The last "obituary" blog post I wrote was for my grandfather Leo Zwell -- the man who taught me about science and so much else. He died at age 91, after a long life rich in personal, professional and intellectual satisfaction. His death was tragic, as are almost all deaths. But the death I'm noting in this (painfully inadequate) post is vastly more depressing and tragic.
My sister's son Lev died last month, just short of his 15'th birthday. His death was totally unanticipated -- he was on vacation with his parents and his brother Jaal, camping in the forest in Alberta (Canada), and was struck in the night with a bizarre sudden illness. He stopped breathing a minute from the hospital, and died there an hour and a half later. The cause of death remains unclear, but the autopsy revealed a severe brain infection of some sort. One serious possibility is some form of meningitis (there are forms with quite brief incubation periods, i.e. a handful of days).
Think about it: One day you're totally healthy … then the next day, you die in your sleep, never having known anything was wrong. Maybe a mild headache the day before, no different than dozens or hundreds of other headaches you've had in your life.
My friend and colleague Jeff Pressing died in a very similar way a decade ago, in the midst of his adulthood.
I visited my sister and her family for 4 days shortly after Lev's death (they live near Seattle, I live in Maryland), but even so, I can't imagine what they're going through.
A full obituary is here.
My extended family is fairly small, but even so, there are some relatives I'm closer to than others. Lev was among the closer ones. He always felt like part of the same cognitive/spiritual tribe as me and my own kids: weird, sarcastic, outrageous sometimes, difficult and obnoxious sometimes, intellectual, adventurous, curious, warm-hearted, courageous, playful, compassionate, constantly skeptical but willing to steadfastly defend his best-guess beliefs and his sometimes-odd tastes.
Like me, Lev was called "crazy" many times, but usually in an affectionate way -- but of course he wasn't really crazy, just a free thinker unwilling to take anyone's word for anything or take anything for granted, dedicated to find his own path to enjoyment and understanding.
Though we never lived nearby each other, we saw each other at least once a year, sometimes more. Most recently he had spent a week at my house in April 2010 -- 3 months before his death. It was a great visit, with some fascinating conversations as well as lots of video games, frisbee, hiking, rock-climbing and so forth. I was struck by how fast he was growing up all of a sudden. Lev had always been a smart and inquisitive kid, but on this visit he was more interested to carry out lengthy intellectual chats -- about DNA, time travel, AI and so forth. He also showed a deep knowledge of history and politics, with an insight into Western history complementing my own sons' recent study of Japanese and Mongolian history. We even discussed the possibility of immortality via technological means, and he was all in favor.
He was a devout heavy metal head, and particularly a devotee of Metallica. I failed to convert him to jazz fusion, though he admitted that some of it sounded a bit like music. Like many teenagers, he had mused on death frequently, and long previously had told his parents the song he wanted played at his funeral, if he were ever to die: Fade to Black, by Metallica.
Fade to Black was indeed played at the funeral, which was the point in the funeral where I finally "lost it" and cried in a way I hadn't for a very long time. I played that song many times in the week following. Though I prefer Master of Puppets as a piece of music, obviously his choice was highly apropos for the setting. Yet the lyrics didn't quite fit. The lyrics say
Life it seems will fade away
Drifting further every day
Getting lost within myself
Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free
Things not what they used to be
Missing one inside of me
Deathly lost, this can't be real
Cannot stand this hell I feel
Emptiness is filling me
To the point of agony
Growing darkness taking dawn
I was me but now he's gone
No one but me can save myself
But it's too late
Now I can't think
Think why I should even try
Yesterday seems as though
It never existed
Death greets me warm
Now I will just say goodbye
but certainly Lev had NOT lost the will to live, except perhaps in the last few hours when he was unconscious and his body was succumbing to the infection that killed him. He was full of enthusiasm for life and excitement for the future.
"I was me but now he's gone."
He and his best friend Zay had plans to go to university together in Switzerland (I don't know why they chose that country). They had been best friends many years earlier when they went to school together in Costa Rica, and had maintained their friendship over many years via 7+ hours per week of phone calls -- wide-ranging phone calls, sometimes occupied with an expansive, multi-year collaboratively-created "imaginary adventure game"; sometimes with conversation on serious or casual topics; sometimes with long pauses while one or another worked on homework while the phone line was kept open.
The funeral was Quaker style, meaning that there was no primary speaker, but rather the individuals in the audience were invited to stand up and state their memories of Lev. There were many moving speeches but to me the most touching and insightful was Zay's. Zay recounted Tegmark's variant of multiverse theory, according to which -- due to the large extent and general quasi-randomness of the universe -- it's likely that the universe contains multiple variants of Earth, each of which is similar to our own but with minor variations. Zay pointed out that, in this case, there would be many variant Earths, including many on which Lev did not get an infection and die at age 14. He said he took some small solace from the fact that, in those variant Earths, his analogue and Lev's analogue would get to grow up together and experience adulthood together.
