; I almost never hear about money. If it turns out I’m here for you, Calvin, do you think you had enough money? Do you care?”

Calvin sulked, chastised. “No, I don’t care about the money. But pleasure? Sex – who ever dies thinking they’ve had enough sex? Isn’t that what makes life worth living?”

“Is it?” asked Alan. “Gotta be more to it than that. Besides, sex is good, but it’s not the only pleasure there is. Neither is money.”

“Dude, he’s right, Calvin,” said Brian. “I’ve deferred pleasure, hoping to have more later or to achieve something. I could have played video games instead of studying but I didn’t. I don’t regret that.”

“So what about you, Brian?” Death turned his dark gaze to the host. “You’ve had some success in your career already. Is that what you’ve wanted to do with your time? If you’d known I was coming for you tonight, at your age, would you have still put in all that work?”

“Yes, I think so,” Brian said. “You’ve gotta do something with yourself. But I suppose I’d have taken more chances with women.”

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” Death said. “But you could have hooked up with Erica across the hallway before she met the guy she’s dating now. Might have worked out.”

“No way, Death, she wasn’t in to me.”

“Trust me, I have this on good authority, Brian. Love and I exchange information all the time.”

Calvin protested, “How was he supposed to have known that?”

“Couldn’t have. Only experience under your belt, looking back and seeing your mistakes, lets you learn from them. That’s why I tell my clients not to regret their mistakes too much, that’s how Life works. She’s a bitch sometimes but then again, I’m the only alternative to Her there is.”

Brian said, “What good does knowing I blew a chance at romance do me now? I suppose I learned from it, especially knowing what You’ve just said, but if You’re here for me, that bit of insight is just a huge waste, isn’t it?”

Death’s watch beeped.  “That’s the five minute warning. Anyway, of course it’s a huge waste, Brian. When is it not? If I take someone young, the potential is wasted; if I take someone old, the experience is.”

Alan jumped in, “So why do You take anyone?”

“Gotta. It’s the job. Look, what I’m saying is, I might take you in five minutes, five weeks, five months, five years, who knows? No one, not even Me. So you’ve gotta think short term, but you’ve also gotta think long term, and even mid-term at the same time, too. Can’t be easy, but I’m asking if you’ve pulled off that balancing act.”

Brian had never thought of it that way. “I guess that’s right. I’ve mainly planned for the long term. Haven’t really thought about it this way much but maybe the best strategy is to plan as though I’ll live a long time, and if it all ends suddenly, well, that’s not my problem. After all, I’ll be dead.”

Alan objected, “That can’t be right. You leave people behind and you shouldn’t forget about that. And some stuff we do for the long term sucks. If I’d have known He’d be here for me tonight, I’d have never gone to law school. Law school sucked. Paying off the loans has sucked more; if it’s me going tonight I still haven’t done it and I die in debt, which I guess I won’t care about but it still seems bad to say. If I’d known tonight was going to be my night, I’d have gone into debt bumming around Europe more than I did, and getting drunk more, and I’d have banged all easy girls I could have, and smoked more weed, and all that.”

“But Alan, if you’d done that, you wouldn’t have your cool car, you wouldn’t have met Zoe at law school. She’s been great for you, and you guys just got engaged last week,” Calvin said. “I’ve never seen you happier than after she said ‘Yes.’ Sure, all that goofing off would have been fun, but aren’t you better off now? You did something serious, had at least the start of a real career, taken a shot at a marriage and a family?”

Death sat back, interested in Alan’s reaction, but Alan just sort of nodded his head. “Yeah, and it might not be me tonight. I guess I’m better off for not just pursuing short-term pleasures, but seeing Death standing there next to the CD rack sort of screws up my perspective.”

Calvin posed a question. “Death, I know time is running short, but answer me this. The three of us, we’ve actually all been pretty lucky. Having You here makes me realize that. The three of us are all good friends, we’ve had good educations, comfortable lives, you know? We’re better off financially than most people, even if we don’t feel like it most of the time – does that mean it’s better or worse when You take us as opposed to someone whose life kind of, well, sucks?”

“But that’s what I’m asking you,” Death answered. “Eventually, I take everyone. Isn’t your good fortune really that you haven’t had to think about Me all that much in your lives so far?”

“Definitely,” said Alan. “I bet lots of Your clients have had to think about You every day.”

“Sure. So look, some things in your lives have sucked. Some have been pretty good. You’ve made some decisions. Two of you are going to have more decisions to make after I’m done tonight, and you’ll have to realize that one day I’ll be back.”

“Death, how can we tell if we have made the right decisions?” Brian asked.

