At the rate that the medical sciences are advancing these days it seems quite possible that in the near future the three leading causes of death in the so-called ‘Developed World’ will be accidents, homicides and suicides. Great successes have been achieved in stemming the death toll from heart disease, cancer and an assortment of killer viruses. People with access to adequate health care are living longer and longer. Unfortunately, these longer lives are not always satisfying and fruitful ones. There are more and more instances of people who have grown weary of living. Ennui can develop into a terminal condition for which there is no adequate remedy. People die because they simply have gotten tired of living. A case in point was a fellow named Henry…
My wife and I got to know Henry in Phnom Penh. He was an American who had lived and worked in Cambodia for fifteen years. Henry had a good job, a Khmer wife and three children. He was widely respected and well liked within the ex-pat community. A penchant for booze and cigarettes was a weakness but, he was definitely what is referred to as a ‘functioning alcoholic’. Every night from 5 to 10 Henry perched on a bar stool chain-smoking cigs and chasing shots of Southern Comfort with cans of the local brew. The art of conversation was a strong suit of his and, although he may have wobbled home on occasion, the few times I saw him in the morning going to work he always looked as fresh as the dew of dawn sparkling in the sunlight.
He suffered from a medical condition which required him to take a daily dose of prescription drugs. As long as he took the drugs, the affliction remained in check.
A year ago the weeds of ennui began to spread their roots upon the soil of his soul. Speculation had it that he and his wife were experiencing a deepening estrangement. I’m in no position to comment on that. All I know is that Henry began to drink more, converse less and lose his spirit of vivacity. He stopped taking his medication and started losing weight. Within three months, he looked skeletal.
Men who survived the brutality of Japanese POW camps during World War II claim they could predict which of the new incoming prisoners were most likely to perish in captivity as a consequence of mental, emotional and physical attrition. They were marked within a few days by the look in their eyes. As has been alleged, the eyes are portals into a Man’s soul. In the case of POWs, they indicated just how strong a person’s will to live was. That will to live would have been severely tested in a Japanese prison camp. Those whose eyes betrayed a lack of fortitude and resolve soon succumbed to disease and malnutrition.
No doubt, the same could be said about those interned in Nazi concentration camps. I read a book years ago that consisted of interviews with concentration camp survivors. All were asked an assortment of similar questions and the answers varied from one survivor to the next. One question, however, received the same response from the vast majority. The question was simply, “Considering the horrors that you were forced to endure, what was the worst part of your day?” The overwhelming reply was, “Waking up”. That answer needs no explanation.
On Henry’s last evening in Phnom Penh he sat at the bar drinking alone while waiting for the taxi that would take him and his family to the airport. Many of his old pals had showed up to say good-bye and wish him luck. The look in his eyes discouraged any such overtures.
Word was that upon Henry’s return to the U.S. he set about arranging matters for his family. His wife got a good job plus benefits, the children were all enrolled in school and an upscale three bedroom house comfortably accommodated everybody. Then, on the night of his 47th birthday, Henry went to sleep and never woke up.
That news saddened all of his friends in Cambodia but, it didn’t surprise any one. For all intents and purposes, Henry had been dead for months before he died. How does that happen to a person? I’ve no idea but, when it does there’s rarely any way back.