God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, p.1Kurt Vonnegut
Copyright © 1999 by Kurt Vonnegut
Foreword © 2010 by Neil Gaiman
Seven Stories Press
140 Watts Street
NewYork, NY 10013
Distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada.
Distributed in the U.K. by Turnaround, London.
All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Marty Goldensohn of WNYC, who served as city desk editor to our roving reporter on the Afterlife, encouraging him to keep digging away at the story, and getting public radio to pay him a buck a word, which isn’t bad for an out-of-the-way beat like Heaven.
Portions of the introduction to this book were adapted from a graduation address delivered by the author at Agnes Scott College, Atlanta, Georgia, on May 15, 1999.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
God bless you, Dr. Kevorkian / Kurt Vonnegut ; foreword by Neil Gaiman.
1. Imaginary conversations. 2. Death–Fiction. I. Title. II. Title: God bless you, Doctor Kevorkian.
FOREWORD by Neil Gaiman
GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN
About the Author
I have spoken to Kurt Vonnegut twice now. The first time he was alive. The second time, more recently, he was dead.
We met at the end of the blue tunnel that links this world with Heaven.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian is no longer permitted to counsel people on ways to end their lives, not even for temporary visits to the outskirts of Heaven, so I went and I came back in my own way. You’ll forgive me if I omit the details.
The first time I spoke to Kurt Vonnegut it was a quarter of a century ago. He was in London, and I was a young journalist working in London. I had called him in his hotel, as suggested by his publicist, and had asked him if he would be willing for me to interview him.
He told me that he was tired, and he would prefer not to be interviewed. Anything he had to say, he said, was in his book. He was pleasant. He sounded tired.
I wanted to tell him how much his books had meant to me; that The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five were books I had read and loved as a child, and more than that, books I had learned from.
I did not tell him this while he was alive.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was mowing the perfectly kept lawns outside the golden arches of heaven.
I said, “I’m here to interview you about your book of posthumous encounters.”
“The WNYC pieces?” He nodded. “I remember those.”
“I’m writing the introduction and wanted to ask you some questions.”
“Honestly, I’d prefer not to,” he said. Then he saw the expression on my face. “Look. You can say what you like. I’m dead. I won’t mind.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Anything you have to say is in the book.”
He looked at me, then. “Have we had this conversation before?” he asked.
“Why don’t you quote something from one of the books then?” he said. He smiled. “Listen, I’d love to stop and talk, but this grass won’t mow itself.”
“Um. What about ‘A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved’?”
“Sure,” he said. “Tell them I said that.”
A WORD FROM WNYC’S REPORTER ON THE AFTERLIFE
My first near-death experience was an accident, a botched anesthesia during a triple bypass. I had listened to several people on TV talk shows who had gone down the blue tunnel to the Pearly Gates, and even beyond the Pearly Gates, or so they said, and then come back to life again. But I certainly wouldn’t have set out on such a risky expedition on purpose, without first having survived one, and then planned another in cooperation with Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the staff at the state-of-the-art lethal injection execution facility at Huntsville, Texas.
The following reports were recorded for later broadcast by radio station WNYC. I hope they convey a sense of immediacy. They were taped in the tiled Huntsville death chamber only five minutes or so after I was unstrapped from the gurney. The tape recorder, incidentally, like the gurney, was the property of the good people of Texas, and was ordinarily used to immortalize the last words of persons about to make a one-way, all-expenses-paid trip to Paradise.
There will be no more round trips for me, barring another accident. For the sake of my family, I am trying to reinstate my health and life insurance polices, if possible. But other journalists, and perhaps even tourists, will surely follow the safe two-way path to Eternity I pioneered. I beg them to be content, as I learned to be, with interviews they are able to conduct on the hundred yards or so of vacant lot between the far end of the blue tunnel and the Pearly Gates.
To go through the Pearly Gates, no matter how tempting the interviewee on the other side, as I myself discovered the hard way, is to run the risk that crotchety Saint Peter, depending on his mood, may never let you out again. Think of how heartbroken your friends and relatives would be if, by going through the Pearly Gates to talk to Napoleon, say, you in effect committed suicide.
About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.
I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”
I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.
I made that joke, of course, before my first near-death experience—the accidental one.
So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, “He’s up in Heaven now.” Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this.
My epitaph in any case? “Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt.” I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.
Humanists, having received no credible information about any sort of God, are content to serve as well as they can, the only abstraction with which they have some familiarity: their communities. They don’t have to join the A.H.A. to be one.
Yes, and this booklet of my conversations with the dead-and-buried was created in the hope that it would earn a little bit of money—not for me, but for the National Public Radio station WNYC in downtown Manhattan. WNYC enhances the informed wit and wisdom of its community and mine. I
Whereas formal religions surely comfort many members of the WNYC staff, that staff’s collective effect on its community is humanism—an ideal so Earthbound and unmajestic that I never capitalize it. As I have used it here, “humanist” is nothing more supernatural than a handy synonym for “good citizenship and common decency.”
I wish one and all long and happy lives, no matter what may become of them afterwards. Use sunscreen! Don’t smoke cigarettes.
Cigars, however, are good for you. There is even a magazine celebrating their enjoyment, with male role models, athletes, actors, rich guys with trophy wives, on its covers. Why not the surgeon general? Cigars, of course, are made of trail mix, of crushed cashews and granola and raisins, soaked in maple syrup and dried in the sun. Why not eat one tonight at bedtime?
Firearms are also good for you. Ask Charlton Heston, who once played Moses. Gunpowder has zero fat and zero cholesterol. That goes for dumdums, too. Ask your senator or senatrix or congressperson if guns, like cigars, aren’t good for you.