“I guess I have a rather unique perspective on that. The way I see it—” Death’s onyx watch was set to vibrate, but they all heard it rattling, metal on bone, beneath His heavy black robe. “Sorry, pal. Gotta get back to work.” Death picked His hourglass up again, turning it to make the sands flow once more.

Immediately, all three young men seemed oblivious to Death’s continued presence even as He reclaimed His sickle from the wall and made ready His task. Calvin turned to Brian and said, “Dude, it’s getting late, I think I’ll head home,” just as the earthquake struck.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I had a hard time believing this story. Everyone know that Death speaks in small caps.

  2. This is a fun thought experiment, but I don’t buy it. Here’s where I think you cheat:

    “And yes, those left behind will grieve, some of them mightily and with great pain. They’ll mourn you. Then, almost all of them will eventually move on. The holes in their hearts won’t go away, but the pain will dull with time, become part of their emotional backgrounds. Trust Me, I’ve seen it billions of times. And it’s not a bad thing. Don’t you want them to be happy even after you’re gone?”

    “It would be nice to be missed, but of course I want them to move on, too,” said Brian. “That’s part of what loving someone is, wanting them to be happy. Even when I’m gone, I want them to be happy.”

    “So,” Death said, “this isn’t about them, it’s about you. Are you reasonably satisfied with what you’ve been doing so far in life? Was it worth the candle?”

    If I were in these guys shoes, my biggest concern would be the people who are left behind precisely because they are so young. Its all about expectations. It’s no big deal when your 90-year-old grandmother does. She was supposed to. But when your 30-year-old fiance dies… that could very well destroy you. Same with the parents; it’s much harder to deal with your child dying than your parent.

    I also don’t think it’s very compelling to say “it’s about you.” I do not believe in an afterlife either. But I don’t think this dialogue provides a satisfying substitute rationale for figuring out the “good life.” If I thought I was going to die in 10 minutes, I don’t think I would really care about what I had done with my life for its own intrinsic worth or my own enjoyment of it because I believe that I REALLY won’t care after I die. The only reason I would care about what I had done with my life is that I would care about people that I love, would hope that I had done what I could for them, and would hope that they wouldn’t miss me too much when I’m gone.

    • First of all, thanks for understanding the purpose of the post. It feels good to be understood.

      Second, thanks for taking the time to critique it. That’s awesome of you.

      Third, allow me to defend myself from that critique, at least a bit. I’m looking at the how to describe and achieve a happy, well-lived life from the perspective of the person who lives it. I conclude that happiness derives in large measure from making good life decisions. I wanted to focus the inquiry on the person making those choices.

      I’ll cop to being clumsy about it: while I think the points raised in response to the concern about grieving survivors are true, it’s at least equally true and important that such an “acceptance of the inevitable” is uncomfortable and difficult to achieve. It requires accepting that people you love will experience a profound pain, and you will be in some way the cause of it. That may require a more tender treatment than the dismissal I wrote for the inquisitor, although considering that He is not just an inquisitor like Socrates in a Platonic dialogue but Death Himself, a degree of callousness on His part seems be somewhat appropriate.

  3. On the relationship thing, it only makes sense to be in a committed LTR in the first place if you can’t imagine your life working okay in the short term without the person. So it needs to be a short term decision as much as a long-term one – a constant stream of them, in fact, in order for a relationship to be a good thing. It’s not that you don’t get the benefit of knowing (wait, no, you don’t know) you won’t be alone when you’re old and ugly, but if you’d really prefer to be out at the bars hooking up with new people *now*, then you really need to be doing that. It’s only if you feel like, Well, if I didn’t get to go home and see this person after this wretched, stressful day at the office, I don’t know if I could get up and come here again tomorrow… (or something similarly clear relating to wanting to be with this person you want this very day, or at a minimum inside of this week), that you should think that you are doing something that is worthwhile over the long run. Them’s my two cents – and I’m not much accounting for children there, just think from the perspective of a young adult.

    How you spend your labor energies has a similar dynamic – it’s certainly not worth stubbornly staying miserable in the present for some hoped-for long-term payoff, but it’s not nearly so clear cut there because the consequences of not working in the present are so much more severe, and there are so many fewer possible fish out in the job-sea that match your talents than there are people out in the love-sea who are looking precisely to find someone to whom they can comfortably adjust, not just the candidate that most perfectly fits the job description.

    This is a great meditation, Burt, and while some credit has to go to Jason (and thence to Plato) for establishing the form here, I think you’ve achieved something special with it here.

    • I’ll offer props to Jason, with enthusiasm, as he was indeed my muse for this piece.

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