At my sister's house, after the funeral, we each took some of Lev's things, to symbolize his memory. My 13 year old daughter Scheherazade took one of the stories he'd hand-written in a small notebook. On the front page, alongside the title, was scribbled the following marginal note: "Kick Zay in the testicles." I was reminded of a time, years ago, when I invited the 9 year old Lev to "play fight" with me, in the manner one often does with young children. He immediately initiated the fight by kicking me in the nuts as hard as he could. No particular hostility was intended -- he was just play-fighting, Lev-style. A few minutes later he wandered off in some random direction, lost in imagination, and we had to hunt him down -- a common habit when in public with Lev, especially when he was younger.
As I pointed out to Zay in a conversation after the funeral, if Tegmark's theory is correct, then it's possible some future technology could allow us to visit those variant Earths one day, so he might actually get to see the 15, 25 and 85 year old Lev after all.
It's also possible that, as Martine Rothblatt, Bill Bainbridge and some other futurists speculate (see e.g. CyberEv), we may eventually be able to reconstitute deceased humans from data such as their writings, and recordings of their voice and physical appearance and movements, and their imprints on the memories of others.
But while I take such future possibilities seriously, they don't really help mute the tragedy much. Right now, in the world we know concretely, Lev is gone -- and I can't shake the feeling he shouldn't be.
There's some room for philosophical debate about the merits of death via old age. Some say death is natural, and therefore aesthetically and morally positive. Some say it lends a particular meaningfulness and elegance to life, and that without it life would lose depth and pizazz. I don't really buy that. Of course death adds meaning to life, and of course there is a certain aesthetic charm to a life that ends in death, which wouldn't be there in an infinite life. But an infinite life would have a different kind of depth and pizazz -- and probably ultimately a much better kind. There is also a special meaningfulness and elegance to being tortured, or dying of cancer, but yet we don't crave these, we try to avoid them -- because we prefer other forms of meaningfulness and elegance.
But anyway, all that is moot in this case -- only the most cognitively-distorted religious fanatic would argue the merits of the sudden death by disease of a healthy, vibrant child.
When my grandfather Leo died at age 91, it was terribly sad, but there was a certain feeling of completeness to the story. He had anticipated his death for a while -- he had no expectations of afterlife, and he had reconciled himself to his own impending nonexistence. Ever a scientist, he came to see his limited time-scope as being roughly comparable to his limited space-scope. He'd had a long and rich marriage, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,…. His life had followed a meaningful arc. I certainly wish Leo had lived forever -- but, the wrongness of his death was pretty much restricted to the wrongness implicit in the general wrongness of the human condition.
But Lev dying at age 14 is another matter. It's like finding the bottom 1/5 of a Picasso painting, or an unfinished symphony with only the first of 7 movements -- and a tiny fragment of the second, cut off at a completely senseless place. There's no positive aesthetic or moral value in such a death. It just fucking sucks. There's no obscene invective, and no poetic prose nor obituary nor blog post, and no Metallica nor Beethoven song, capable to convey even fractionally the massive fucking-suckiness of such a thing.
Nietzche wrote about the merits of "dying at the right time." He felt a good death was just as important as a good life. Nietzsche himself egregiously failed to die at the right time, spending the last 11 years of his life mute and semi-insane from some sort of brain disease. Leo, perhaps, died at the right time (given the current, deeply flawed order of human existence). Lev massively did not.
I really hope to see Lev again on some variant Earth or in some computer simulation or other dimension or whatever. I have no way to confidently estimate the odds of such a thing. I do believe the world we now know and understand via science merely scratches the surface of the overall universe with its copious transhuman hidden patterns, orders and flows. But the mysteriousness of life doesn't imply that the universe will someday deliver us the various things we want.
For now, it's just really damn depressing.
And for all that, I still can't remotely imagine how I'd feel if it were one of my own kids.
I'll close with some pieces of advice from Lev, which were collected by his parents and emailed to friends and family and posted on the wall at the funeral:
- Color outside the lines and do it quickly.
- There is no need to be consistent.
- Be difficult. It is a winning strategy.
- Go outside in the pouring rain.
- Be intensely critical of everything all the time.
- There is nothing wrong with a good scowl. Practice if necessary.
- Spend your money quickly.
- If you love someone, give them your stuff.
- Go off-trail and climb to the top of the hill.
- Like yourself. You're awesome.
- Buy it now because you want it. Next week you won't care about it.
- When forced to eat vegetables, shove them all in your mouth at once, chew, and swallow. Then enjoy the rest of your meal.
- Love your friends; ignore your enemies.
- Don't listen to anything your parents say. They know way less than you do.
- Say whatever is on your mind...mean or nice.
- Wear a hat. Bare heads are boring.
- If what you are doing is not fun, it is not worth doing.
- You really can read 3 books at once.
- When everyone turns in the assignment, that's a good clue that you better get started on it.
- Live in the moment.
- Don't let anyone break a spirit.
- Speak out for what you believe in.
This post-script is inspired by Lev's death rather than directly about Lev or his death. I'm sure Lev wouldn't mind.
After Lev's funeral I couldn't help imagining: what if the funeral were my own? What if I were the one struck randomly by some bizarre disease?
