Last summer my husband and I took a bike ride along a trail near our house. I think about a lot of things when I’m riding a bike or running. On this particular occasion I was thinking about death. One thought in particular: Dying is the only obligation of the living.
Obviously, some things we cannot choose, like getting hit by a car or assaulted by a bad guy (or gal). But we can choose our response to the situation. We can decide what we do next.
I can also decide my actions. For example, I don’t have to obey laws or treat others with respect. I might go to jail and have no friends as a result–but still. I pretend I don’t have a choice as to whether or not I do certain things, like scrub the toilet or get an oil change, but I do. These decision could mean I pay a price, but they’re still my decisions.
Admittedly, sometimes I complete some of these seemingly obligatory tasks only to avoid the painful or inconvenient impacts of NOT doing the thing.
For example, I recently filled out multiple forms with my name, birthday, social security number, address, previous medical history, shoe size, astrological sign etc. in preparation for my first appointment at a new dentist. The many swear words I used throughout the whole processes attested to how much I enjoyed it.
My son wanted me to read with him, but I wanted to get those damn forms done. He’d have to wait while I plowed through. As I glowered my way through the task, the possibility of my sudden death came to mind again.
My Body’s Domestic Terrorist
The first time I became aware of the possibility of inexplicable and abrupt non-accident-related death I was a child. Then, a few years ago a colleague, a woman just a few years older than I, died in her sleep of a brain aneurysm. She was a lovely woman. I hate brain aneurysm, always have. If we think of battling cancer as a war then an aneurysm is a domestic terrorist attack. The idea that a burst blood vessel ends lives and could end mine haunts me.
So there I was, filling out those godforsaken forms. Hating every minute of it, I wondered if death was lingering somewhere just out of sight, stalking me.
But even with the disturbing idea that I could be living my last night, and even though I did not want to miss out on reading with my son because of dental forms, I kept going.
I said the F word under my breath a few more times and raced through the forms. Deciding to pick an approximate month for my last dental exam rather than actually looking it up, and leaving a few ailments off my family history, I finally added the final signature scrawl. Then I trooped upstairs for an abbreviated nighttime routine with my kid.
An Alternative Universe
Later, I brushed my teeth and stared hard at my image in the mirror. I wondered if I could spot or somehow sense the silent clotty killer heading to my brain. I reminded myself of that day on the path. How I knew, with absolute certainty that everything BUT death is a choice I’m making. How, just an hour before, I’d possibly allowed cursing and paperwork to be one of my last acts on earth.
What would I have done differently, I asked my reflection, if I knew tonight was my last night?
Of course, I wouldn’t have filled out the forms. Of course, I would have snuggled my baby, my husband, and my dog. I would have called my family and friends and told them all how much I loved them. Maybe I would have eaten an extra brownie or ten.
Sending Death a Thank You Card
But we don’t get to know, most of the time, when the hour of our death will arrive. And I didn’t want to walk into the dentist’s office without completed forms. Additionally, once I’d begun the task, though my son was calling me, I didn’t want to leave the unsavory business undone. I wanted to get it over with. The point is, the task was annoying, but I still chose to do it. I chose when I did it, and where, and in what spirit. I could have done a million things differently. But I didn’t. I lived in that moment, like most of us do, as if I had a million years to make a million mistakes in putting things that don’t matter ahead of things that do.
And, lucky me, I woke up the next day.
I woke up and took my son to the dentist. During which time I sat for two hours while they examined my forms and took X-rays of my teeth. I sat patiently while they transferred my information from paper and pen into bits and bytes. Jackson chatted to the hygienist and asked questions about the ghostly images of baby and adult teeth vying for position in his little mouth.
I didn’t spend a lot of time shaming myself for all the cursing. I also didn’t bother feeling too bad that instead of reading a whole chapter we only read a page or two. Mainly, I thanked my death, or rather the idea of it, for reminding me that any day may be my last.
Though it’s impractical to act as if I’ll have no tomorrow — no one should eat that many brownies — I can use the fact that my death is real, inevitable, and unique as the one thing I must do in this life to my advantage. I can and should respect my death as the first and best reminder of perspective.
Maybe I don’t always put the forms aside, or carpe diem it up all the time. But I do know I have the choice. In the end my life is up to me.
Your Turn: What are your thoughts on death? How do you remind yourself to live in the present?
Originally published at angelanoelauthor.com on April 22, 2018.