A modern man finds the secret to beating cancer and living forever. But what is the cost?
Father always loved myths. Tales of great battles and victories. Gentle fables of love and loss. Stories. Only they mattered.
I enjoyed the stories, too. For my favorite pastime, I curled up beside Father on the sofa, as he read to me from Tolkien, Dante, Homer. Even now, I recall his scent, musty old books and a far-off tang, like storm-cleared air over the sea. He always twisted his moustache as he read, often nibbling on its ends. But those legends never engulfed me as they did him. I would listen, laugh, cry. Then I would play outside with my friends, abandoning him in the musty living room.
His favorite story remained Gilgamesh, the part-divine being who quested for immortality after the gods stole his best friend. I always wondered if the story reminded him of Mama, who died in a car crash when I was six.
Father read me Gilgamesh over and over, until I could easily recite it from memory. Other stories, too. Castor and Polydeuces placed in the sky by Zeus as the constellation Gemini, when they could not bear to part. Jack Popcorn, the Hungarian lad who became king of Fairyland and reunited with his lost love, Iluska. But Father always returned to Gilgamesh.
When I was 16, Father developed cancer. He had less than a year to live. I remember the sadness, the hopelessness in his voice when he told me. I felt as though an icy cold ocean, one that I could never hope to escape, was swallowing me up, like the kraken of Father’s tales. He didn’t want to die, he said, throwing one of his cherished books onto a chair. He would find a way to escape. He would chain death up, like Sisyphus had bound Thanatos, and he would live forever.
My Aunt Beatrice, Mama’s younger sister, told me that denial was a normal response. She held me close in her bread-and-butter scented arms and said that I should let him work through it on his own. I tried. But he didn’t work through it. As time went on, his determination engulfed him, to cheat, to escape death’s clutches.
My aunt finally persuaded him to see a counselor. “Death is natural,” the counselor said, hair stretched back in a bun until I could see through the skin of her face. “It’s the normal ending of life. I understand your anger, but you have to move past it.” Father stopped visiting the counselor.
Finally, I went to him, and asked, against Aunt Beatrice’s advice, how he planned to cheat death. “I must remain awake,” he replied, meeting my eyes with his deep blue gaze. “For six days and seven nights. After that, the gods will grant me immortality, in recognition of my great deeds.” I easily recognized the words I had learned so many years ago.
I shuffled my feet. “But, Father, Gilgamesh was a mighty warrior, who slew Humbaba, and chopped down the Great Cedar.”
He gave me his knowing smile, the one that lingered on his face when he told me to look up an answer. “One need not be a great, muscled hero to do magnificent deeds. And one need not possess fame and renown to earn a godly reward.” I didn’t know what to say.
And so he decided that he would stay awake for six days and seven nights. He went out and bought coffee. A lot of it. And he stayed awake.
On the third day, when I walked into the living room, I heard him snoring. He sat there, on the worn leather couch, fast asleep. Secretly, I think I almost felt relieved. I lacked Father’s perfect faith the gods would listen, and I didn’t want to know the outcome. I remember standing there in the silent living room, shivering. I wanted my father back, as he had been when my mother lived. I hoped that this attempt would end his obsession.
When Father finally woke, his calm face bore no trace of his depression. I knew that it had ended, and that he would start to accept his fate. He didn’t. Instead, Father said that the ancient gods had sent him a dream, to show him how he could stay alive forever. It was like the consolation prize, he said, that Gilgamesh received when he fell asleep on his hero’s quest. Gilgamesh found a beautiful flower, which bloomed with the power of immortality, as a trophy to show for his long journey. On that day, my father began speaking of cryogenic suspension.
He’s been gone for four years now. Four years since he said he found the secret of immortality. His own personal fountain of youth. And has he? I don’t know.
I think about the end of the story, where Gilgamesh doesn’t believe in the flower, and wants to test it first. So he saves it to try on an old man, and then goes to bathe in the river. While he’s away, a snake eats the flower. Because Gilgamesh abandoned faith, he lost his chance for immortality. And in this world, you only find one chance.
I think Father understood that. He seized his possibility of immortality as few others would dare. No man can achieve immortality. But has he found a way? Will he spend eternity prisoned between life and death? Will he live on in the future, to see technology progressed far enough to seem magic in a land of gods? When I think of him, I realize that people can cheat death, though no god grants that power to mortals. We cheat death through the strength of myth itself.
I’ll tell this story to my children and grandchildren to make sure that Father’s legend never dies. For he’s a story now, like Hercules, Urshima Taro, King Arthur. Like Gilgamesh, the man who failed his quest yet is still remembered and will be for all time. For we are legends each one of us, building onto the next level of myth as our unquenchable legacy.