The Friends of Marty R. wasn’t like the other support groups I’d been to. I almost didn’t go. But it was like my cancer was feeding on anger and angst and I needed to vent to strangers, not my family. In fact I hadn’t told them yet, wanting to handle it myself first, and well, not really knowing how to break the news.
I’d been reconciled to death for a couple decades even though for a long, long time it had scared the schtoit out of me. When I was a kid, even a young adult, I’d let my mind go to the moment of death, I’d try to imagine nothingness for eternity, and I’d freak out, screaming “no, no, no.” Even after I got married (and since I’d been in no rush to so, I was in my forties) I’d wake up screaming “noooooooo,” like a psycho (then had to explain it wasn’t about her). I’d even thought that people who were not afraid of death just hadn’t thought about it hard enough. They lacked imagination, or they were in denial, or they just didn’t get the gravitas of the grave.
And while I’d not gone full atheist like a lot of my friends and relatives, I had no faith in religion. Photosynthesis, chaos theory, Heisenburg’s uncertainty might have something to do with intelligent design, but they weren’t going to save my soul. Einstein’s observation that the individual likely did not survive the death of the body seemed tragically accurate. I was like Woody Allen purported to be, afraid of death, morbidly so, whether proud or not, and not willing to go gentle into that good night…
But you see your parents die, you see your friends die, you wander through a bunch of cemeteries, you read just about any history book, and you gotta come to the conclusion that it’s just not going to work out so well – immortality that is. As a teenager, I’d had this boss at a camp cafeteria one summer who sat me under the awning of his trailer with a high ball and said anything after 65 was borrowed time, and he seemed pretty happy borrowing it.
I figured, what with medical progress and my semi-healthy existence, that I could go for 80 years and anything after that would be my borrowed time. So that’s why I was more than a little discombobulated when the doctor told me that lump was malignant and that I wasn’t going to get the 20 more years I was counting on. A 25% discount sucked. That was going to be a lot of sunny days, cool breezes, ice cream, cocktails, movies, maybe a little TV, frolicking hither and thither, and craploads of just breathing that I was going to miss out on.
Anybody who’s ever been diagnosed with a fatal disease knows what I’m talking about. It’s messed up, but it’s a process. I was forced to think about the death thing in a way that I’d avoided since I’d had kids – and that morbid fear came back – for a while. But you live with it for a while – and I’m only talking about minutes – and the panic goes away. Inevitability calms you down, or at least it should. Don’t blink, or flutter away.
My affairs were already pretty much in order, but I had some bucket list items to take care of. I jumped out of a plane, did a little traveling, scheduled more time with the family, and rationalized my way out of the sailing trip in the South Pacific. During that time, I went to a couple support groups that my doctor had recommended, but they were kind of depressing. It was all that stuff about getting your affairs in order, hitting the bucket list, rationalizing everything, and all that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross process crap.
One guy that I’d met in one of the cancer support groups mentioned the Friends of Marty R., but said he hadn’t actually been to a meeting. You had to be screened first, and apparently he hadn’t made the cut. He’d said he had too much to do anyway. The idea of being selected seemed weird, but intriguing, so I called the number he gave me and another guy agreed to meet me at the public library one afternoon.
Dressed in a business suit, he didn’t look like he was dying at all. In fact, he looked like a venture capitalist squeezing in another entrepreneur’s pitch. And he seemed younger than I, maybe his late 50’s, tanned and fit. We shook hands and he said we should take a walk. Strolling around the adjacent park, he asked me a series of questions: My diagnosis and prognosis, family and financial situation, and if I had done everything I wanted to do before I died – as a yes or no question. This took about three minutes.
Then he asked if I was religious, what causes I believed in, and what was important – not for myself, but for humanity. He asked what were the components of character, who I admired, about turning points in history, and if I thought I’d made a difference in the world. This took longer, my answers were more detailed, but there was a crisp efficiency about the man that I modelled in my responses.
I can’t remember what I said, but it was lofty and must have been the right thing because he seemed satisfied. Then he asked a question that I don’t think he asked the guy who gave me his number. He asked if I knew what the Friends of Marty R. was about or could I guess, and I said I’d figured it was some other version of a cancer support group, and I told him about the guy who’d given me his number.
