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To Die

An excerpt from “A Stone Boat”


The verb “to die” is one of the few that is only readily usable in the past and future tenses. We accept “he died last year,” and we can easily accept, “we will all die someday.” But the present tense, I die, you die, he dies — that should be cancelled right out of the language. And to have to use the verb in that tense not for a single moment but for weeks and months and then years — that is altogether intolerable. We tend to think, furthermore, that “to die” is a verb of the instant, like “to dive.” It is a thing that takes almost no measurable time. One second you are on the board, looking at the water, and the next second you have left the board behind you and taken the plunge. So with many deaths — one second you are alive, and the next second you are dead. Science defines death in this way, and on your death certificate indicates a particular moment as the moment of death. But sometimes the verb “to die” is more like the verb “to age,” and is a thing that happens by terrible and slow and imperceptible degrees. My mother was not given a chance to age in that manner, and was, by way of inadequate compensation, given an experience of death as gradual as a life span.