Michael Callen On Dying

But I want to share with you the great secret, which is that dying can be an amazingly sensual, almost erotic experience, because it’s very much about the body. I feel that I’m a person who lived in his head all his life and paid very little attention to my body, except during sex, which is why I was addicted to it. I think it comes from being gay and having worked so hard to deny feelings and body. But what I find is—and I don’t know if this is true for everybody—I honestly believe that my body is preparing itself to die, sending me little messages, slowing down of mental acuity, aches and pains—like my leg is swollen with KS, and it throbs. You can either put it in the pain category, or you can put it in the sensual category. It makes me aware of my heartbeat. It throbs with my heartbeat, and if I have the right attitude about it, I use it as a signal that my body is trying to tell me something. It’s trying to get my attention and communicate to me. I just sort of feel tactile and sensual. I have of late been weepy, only I don’t censor it. If I see a beautiful flower or, in my case, actually, I’ve had several life-changing meals. I’ll take a bite out of a tomato, and I just have to stop. I just have to put the fork down and say “Life is so wonderful.” And it’s wonderful that I can still have these experiences.

I suppose it depends on how you’re dying. My death is like a bicycle tire with a slow leak, which if you have to go is the best way because you can experience death, it’s not sudden and traumatic and painful. And sleep — sleep is almost better than sex.

I sometimes wake up and it’s twilight, I’m still sensually asleep. The sun is pouring in and the birds are chirping. It sounds so clichéd, so trite, but my brain just repeats like a mantra: Life is good. I’m glad I had life, life is wonderful. And because I feel that, I am not at all anguished about it ending. I’m totally okay. I have all the fears about a violent death, and a medicalized death, being a vegetable—but the actual thought of dying is not at all unpleasant to me. Because I feel I’ve been so lucky.

All that walk toward the light stuff doesn’t move me at all. I’ll be very disappointed if that’s what it is. The bliss part intrigues me. The closest experience that I can describe is the feeling you have when you’re beginning to go under general anesthesia, or coming out of it. You don’t care, life is good. I’m fascinated by what my body is doing. My hypothesis, not provable, is that it’s wired into the brain, how to die; that if you listen to the body very carefully it will take you by the hand and, just like there’s a miracle of birth, there’s a miracle of death, if you do it right.

Here’s the image I’ve been using: For 12 years, I’ve been thrashing, and I’ve been wildly successful. It’s time to float. And I’m floating. And especially after the thrashing, it feels so good. The water is warm, the current is gentle, it’s moving me and I have no control over it anymore. I don’t want to glamorize dying of AIDS—if you’re blind, if you’ve got diarrhea, that’s really horrible. I don’t want it to occur a moment sooner that it has to. But I am lucky enough to be able to experience death consciously for its sensual aspect.

What I say to my friends who are New Age or religious is that perhaps I’m of limited imagination, but the taste of a tomato or Cris Williamson’s voice, whatever she’s singing, makes my cells vibrate. I cannot imagine anything more beautiful that this. I cannot imagine anything more beautiful than life.

Excerpted from an interview with Celia Farber which appeared in SPIN magazine.