Chris Johnson: What song will play when you go?

November 10, 2013 

Before last Sunday, I'd never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett. Perhaps I should have because he's a writer, just like me -- well just like me if I also had sold 47 kajillion fantasy fiction books, including one about tiny people living in carpet. (I guess Carpet Fresh powder to them is like funny-smelling snow.)

There's another way Pratchett is different from me than pure talent and financial success: At age 59, he is dealing with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

I learned about Pratchett while listening to "All Things Considered" on NPR. What caught my attention was not his prolific career nor his determination to keep writing until the day he dies. It was the way he approached life and death -- with a smile you could see through the radio.

While he loves life and writing, you can sense that he has not only accepted the fact that death will come sooner for him than it should, but also that a small part of him is almost looking forward to it.

Pratchett is an advocate of assisted suicide and wants to go out on his own terms at some point. He even has picked out the song he wants played as he takes his final breaths -- "Spem in alium" by English composer Thomas Tallis, who wrote the piece for eight choirs of five persons each to perform. I assume he wants a recording and not 40 people serenading him on the way out.

It's also a very religious song, as Tallis was a fixture in the church in the 1500s. The fact that Pratchett is an atheist makes that a bit of a weird choice for the last music he hears on this Earth. Seems like he'd have gone with something a little less religious like maybe "Mustang Sally" or "Blurred Lines." Or perhaps he could have gone with something literary like "Book of Love" or Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." But, hey, to each his own.

It got me thinking about how I'd script my exit from this world if I had such a luxury. A lot of folks say they'd like to go peacefully in their sleep. But I'd like to go peacefully while perfectly awake and alert

… and very old. Not like 115 but old enough that I've had a good decade or so of being the crazy old kook in whatever seaside village I someday retire to with my wife, who will no doubt have given up by then on the chance that I'd ever be normal. Actually, she may have already given up on that.

I'd like my last hours to be on a beach, with the surf lapping at my ankles as I watch a final sunset surrounded by family and friends -- the same ones who would have joined me in the previous week as I pigged out on cheeseburgers, chili dogs and margaritas with no more concern for my health. (I've always said that if a doctor ever tells me I've got six months to live, I'm going to eat myself to death in three.)

I would like to hear songs by some of the artists who've provided the soundtrack for my life -- Jimmy Buffett, the Beatles, Willie Nelson, Prince, The Doors, George Benson and a bunch of others. Folks like AC/DC and the Beastie Boys provided some of that life soundtrack, too, but I can't take the chance of AC/DC blasting out "Highway to Hell" as I crossed over.

For the final five minutes, I'd like to be alone with nothing but the sound of the waves. As my last-ever margarita melts away, I want to lie back in an Adirondack chair and reflect on my entire life. Everything that made it wonderful. Everything that made it suck.

Then I want to hear Norah Jones sing "Come Away With Me" as a sea angel emerges from the water, takes my hand and walks me into the ocean, under the water and on to the greatest mystery of all. I've always thought of the sea as where Heaven and Earth collide.

By the way, my memorial service really has been scripted and will be a huge, festive luau. No one wearing a tie will be allowed in. I want everybody to be comfortable and leave saying, "Now, that was a great funeral!"

I might even make a surprise appearance -- because that's just the kind of thing a crazy old dead kook like me would do.

-- Connect with Chris Johnson at

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