He told me that he didn’t think that guy was a good candidate for their group because he did not have a good grasp of history, that he was necessarily or understandably selfish, but that he wasn’t sufficiently selfless. He said that he felt I did have a grasp of a bigger picture and that if I was interested I could come to a meeting. But he wanted me to figure it out, what did it mean?
Up to that point, I hadn’t thought about it that much. I’d figured Friends of Marty R. was like Friends of Bill W. except instead of a bunch of alcoholics, they were a bunch of doomed cancer victims fixing to die – and that’s what I said to him. He said no, that wasn’t it, but if I thought about it it would be obvious – so I did. I said “Marty R.” out loud and thought about the words and realized it spelled “martyr.” He smiled.
“You’ve been given a gift,” he said, “the gift of knowing more or less when you’re going to die and being able to plan something special. To make it meaningful. Everyone dies and most don’t do it for any good reason. We have the chance to die for a purpose. You’ll need to come to a meeting to understand more of what we’re about, but don’t come unless you’re willing to die for a cause. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘If you haven’t found something you are willing to die for, you aren’t fit to live.”
He handed me a card and told me to bring some ideas. With that, he shook my hand firmly and slowly and gave me a long look with a friendly smile. He started to walk away then turned and said “may the force be with you” and gave me a laughing wink. With a brisk step he crossed the boulevard and went up the next street. I didn’t think about it until later of course, but I never saw him again.
On the card it read, Marty R. with an address that I guessed was not in a great part of town. No number, no email, no website. On the back was another quote by Martin Luther King Jr., “We can all be great because we can all serve.”
After my encounter with the businessman – who hadn’t given his name – I wasn’t particularly surprised because it sort of made sense. Gradually however, I would be surprised, but in the meantime I was just more intrigued. Since I had no way of learning more about the businessman, I researched Martin Luther King. I had known a lot of what everybody knew, but I read more about his troubles, his doubts, the many threats against his life. I realized that his cancer was racism and it had been a lethal epidemic. Was his death a kind of cure? Not yet, for sure.
At the first meeting I learned a lot more. Sure enough, on a small wayward street in an industrial part of town there was a simple number on a door in a wall. It was like a side room to a long-closed shop of some kind. While the exterior was harsh, gray and gritty, the interior was nice, warm and woody. But instead of a bunch of chairs a la group therapy, it was a conference table, and when I arrived there were four men and one woman sitting on one end chatting. One of the men got up and greeted me, showed me to a seat next to him and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
Apparently, scotch killed germs and what the hell, we’re all gonna die anyway, so I had what they were having. I was the first of the new people which included two more guys and a woman. We seemed somewhat younger than the first five, but there was a common theme of just beyond middle age and just above middle class. The diversity of the group was not obvious at first.
When the last new guy arrived, Scott, who had greeted us all and provided the scotch, brought the meeting to order. He explained that he and the older members had started an hour before and had discussed their particular issues and plans, and that this session was an introduction for new members, that the group was still relatively new
The history of the Friends of Marty (the R apparently dropped in their common parlance for the purposes of efficiency and discretion.) began when two friends who were both diagnosed around the same time started the conversation of how best to die. They had recruited four others and had discussed the concept weekly for about six months, until one went into remission, one died suddenly, and one made a failed attempt at martyrdom. He had succeeded in dying, but had not garnered any press for his hunger strike against nuclear proliferation. There’d been one article in a local newspaper, and the group had photo-documented his demise, but the journalist they’d contacted seemed to believe it was more a case of euthanasia – since he’d been told about the terminal cancer – than actually starving for the cause.
After that, the remaining three, with one of the original two, decided to recruit more members to their group, but it had been a slow process. The group that evening was somewhat better heeled and older than a line at the DMV, perhaps a tonier subway platform or a nice general practitioner’s office, but it was an eclectic diversity of people who all seemed to have weathered their tragic announcement and screening interview with aplomb.
Scott and the others were committed to the idea of dying for a cause, but it had proven complicated. One related concomitant of imminent demise was what to do with one’s money, and Scott had decided to spend some of his on contracting with a discreet screener to vet new members. The uncoded algorithm for picking members had to do with a level of intelligence, worldliness, emotional stability, and the potential desire to add something substantive to one’s bucket list, legacy, or personal meaningfulness.
Scott was down to a couple months to go and the others were all within a couple years to go depending on treatment, although another had recently passed away prematurely. So the issues that were presented to the group to discuss were the time sensitivity of one’s mortality and other personal issues, the importance of the causes for which one was willing to die, and the controversies surrounding such a suicide.
