A couple of things happened in the last week that had me considering the fragility of life and the eventuality of my demise. One was a traffic accident that resulted in the deaths of four teenagers. It wasn’t late, it wasn’t their fault, and they weren’t impaired. They were on the way to score some pizza around 8:30 p.m. when a drunk driver ran into them. Of course, the drunk driver survived, as they always do. She’s facing multiple manslaughter charges.
It’s breathtaking to think of such young lives cut short in the matter of a few seconds. All but one of the teenagers were high school students, barely budded as human beings. Sometimes it takes more than a misstep or one wrong move; sometimes, like in this case, it’s finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure none of them expected that their car ride to the pizza parlor was going to be their last.
Last week, Natasha Richardson — a woman who is younger than me — died from a fall on the bunny slope. I’m no skier, but when my kids were little, I tried it. I fell and knocked stars into my head on the bunny slope. My end result was a concussion, not a life-ending brain hemorrhage, but it could have just as easily happened to me.
The other thing that caused me to think about death last week was a visit to my doctor. I’d suffered from some shoulder pain after lugging my laptop around for the weekend I was in San Francisco for the writers’ conference. She gave me a script for physical therapy and had me x-rayed. I learned I have arthritis in my vertebrae.
Yes, I’m over 50, so one expects the machinery is slowing down, if not breaking up completely. I’ve been lucky in that I’m fairly well preserved and take care of myself by being somewhat active and not abusing my body.
Recently my husband and I revised our trust and will. It only took me three years to get him moving. The last time, it took ten years. Like most people, my husband doesn’t like thinking about his eventual demise. We had to do it; his mother and sister had been assigned as executors and both had passed away, and our children are grown. Addresses, circumstances, and everything else had changed.
I, on the other hand, am completely different from my husband. I’ve been thinking about dying ever since I can remember.
Maybe it’s the prayer I learned as a young child, the one we say before going to bed. “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” If that’s not enough to scare the living daylights out of a kid, I don’t know what would. There was really a possibility that waking up the next day wasn’t going to happen? I spent many nights wide awake contemplating the probability. It's still one thing I think of before I nod off to sleep.
Perhaps it was because my younger sister had a brush with death when she was just a small child. I was eight years old and she was six when she contracted encephalitis. She spent two weeks in the hospital. My father came home on emergency leave from duty in Korea. I have a very vivid memory of sitting under the kitchen window with my other younger sister, listening to my mother cry in the company of friends. In a moment of absurdity, my four-year-old sister told me she wanted my sick sister’s toys, but I could have her underwear if our sibling died. Luckily, she survived.
Perhaps I often thought of death because my father was in the Army, gone most of the time to serve his country in foreign lands, sometimes for war. It was unspoken in our house, but even as children we knew there was a certain amount of risk associated with war. I was a ‘tween when my father went to Vietnam, and I watched the news. I knew what was going on. He could have just as easily come home in a flag-draped box as he could by opening the front door. It is to my relief to say he managed to open that door again and again.
Then as an angst-ridden teenager, I often thought of death as a romantic release from my sorry life. Many teens do. A friend and I went to local funerals on a regular basis, whether we knew the deceased or not. We hung out in cemeteries reading weathered headstones that explained death by duel or stagecoach accident, deaths of babies hours old, and people so old it took some mental math to determine their ages. We toured funeral parlors shopping for caskets and examined mourning rooms.
It took the sudden self-inflicted gunshot wound of one of my friends to dispel the romantic notion of dying. Things might be bad, but they are never that bad. I would still think of death, but not as a goal. My thoughts were more spiritual, revolving around what happens afterward. Does my soul go somewhere, or do I stick around? Will I see God? Or is death just a black hole and a void?
My mother passed away seventeen years ago last month. She was young, 58, and had an unexpected fatal heart attack. I am constantly comparing myself to her. I am religious about getting my cholesterol checked and taking my medication. Every year, I have ticked off the time. In five years, I’ll be her age when she passed; I wonder if I'll make it to 59. These thoughts don’t consume me, but I can’t help but think them.
When one has children, providing for them “just in case” is first and foremost. There were many times my husband would not fly with me “just in case.” One of us had to survive, but if we went somewhere as a family, all was good because if no one survived, there would be no hardship.
So you wear your seatbelt and drive like an old lady. You stay safe by doing the right things and staying away from those things that can get you into trouble. You eat healthy and be healthy. Living becomes a ritual with the express purpose of cheating death.
The only thing is, you can’t predict the future. Like those four innocent kids who were mowed down by a drunk driver, or like a benign afternoon on the bunny slope, you never know when time’s up, game over. And the part that is always constant is that someday the game will be over, whether we want it to be or not.
I’ve learned that life is a dance, one that must be experienced fully. Wasting time on the negative counters the positive effects of what little time is given us.
In the end, life is just a dance with death.