Salvation in the Age of Cryonics

Just through the window across the hall, Cassie could see the sky begin to turning periwinkle blue. There were no windows in the waiting room where she sat up to keep her friend company. They had feasted through the night on sleep-deprivation, cold coffee, and tears. So, at least in that way, it was a familiar experience: It was like a typical all-nighter of homework from their undergrad days long ago.

But now it seemed more like the moment you’re allowed to walk across campus and turn the homework sets in. Cassie had just put together two pieces of information she would never have expected to find and formed an argument she’d never planned to make. And it came out of her mouth as if in a foreign tongue. She was surprised at how easy it was to say. Instead of, “So you’d support cryonics in the case where there was someone you didn’t think was properly Christian but who might become Christian if they had more time?” it sounded instead like, “So, then, you might support cryonics for someone who’s not saved?”

In response, her friend, Andrea, had looked over at her with red, bleary eyes and said, “Well, apparently, I do.” This was very different from the way this sort of conversation had played out in the past--possibly because it wasn’t the same conversation. Cassie could still remember the first.

Back then, they hadn’t been sleep-deprived forty-year-olds sitting in a hospital waiting room, all drained and sober from the sorrows and worries of an unexpected event. They had been sleep-deprived 18-year-olds sitting in a lounge on their campus, manic and hyper from the friendships and novelties of freshman year.

And Andrea had looked up from her math textbook and said, in a manner that only seemed like a non-sequitur to people who had not been in the lounge continuously for the past three hours, “Whenever people are thinking about cryonics working, there’s something they don’t take account of.”

She got a response of eyes, not words, but plowed onward: “I’m thinking... what about the soul?”

“Isn’t that assuming that cryonics involves dying first?” had been Cassie’s response.

“It doesn’t?” asked Andrea.

“Depends on what you mean by dying. But mostly, no,” said Cassie. “Cryonics was in no way claiming to be a way to bring back people who are truly dead.”

Andrea came back with, “Well, if you have to freeze people who are living, that brings up another ethical dilemma, now doesn’t it? Because, how will you decide when--”

But just then someone else stepped into the conversation. A by-now-forgotten fellow member of their frosh class had used the line, “Well, if you’re going to be talking about freezing people, I’m going to get up and stand by the fire,” and proceeded to rumage around for something interesting to burn in the low gas flame of the lounge fireplace.

And that was that.

But if anyone had guessed that the two would never be friends just based on that first interaction, they would have guessed wrong.

And so the conversations had continued. Some of them had even picked up that same original thread of dialogue. Within that topic, the award for “most smug” could have gone to Andrea the day that she subtly alluded to her Christian faith by saying, “Actually, I would never do cryonics anyway because I already have a plan for my immortality.”

Meanwhile, an award for “most effective” might have gone to Cassie on the day she had verbally meted out portions of the “Wait But Why” article on Cryonics. (Obviously, it would seem to be more efficient if she could share it with Andrea and have her read it herself; the only problem was that she wouldn’t.)

So they got to talking about that article, and about how the definition of “dead” changed over time. And Cassie could see it was effective right in the moment, because Andrea took the wheel: “In that case, it would be like… it would be like this one Alfred Hitchcock episode…” She started snapping her fingers as if to conjure the name of it. “There’s a guy in a car, and everyone thinks he’s dead, but he’s really paralyzed--’Breakdown.’ That’s what it’s called: ‘Breakdown.’ ” All Cassie could think at that moment was, “Better than ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” but she prided herself on the fact that she could suppress thoughts like that when they came to her. So Andrea barrelled onward, looking Cassie square in the face: “Then it would become more of a situation of preserving life.”

And Andrea valued preserving life a good deal, by all accounts. Which would make it seem puzzling that she didn’t change her view right then. “Based on that, you would sign up for cryonics, right?” Cassie asked her soon enough. Andrea just shook her head.

That was so long ago. It was pretty hypothetical then--serious, but hypothetical. They’d tossed around ideas with the easy freedom of people who reason that since they never have enough time, any time is just as good or bad as any other time for taking a break.

Today, time had seemed no more or less abundant, yet it had a rhythm they had slipped right in to: their visit interrupted by a 3am phone call, news of Andrea’s dad, grabbing keys and wallets, getting in Cassie’s car, rushing down the 210 to the hospital in the quiet dark, arriving at the hospital.

After conversations with a bored-looking woman behind the information desk and slogging her way through the torments of paperwork and protocols, Andrea got in to see the attending physician. When she returned, without a word, she had collapsed in a chair and started crying.

Cassie really wanted to say, “Just cry. Just get it out. It’s okay,” but silence and hugs seemed to be just as useful towards promoting that end. During a lull in the storm, Cassie asked, “Do you want to talk about it?” “Nooo,” was the mumbled reply that came back, gurgling out among the tears, with a clambering misery like a child’s. And still there was the unnerving shaking of Andrea’s sobs, though they came out silently after that.

It was because she’d had to see her friend so broken-up that Cassie said what she said next. So, too, it was because of the last conversation she’d had with Andrea about death. Six months ago, Andrea had been telling people she’d been “grappling with her own mortality more than usual.” And by “grappling with her own mortality,” she meant “undergoing treatments for breast cancer.” Her talk about heaven was “out there,” but it was absolutely not an argue-her-on-it time. And it finally answered Cassie’s old question, “Why does she seem okay with letting herself die after seventy or eighty years of life?” The answer was that Andrea wasn’t expecting pie-in-the-sky; she was expecting pie-in-the-sky on steroids.

Cassie was very suspicious of descriptions that were perfectly what anyone on the receiving end might want: a heaven that was “all ecstasy and safety and freedom, but with purpose--without boredom” sounded like a heaven invented by and for the target audience of an ad. And if you believed the ad Andrea was promoting, being with God was going to be like falling into an ocean of love, and being with ones fellow-humans-in-heaven was going to be like taking up residence within a constellation peopled with innumerable bright souls. Those were all the kinds of things that Andrea said when her filter was off.

All this in her mind, Cassie opened up her mouth and said, “But doesn’t part of you want the afterlife for your dad?”

When she saw the transformation of Andrea’s face, she could have sworn. Andrea went from silence to shouting: “No, there is nothing for him! Or worse than nothing! If he dies now, I have no reason to believe that he’s saved.”

Cassie hadn’t thought things through; she’d just assumed. All she really knew about Andrea’s parents’ belief was that they had made her go to church when she was growing up, and that she said she was glad of that. But Cassie had just assumed. She just assumed Andrea was thinking her dad was Christian, that he was fine, that he was taken care of. She assumed what she was seeing was sorrow over the loss to the daughter--and that not to be minimized--but that, at least in Andrea’s mind, there was some of that ecstasy/freedom/pie-in-the-sky for her dad on the other end of his journey. “Yeah, that would explain her distress alright,” thought Cassie instantly, and also, “Weep. Just weep, my friend.”

But all she said out loud was, “I’m sorry,” and “I hadn’t known.”

And then she knew what she was going to say next. “Oh, Andrea? So, then, you would support cryonics for someone who’s not saved?”

Well, apparently, she did. What the woman sitting beside her wouldn’t want for herself, she would want for the beloved old man whom she was worrying over.





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