There was a definite emphasis put on not wanting kamikazes, suicide bombers, or martyrs who would do any damage to their fellow humanity or the earth itself. While anger might be a motivation, it should not be a part of any decisions. Not only should no one else be killed in the process of one of us dying for a cause, but we must minimise the adverse psychological damage to those we leave behind. No blowback.
While Martin Luther King was considered a hero, along with Gandhi and certain others who’d been assassinated, the role model was Thich Quang Durc, the Buddhist monk who had committed self-immolation during the Vietnam War. He had died for a cause, hurt no one else, and made an impact on society. Of course, burning to death was right up there on the worst ways to die list, so that presented another problem.
There was a brief presentation on martyrdom. Socrates had been a martyr for a cause and there had been many religious martyrs. Jesus was a martyr as were many Christians before Constantine and then during the Protestant Reformation. Siddhartha Gautama sacrificed much to become the Buddha and there were monks who’d sacrificed themselves for many causes. There were Jewish and Muslim martyrs. And there were Sikh gurus who’d sacrificed themselves, not for their religion, but for Hindus to be able to practice Hinduism. And of course, there was a long history of military martyrdom, thousands of men and women who had died for their countries.
In most of these cases, including King, Gandhi, and various religious and political assassinees, such martyrs were killed by others. They were living for a cause which had caused them to be killed. Those who purposefully killed themselves for a cause didn’t seem to have as much credibility. The Japanese fighter pilots or Islamic fanatics who killed themselves in the process of killing others were seen, not only as pathetically misguided, but essentially evil. Even Bobby Sands, who had died in a hunger strike for the IRA, was supporting an organization that had perpetrated terrorist activities. Thus his cause of freedom for Northern Ireland and his valiant death were tainted by the mayhem of others.
Suicide is by definition selfish, so how could one make it selfless? And is there not a lot of hubris involved in thinking that your own pathetic little life is worthy of the political, social, or cultural change you seek? How can you take yourself out and take yourself out of the equation, and isn’t that contradictory? And, once the world knows that you are doomed to die anyway from whatever disease has made you terminal, expendable, doesn’t that mitigate your sacrifice? Isn’t your euthanasia explainable, and thus is not your cause potentially undermined?
At this point, what had been a presentation by two of the original members of the group evolved into a discussion. Several comments addressed the question: While the idea of dying for a cause seems attractive to people like us who wanted to give meaning to what was left of our lives and to make a difference in the world, were the chances of failure, or misunderstanding, or the whole thing backfiring worth it? Several responses addressed the answer: We’re going to die anyway, why not make an attempt, however feeble. The discussion got rather heated over the influence one might have. Perhaps only a precious few might be influenced by your action. Or perhaps thousands – who are not diagnosed with a fatal disease – would seek to emulate you much to the heartbreak of their friends and family. This question, of whether such a suicide was just, noble, or effective, continued until it was replaced with the question of what causes were worth dying for.
There were a few in the group whose ancestors had died in war, but only some of those were willing to die for their country. Most of the group were willing to die for their children or their family members, but dying for others depended on who and how and why. Some believed that they would only want to die for a huge cause, not to save a tree or a whale or to simply protest government actions, as some had put their lives in danger for. Others were willing to die for just one person, even a stranger, and even for just one aspect of that person’s life.
Sydney Carton, who does a “far, far better thing” and goes to a “far, far better rest” for saving Charles Darnay so that he can have Lucie was given as such an example, then dismissed as fiction. The imperfect nature of the people Will Smith saves in “Seven Pounds” were discussed, but his sacrifice was dismissed as atonement and not the same as dying for a cause. Nevertheless, the idea of organ donation was agreed to be worthy, and perhaps donating one’s body to science, especially in the cause of curing the diseases which were killing the group, was a way of achieving a kinder and gentler martyrdom? The conversation about books and movies led to acknowledgements of songs, Prince’s “I would die 4U” and the Smiths “There is a light that never goes out,” both led the group to believe that this kind of sacrifice, like Che Guevara’s spirit of revolution, were motivated by love.
Going to help people who were suffering from infectious diseases was considered. There were still leper colonies and if there were people suffering from ebola or other insidious epidemics. Being ready to fling oneself into the breach of rescues: fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, or nuclear accidents were considered, but health problems, transportation, and that time sensitivity thing ended that line of discussion.