My late Uncle Alex Vonnegut, my father’s kid brother, a Harvard-educated life insurance agent in Indianapolis who was well read and wise, was a humanist like all the rest of the family. What Uncle Alex found particularly objectionable about human beings in general was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy.
He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
I myself say that out loud at times of easy, natural bliss: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Perhaps others can also make use of that heirloom from Uncle Alex. I find it really cheers me up to keep score out loud that way.
OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.
What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.
Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.
A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.
But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:
“You are not enough people!”
I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.
They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?
This rambling introduction is four times as long as the most efficient, effective piece of writing in the history of the English-speaking world, which was Abraham Lincoln’s address on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Lincoln was shot by a two-bit actor who was exercising his right to bear arms. Like Isaac Asimov and Uncle Alex, Lincoln is up in Heaven now.
So this is Kurt Vonnegut, WNYC’s now emeritus reporter on the afterlife, signing off on paper this time.
Ta ta and adios. Or, as Saint Peter said to me, with a sly wink, when I told him I was on my last round trip to Paradise: “See you later, alligator.”
November 8, 1998, and May 15, 1999
on my near-death experience
this morning, I found out what becomes of people who die while they’re still babies. Finding that out was accidental, since I’d gone down the blue tunnel to interview Dr. Mary D. Ainsworth, who died last March 21, age eighty-five, in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was a retired but active-to-the-end developmental psychologist.
Dr. Ainsworth’s extravagantly favorable obituary in the New York Times said she had done more research than anyone on the long-term effects of bonding between a mother and an infant during the first year of life—or, alternatively, the absentminded lack of bonding. She studied motherless babies in London, all kinds of mothering or lack of it in Uganda, and then here in the U.S. of A.
She concluded, with impressive scientific proofs, that infants need a secure attachment to a mother figure at the beginning of life, if they are to thrive. Otherwise, they will be forever anxious.
I wanted her to talk some about nature versus nurture, and also about the mothering I myself had received when a neonate—whether that might not go a long way toward explaining me.
But Dr. Ainsworth was bubbling over with excitement over how her theories were confirmed in Heaven. Never mind all the honors she’d received from fellow psychologists on Earth. It turns out that there are nurseries and nursery schools and kindergartens in Heaven for people who died when they were babies. Volunteer surrogate mothers, or sometimes the babies’ actual mothers, if they’re dead, bond like crazy with the little souls. Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle. Kiss, kiss, kiss. Don’t cry, little baby. Your mommy loves you. Bet you have to burp. I’ll bet that’s the trouble. There. Feel better? Time to go sleepy-bye. Goo, goo, goo.
And the babies grow up to be angels. That’s where angels come from!
This is Kurt Vonnegut, signing off in the lethal injection facility in Huntsville, Texas. Until the next time, goo goo goo and ta ta.
this morning, thanks to a controlled
near-death experience, I was lucky enough to meet, at the far end of the blue tunnel, a man named Salvatore Biagini. Last July 8th, Mr. Biagini, a retired construction worker, age seventy, suffered a fatal heart attack while rescuing his beloved schnauzer, Teddy, from an assault by an unrestrained pit bull named Chele, in Queens.
The pit bull, with no previous record of violence against man or beast, jumped a four-foot fence in order to have at Teddy. Mr. Biagini, an unarmed man with a history of heart trouble, grabbed him, allowing the schnauzer to run away. So the pit bull bit Mr. Biagini in several places and then Mr. Biagini’s heart quit beating, never to beat again.
I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagini was philosophical. He said it sure as heck beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.
after this morning’s controlled
near-death experience I am almost literally heartbroken that there was no way for me to take a tape recorder down the blue tunnel to Heaven and back again. Never before had there been a New Orleans–style brass band, led by the late Louis Armstrong, to greet a new arrival with a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The recipient of this very rare and merry honor, accorded to only one in ten million newly dead people, I’m told, was an Australian Aborigine, with some white blood, named Birnum Birnum.
When white settlers came in the nineteenth century, the natives of Australia and nearby Tasmania had the simplest and most primitive cultures of any people then on Earth. They were regarded as vermin, with no more minds and souls than rats, say. They were shot; they were poisoned. Only in 1967, practically the day before yesterday, were the su
There were no survivors on Tasmania. I asked him for a sound bite about the Tasmanians to take back to WNYC. He said they were victims of the only completely successful genocide of which we know. Louis Armstrong broke into our conversation to say the Tasmanians were as gifted and intelligent as anybody, given good teachers. Two members of his current band, he said, were Tasmanians. One played clarinet; the other one played a mean gutbucket, or slide trombone.
This is Kurt Vonnegut, WNYC’s reporter on the Afterlife, signing off.
today’s controlled near-death
experience was a real honey! I interviewed John Brown—whose body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, but whose truth goes marchin’ on. One hundred forty years ago, come October 2, he was hanged for treason against the United States of America. At the head of a force of only eighteen other antislavery fanatics, he captured the virtually unguarded Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His plan? To pass out weapons to slaves, so they could overthrow their masters. Suicide.
Law-abiding citizens opened fire from all sides, killing eight of his men, two of them his sons. He himself was taken prisoner by a force of United States Marines, sworn to uphold the Constitution. Their commander was Colonel Robert E. Lee.
John Brown wears a hangman’s noose for a necktie up in Heaven. I asked him about it, and he said, “Where’s yours? Where’s yours?”
His eyes were like glowing coins. “Without shedding of blood,” he said, “there is no remission of sin.” It turns out that’s in the New Testament, Hebrews 9:22.
I congratulated him on what he’d said on his way to be hanged before a gleeful, jeering throng of white folks. I quote: “This is a beautiful country.” In only five words, he had somehow encapsulated the full horror of the most hideous legal atrocities committed by a civilized nation until the Holocaust.
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