Of course, we always know intellectually that each day could be our last -- but we rarely live in a manner that richly incorporates this knowledge.
A few days after Lev's funeral I had a dream of my own funeral -- which was (in the dream) in the same building as Lev's, but of course with different music and different people. Also, it was winter outside, whereas Lev's occurred in summer.
Instead of "Fade to Black," my dream-funeral featured two songs in sequence: The Structure of Mind by me (the best song I've written); followed by Soothsayer, by Buckethead (the best song I wish I'd written).
Soothsayer, to me, is all about the presence of a hidden order, pattern and flow to the cosmos. It's about the presence of something else there in the world -- something bigger and wiser and crazier than us; some structured dynamic domain of being/becoming, which we can never quite understand without losing our pathetic little human selves. Buckethead's Soothsayer -- like Hendrix's Voodoo Child before him -- wants to lead us there, but we travel there at our peril. You have to choose: either retain your human form and forego the transcendent domain, except in dribs and drabs; or lose your self and open your heart and mind to the transcendent. Lev followed the Soothsayer. For now, still, here I am.
Also my daughter Scheherazade (who is now 13, but was older than that in the dream) read the following statement, which I had written before my death:
I'd like to thank my parents Carol and Ted for creating me and raising me. My grandfather Leo Zwell for teaching me about science. My kids Zar, Zeb and Zade for being awesome kids and giving a center to my life. My first wife Gwen and my second wife Izabela for all the good times and deep sharing. Gwen for giving me the kids as well. Cassio Pennachin for so much professional and intellectual partnership. Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Hope to see you all again in some other time, or some other dimension. As Jimi Hendrix said: If I don't see you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one, and don't be late.
I think there was more to the speech Zade read than that also, but I can't recall all the details.
Then Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (not Slight Return) was played, while people ate green eggs and ham (seriously!).
(Gwen and I made green eggs and ham for the kids once, back in the day, inspired by the Dr. Seuss book. The food coloring made the eggs taste funny.)
Well, the night I was born
Lord I swear the moon turned a fire red
The night I was born
I swear the moon turned a fire red
Well my poor mother cried out "lord, the gypsy was right!"
And I seen her fell down right dead
Well, mountain lions found me there waitin'
And set me on a eagles back
Well, mountain lions found me there,
And set me on a eagles wing
(Its' the eagles wing, baby, what did I say)
He took me past to the outskirts of infinity,
And when he brought me back,
He gave me a venus witch's ring
And he said "Fly on, fly on"
Because I'm a voodoo chile, baby, voodoo chile
Well, I make love to you,
And lord knows you'll feel no pain
Say, I make love to you in your sleep,
And lord knows you felt no pain
'Cause I'm a million miles away
And at the same time I'm right here in your picture frame
'Cause I'm a voodoo chile
Lord knows I'm a voodoo chile
Well my arrows are made of desire
From far away as Jupiter's sulphur mines
Say my arrows are made of desire, desire
From far away as Jupiters sulphur mines
(Way down by the Methane Sea, yeah)
I have a hummingbird and it hums so loud,
You think you were losing your mind, hmmm...
Well I float in liquid gardens
And Arizona new red sand
I float in liquid gardens
Way down in Arizona red sand
Well, I taste the honey from a flower named Blue,
Way down in California
And then New York drowns as we hold hands
'Cause I'm a voodoo chile
Lord knows I'm a voodoo chile
I'm a million miles away -- and at the same time I'm right here in your picture frame.
Anyway, there you go. In the unlikely event I should meet an untimely doom like Lev, you now know what music to play and what statement to read at my funeral.
(For those who are into psychic powers: no, that dream didn't have the particular flavor of a premonition. It felt like something that occurred in a certain percentage of the universes in the multiverse, but not necessarily a high percentage. Much like Lev's death. Improbable but sadly, not impossible.)
But, depressing as Lev's extraordinarily untimely death is, it hasn't turned me into a pessimist. I'm still pushing for eternal life for me and as many others as possible.
And I note that, in my dream of my funeral, my corpse was not there -- and nor were my ashes. Rather, my body was frozen at Alcor.
And my mind, in the dream, was somehow hovering over the proceedings -- watching and knowing, but not quite able to form a thought or an action.
Every since I was 6 or 7 years old, I've had a strange intuition about the nature of "life after death." You're not exactly there, but you're not really not-there either. Your mind exists, but almost melded in with the rest of the cosmos. You perceive, and sort-of know, but you don't act autonomously. You float there, superimposed. And then maybe, some future technology brings you out.
Yes, I know, that's totally unscientific -- but there you go.
Quantum theory does suggest that everything that ever happened in the universe, every structure that ever existed -- is informationally still present, encoded in the fluctuations of various wavicles as they scatter about. Could all that information be mined out, somehow, someday? A fascinating possibility. Yet science -- which Lev admired, as I do -- is great but limited.
Life remains a mystery. Sometimes mysteriously wonderful -- and sometimes mysteriously, amazingly, almost unbelievably fucking shitty.