Dying to stop war seemed antithetical, although issues of world peace were considered important. The group agreed that overpopulation was a big issue, but one death wasn’t going to make that big a difference. Nuclear weapons were bad, but some in the group were in favour of nuclear power so it was hard to agree on that as an issue worth dying for. While most agreed that global climate change represented one of the biggest problems for humanity, how one dies for that cause was difficult. Could you expose a corporate polluter by dying from their toxins? Could you monkey wrench the loggers in the Amazon rainforest with your body? Could you drown in glacier melt or from a rising sea level?
At some point the discussion turned to concepts: truth, justice, equality, human rights, and so on. And while some believed that dying for some aspect of truth or for the equality of even a very few was worth it, how you do it was difficult. One person suggested that if all of us, and a bunch more, died en masse for an ideal then we could make an impact. Not long after that someone brought up cults who died en masse, Jim Jones in Guyana, the wackos in Waco, or the complete nut jobs in California who died together trying to hook up with aliens trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
After some shaking of heads and an awkward silence, Scott chimed in by saying that he was not some kind of bizarro, his friends were not weirdos, and this group had nothing to do with crazy cults that committed mass suicide. He’d rather die at home alone, and have the rest of us do whatever we want to, than to be thought of as someone encouraging outlandish theories, cult behavior, or any kind of destructiveness. He thought the discussion had been good, especially in exposing how the simple idea of dying for a cause could be distorted – by one of us doing something inappropriate or by the interpretation of our actions by the media. Even though some of us did not have a lot of time, it was worth taking the time to think long and hard about doing the right thing, and what that was. The plan was to meet again in a month to share our reflections on this discussion and consider new ideas.
At the next meeting, the reflections were about message control and really having a defined goal. Several of us agreed that we would write a statement of purpose explaining what we were trying to achieve. While much of what we would think and do would come before hand, before actually dying, all of what it would mean would come after we were gone. Our actions would be borne by our loved ones and those we touched. Anticipating all of that was an impossibility, but considering all the implications and possible outcomes was necessary.
One of the group had been into journalism and marketing and had several ideas about prior restraint, spin doctoring, and viral videos. Another was a history teacher and had ideas about symbolism, how certain actions would be perceived in other cultures, and how certain actions regarding certain causes might change in a different historical or cultural context. Yet another was a psychologist and had ideas about the impact on our family and friends, and that maybe considering them was more important than the rest of the world. Others chimed in with all kinds of perspectives, but the general agreement was that, if done well, dying for a cause was still a good idea.
There were more comments about the pros and cons of the act, many more about the cause or causes, but eventually the conversation turned to how, how to die for your cause. It was generally agreed that it might be preferable to live for a cause that caused someone else to kill us, but getting shot or blown up could be a bummer. While there was admiration for Quang Durc, it was also generally agreed that burning to death was not desirable. Then ensued a discussion about preferred ways to die.
There were wisecracks about dying in one’s sleep after an all night party, skydiving accidents, and coitus interruptus post orgasm. Aldous Huxley was applauded for having a potentially fun death by going out on psychedelics, and for potentially dying for the cause of normalizing drug laws, not to mention euthanasia. This line of discussion led to lots of talk about opiates and other pharmaceuticals. It was surprising how much the group knew about these chemicals and how many had been potheads or cokeheads or just plain alcoholics. And there were many jokes about the Darwin Awards and possibly winning one in a new category.
This joviality led to a discussion of famous last words: George Eastman who wrote “Why wait?” on his suicide note. Oscar Wilde who, even in ignominy, quipped, “Its the wallpaper or me, one of us has to go.” Humphrey Bogart said something about not switching from scotch to martinis which was entertaining. And we speculated happily on “Oh wow oh wow oh wow,” as alleged said by Steve Jobs.
Eventually the discussion came back to the idea of dying dramatically for a cause by jumping from buildings or bridges, well timed crashes or explosions, or well publicized suicides at big events, or on TV. Various guns were analysed for their effectiveness. Knives and swords were touched upon. A number of poisons used in history were compared to drugs and pondered. And the contexts of a variety of forms of asphyxiation were contrasted for their relative painfulness and media appeal.
