I've been thinking about dying a lot lately. For whatever reason my own mortality has become something that occupies more of my brain space than it once did. I've been watching the march of life and death around me and wondering how I'll go, and how I'll face it when the time comes. I hope I face it as well as Sam Simon did.
Simon died yesterday at age 59, leaving behind a cultural legacy that will be hard to beat. He wrote and produced on legendary shows Taxi and Cheers, and he co-created The Simpsons. While Simon left that show after four seasons, his fingerprints are all over the series' continued success and he was instrumental in crafting it into a series that has become a singular piece of our shared culture.
In doing so Simon - who came from money - became incredibly wealthy. He was always charitable, donating a large amount of his income to non-profits, but two years ago he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he went into overdrive. At the time his doctors gave him months to live. He told Vanity Fair:
My scans from back when I was diagnosed, my doctor said, ‘If I showed these scans to my colleagues, half of them would say you’re dead, and half would say you’re immobile and can’t get out of bed.’”
With the clock ticking Simon decided to spend his final days giving away his money. "The truth is, I have more money than I'm interested in spending," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "Everyone in my family is taken care of."
And spend his money he did - he opened a huge shelter for dogs on expensive land in Malibu, offered free surgery to dogs owned by lower income folks, bought zoos and circuses to free the animals, opened a vegan food service for hungry humans, and just generally kept giving back. None of this was an attempt to buy his way into heaven - Simon paid for atheist billboards that called the Bible a myth.
Simon's rationale was much more simple, and makes much more sense than hoping to impress God: he wanted to make a difference before he was dead.
One of the things about animal rights, which is not the only thing that I care about in this world, is that your money can bring success. I see results. There is stuff happening, really good stuff, every week. I'm not sure you get that with a lot of disease charities. If you were donating to environmental causes for the past 20 years, do you think your money is doing anything? Because I don't, and I used to support some conservationist stuff -- Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund. They're treading water. Climate change is a big part of their problem. The environment has been destroyed, basically.
Veganism is an answer for almost every problem facing the world in terms of hunger and climate change. It helps people's health. Meat is the biggest greenhouse gas producer. There's also the cruelty and suffering aspect. When people do meatless Mondays, and when people adopt instead of buying a dog, that's a PETA victory.
More than that, Sam Simon was a constant presence on Twitter, dying with dignity and humor. Some of his final tweets:
How about all these teenage girls joining isis? When I was a kid the girls couldn't even field a field hockey team.— Sam Simon (@simonsam) February 25, 2015
OMG!!! 50 shades was FANTASTIC!!! Mr. Grey was SMOOKINNNG HOT!!! Spank me spank me!!!!— Sam Simon (@simonsam) February 15, 2015
He was also honest about his illness, never hiding just how sick he was and how much it sucked. He was dying, and he didn't pretend like he was going to win against cancer. He was just going to face the reality of it as bravely and honestly as he could.
Draning lungs! pic.twitter.com/69uzrD5o3G— Sam Simon (@simonsam) March 2, 2015
I had to go to hospital last night. Vomiting blood. pic.twitter.com/ToVoj4f5l4— Sam Simon (@simonsam) February 18, 2015
We hide the sick. We frame dying from cancer as 'losing the fight.' Being sick and dying are just part of who we are as humans, as mortals, as flesh and blood creatures. Sam Simon never lost sight of that, and he didn't hide it from us in his final months.
I'm sure Sam Simon was scared and upset and, more than anything else, didn't want to die. I'm sure he would have traded everything he had for more time. But he couldn't, and instead he traded everything he had to make a difference in the world around him. I watched Sam Simon die and, more than his wonderful work in entertainment, this is where he inspired me.
"In many ways I’m consciously crafting my death,” he said.
I'm going to die some day. Sooner than I think, probably. You too. We will all die. Hopefully we can do it with half the grace and charity of Sam Simon.