Another pithy statement that helped to shape my life was, “Breathing is not living.” When my mother first said it, one of my great-uncles was entering the terminal stages of an illness. I was too young to understand his disease, but I did understand that big questions were being discussed. Machines. Nursing homes. Death. On the way home from one of many visits to the hospital my mother sighed and said to my dad, “Breathing is not living. They need to understand that Uncle Bob will never be happy again if survival is all that is left.”
The same statement reverberated through our house when Mother’s father became ill. He had never been ill at any time in her memory. Unlike everyone in our house, Granddaddy Liddell was never sick. He didn’t have fevers. He didn’t throw up in the middle of the night. He didn’t have rashes of unknown origin. No palpitations. No ulcers, bruises, or headaches. He simply was not sick at any time, until he was. When he got sick for the first time at the age of 77, he did not know what to do. He had to be driven to the doctor almost at gunpoint, and then to the hospital, protesting every step. Mother and her brothers got him admitted and into a hospital gown and into a bed, but he simply did not know how to be sick. I will never know his symptoms. I was too young and too completely disconnected from all the “stuff” that old people did. All I do know is that he became sicker every day, and there were those conversations again. Again my mother said, “Breathing is not living.” Then my mother’s father died of causes unknown. They never could produce a real diagnosis. Mother said it was better that way. Granddaddy hated every minute in the hospital, and every time people turned their backs, he struggled out of bed. He fell more than once simply trying to put on his own clothes so he could go to his home. When the hospital called to say that he had died in the night, mother said, dry-eyed, “Breathing is not living. He wanted to live.”
When Mother finally convinced her doctor that, unlike her father, she was actually sick, she proceeded to go downhill for forty years, always on the verge of death, but always appearing to reject any attempt to put her somewhere that people could care for her. She had more medical books than her doctor possessed, and she always took one, liberally marked for study, to her medical appointments. She chose her medicines more often than her doctor did, and when people suggested that she might need a live-in assistant to keep up with her medicines, she said, “Breathing is not living.” She alleged to want to be free and have adventures, but perversely, most of her adventures involved new prescriptions and side effects. She was still breathing, but it didn’t look much like a life to me. It looked a lot like Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still tied up in the grave wrappings.
Then the day came that my father died. Mother was left alone with nothing but pill bottles and medical books. One day, she couldn’t deal with them anymore. She threw them all away, and suddenly, the woman who could not walk from the door of her apartment building to the parking garage, could hike a mile for a Hawaiian barbecued pork sandwich. The woman who was unable to tell anyone the place where her husband used to take her shopping could take a bus ride involving two transfers in order to reach a museum she wanted to visit. Her past, in which she breathed but did not live, disappeared like the morning mist and she lived two exciting, blessed years, suffering intense loneliness, suffering, but living far beyond the measure of breathing, before she stepped out of time into eternal life.
In the book, A Woman of Salt, Mary Engel digs deep into Lot’s motivations for suggesting to the angels that he be permitted to flee to Zoar instead of running away to the dark, terrifying mountains. Engel examines the possibility that in Lot’s mind, “not to die seems the same to him as living.” This thought is the opposite of my mother’s axiom–the one she did not live by. Engel suggests that Lot simply wanted to stave off death, and call that state “living.” Like my mother with her medicines and her books, Lot would “escape” death without entering into life. Zoar would not be home, but it would not be death, either. He thought it would do.
However, as Engel observes, Lot did not stop with the simple request. He tried to justify it, and every word of justification emphasized that mere continuation of existence in Zoar would not be life. In the end, even though Lot persuaded the angels to spare Zoar, he and his daughters fled to the mountains after all. Apparently, even for Lot, “breathing is not living.”
I don’t spend much time thinking about death, because I love living. I love adventure and routine and surprise and tradition. I am fortunate to be seldom sick, and to date, my body hasn’t abandoned me. I still come and go more or less at will. I still have the opportunity to try to understand whether my mother was right when she said that “Breathing is not living,” or if Lot was perhaps correct to think that “not to die [is] the same . . . as living.”
The rest of Lot’s story gives the lie to that notion, and the rest of the Bible continues to say the same thing. Lot was not really living, even though he was in Sodom where he thought he had the high life, much superior to Abram’s nomadic wanderings with his herds. When Lot chose the well-watered plain and left his uncle with the dry uplands, he really did not want the plains for his flocks and herds. He wanted Sodom. He could have told the truth to Abram. Abram was an agreeable man. He would never have told a grown man he should not live in Sodom. Yet Lot did not have the courage to tell the truth. He pretended to want the same life as Abram and shut Abram out of the well-watered plain unnecessarily. Lot died to truth right then and there. If you doubt that he was dead already, just read the story of Lot and his daughters in their “new life” after Sodom. Clearly, not to die is not the same as living. Judas learned that lesson, too, when he discovered that he was “alive,” but Christ was sentenced to the cross.
Before his crucifixion, Jesus said that he was “the way, the truth, and the life.” The fact is that people who don’t know the way or the truth cannot possibly know life, either. Just ask Lot. He was still breathing, but it is very clear that he was not living.
So, are you alive?