You’d think that this part of the discussion would be gruesome and most unpalatable for most of the group, but since we’d already crossed far past the threshold of what might be a too-sensitive topic, even the most reserved among us were jumping in with lurid details of people they knew who’d committed suicide and how, murders they’d heard of, and the most gory details of accidental deaths. When the oldest and kindest of us suggested torturing himself to death on YouTube in the name of peace, love, and understanding, we collectively agreed it was time to call it a night.
Again, Scott provided some closing sentiments saying that again, we may have come up with some more ideas about what not to do, but that was again progress. However, we had explored the subjects well by being both serious and humorous, and that it was a big topic too important not to explore in depth. He said that he hoped most of us would come back with some definite suggestions for what one might do so that the group could provide a critique and develop some ideas on how to proceed. With that, this strange – but not sad – little group went back to our lives, or what was left of them.
When I got back to my life, or what was left of it, I realized that the loving families I’d been a part of were gone. My childhood home with a mom and dad, a brother and sister, a dog and cat, and lots of love was gone. My parents and the pets had died and my brother and sister were off to their other families on the other side of the world. The family home I’d made with my wife, our kids, the dog (no cat) was also gone. The dog (no cat) had died, the kids were off to college and careers, and my wife and I had run out of things to say. Occasionally, I had the thought that you can’t whip cheese, if you know what I mean.
I contemplated all the ideas that had been discussed amongst the Friends of Marty R. and I came to the conclusion that if there was a profound one in there amongst the persiflage it was to be splashy, bold, and put your panache on steroids. I decided that to die for a cause, as had been discussed, maximum drama was required. Thich Quang Durc had succeeded, and I would too. History required histrionics, so I made a plan.
First, I wrote letters to my wife telling her how much I loved her, how proud I was of her, and a few comments about the good old days. I wrote letters to my kids telling them how much I loved them, how proud I was of them, and a few comments about the good old days and the better new days to come. Next, I wrote a letter to all my friends and family about my cancer, the terminal diagnosis, and my decision to do something, if not with my life, then with my death. Then, I wrote a statement for the media, really for the world, about what I thought was important and that I was dying for that cause in the hope that others would look at their own lives, share my concerns, and do something about it. Finally, I wrote a note to the friends of Marty R., thanking them for the inspiration and hoping that they would all succeed in their endeavours to make a difference.
What was important? Kindness. If people could just be kind, and think about the fact that we are all of the same kind, then so many of the world’s troubles might be solved. But in my statement, it wasn’t that simple. I went on about the looming doom of climate change, the scourge of hatred, fundamentalism, and inequality. I railed against corporatocracy, warfare, pollution, and all your basic global disasters-in-the-making. And if kindness tempered glamor, greed, and getting ahead, then people would slow down, want less, and curb their enthusiasm for spewing waste into the void. It was a manifesto for the ages, and it exploded out of me like a love bomb of rationality. When I sent it to all the various news agencies, I said that I wasn’t some Unabomber, terrorist, or misanthrope, but would do what I did for humanity. Ah humanity…
Getting a hang glider and a can of gasoline up to the top of the Eiffel Tower was tricky. It took a couple trips, lots of subterfuge, and some ingenious gadgetry. I had some confederates and lots of luck. What really rocked was blocking the access of security personnel so I had time to stand at the very top for a while to gather the attention of the world.
I’d primed news companies with threats of an incident in some world capital, and at the right moment revealed Paris and the Eiffel Tower as the site of my coup de grace. I’d succeeded in getting set up completely before triggering almost instant viral attention with a few posts, tweets, and the live stream from my own GoPro. I stood up there for a half an hour and suddenly was surrounded by camera drones with news helicopters closing in.
At 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon with the world watching from the ground, on TV, and throughout the internet, I spread the folded wings of my precision hang glider and took one giant leap for mankind. At first I dove, then I soared out toward the large lawn next to the Eiffel Tower. I floated for ten seconds, then pushed the button which ignited my gasoline saturated flight suit. As I erupted in flames I thought I could hear the gasp of the crowd. The pain was immediate and excruciating and glorious, but all I could do was become a bright fireball of love and kindness plummeting to earth.
Then I woke up. I put on my slippers, waddled into the bathroom to take a pee, then into the kitchen where my wife had made me a cup of coffee. Did I see a fireball splashing into it? I said, “Sweetie, now that the kids are gone, if I get cancer or something, can we go start an orphanage in Africa, or something like that?”
She smiled and said, “OK.”