I’ve never been comfortable with Death. I realize that is not a gravity-defying observation and that I share my dread of the End with nearly every other sentient being on the planet, including you, unless you’re on a particularly fabulous cocktail of drugs. I suppose what I mean is that despite the fact I think of it constantly, I cannot actually see it. I’ve always felt an aversion bordering on pathological avoidance when it comes to condoling with people, attending funerals, khatams, quls or any of other rituals of death that we have come up with to allow mourning.

I chalked this up to a healthy zest for living and the fact that for most of my youth (a phase of life that is as confusing as it is short-lived) Death was an infrequent visitor: the only people I knew who faced it were older, men and women who had lived long lives and often welcomed the end as a release. I knew people who had felt loss, of course; kindergarten friends who lost parents in car accidents or neighborhood children who lost siblings to brain tumours. When news of a young death did come, it always felt wrong, as if the world had exploded in an instant but immediately put itself back together. Later, after the rest of the world had moved on, I would watch the people left behind try to restitch their lives into some semblance of cohesion. It’s never the same.

I’ve lived with the constant anxiety of losing someone for as long as I can remember. To this day, I always keep a return ticket to Pakistan in my suitcase just in case anything happens to my parents while I’m away. I stay up at night imagining the logistics of funerals, whether I’ll be able to make it back in time for burial, wondering if I would be able to step up and make arrangements. I imagine when my partner will die, if I’ll go before or not. I see Death every time I get a late night phone call or text, every time the landline rings, sometimes even just by an email alert.

I lost two friends in my twenties, both cases were inoperable tumours. People said it was unfair and sad, and I took comfort in my hope that these things don’t happen often, that everyone agreed this was Wrong. It is a comfort I have been unable to find of late. In the last twelve months, Death has come by more often. Part of it may be that we are all going through a pandemic, an obvious assertion of the specter of death if ever there was one, and the quite literal existential dread it can bring with it.

'Garden of Death' by Hugo Simberg

I know 19 people who have died in the last 12 months and only two of them were what you would consider old. Some - like acquaintances in NY - died from Covid; several friends from college and graduate school died more mysteriously, either from suicide or drug overdoses, or, as I suspect, both. When the frequency of these deaths picked up last year (nearly all of them robust, healthy people in their thirties), some part of me realized that quarantine had been far worse for some than others.
I see Death every time I get a late night phone call or text, every time the landline rings, sometimes even just by an email alert

Last month I picked up my phone to call a photographer named Mudassar Dar I have worked with in Lahore for ten years. He didn’t pick up and I thought nothing of it. When I didn’t hear back for several weeks, I reached out to others. Eventually a mutual friend called me to say he’d recommend a new photographer because “Of course you know what happened…”

I didn’t.

“Mudassar died,” he told me. “He died a few weeks ago.”

He was nearly exactly my age. An avid nature photographer, he would often take grueling trips to the North, the kind where he’d get frostbite after waiting in the snow for 10 hours to  photograph a snow leopard. He’d been on his way back from one of these trips when he got into a terrible car accident just outside of Lahore and broke his leg. They took him to Jinnah Hospital, but being overworked the people claimed to have no time to operate, and sent him back home with a cast. He spent the next few days trying to get the operation until he dropped dead of a blood clot that had traveled up his leg to his brain. He had a wife and two small kids. That his death was entirely avoidable is infuriating, but then so much of life’s tragedies are in retrospect. The fact is he is no more and will never be. But I can still remember what he was planning, where he wanted to go, the life he assumed he would live and that scares me most of all because it could be any of us.

'Death and the Miser' - oil painting by Frans II van Francken

What I’m left with is the lingering guilt of carrying on living when others won’t. Proximity to Death brings a momentary clarity to one’s life, but after this past year I find that clarity stays with me less and less each time. I’m afraid of taking it for granted, afraid of becoming familiar with Death, which is ridiculous since it’s quite literally the only thing we know for sure will happen. Maybe that’s why no matter how many times we think about Death, we are always so unprepared to confront it.

Maybe the best way to confront death is to live.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com