I have an app in my phone that pings me several times a day to remind me about death. It’s called WeCroak, and our CEO recommended it on our annual company gathering. When first I installed this app, every time I got the reminder I would pause whatever I was doing, even if it was the most important thing on Earth. After a year, I mostly nod “Sure, I know I am going to die” without giving it much attention. Funny how people can get used to almost anything.
“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” Yeah, whatever. Of course I am not going to live forever, unless maybe science comes up with something? Like every great truth, it sounds obvious to the point of cliché. And like every great truth it’s no longer banal when it manifests somehow in your own life.
Last Monday I got a friendly reminder of this kind
Just a week after our wedding, I went to do some medical tests at the oncology institute. There was no emergency, something came up a few months ago during a routine checkup, and doctors suggested I find another pair of eyes to look at it. Even though I’m still waiting for an official confirmation, the thing that they found is most likely harmless.
Still, there is something about an oncology ward that makes even a healthy person feel differently. You gotta sign a paper about who’s to collect your medical documentation in the case your death. You can tell this isn’t a joke. Waiting in line for an X-ray with visibly sick people, you can’t help but wonder, is this going to be me? Their pain and suffering is all around, and it’s very real.
For the sake of privacy doctors no longer call people by names, they use only numbers. A system glitch gave me a different number than the one on file, and so I waited for hours on end for a number that never came. By the time they completed all examinations I already felt broken and defeated. I knew I had no right to feel defeated, being probably the healthiest person around.
It’s hard and scary to even write about this
Like death, this isn’t something people normally talk about. My first instinct was to keep it secret even from my close family and friends. I don’t want them to worry about me. I don’t want them to pity me. I don’t want them to think I seek attention, or argue how it’s not a big deal and other people have it much worse.
Talking about sickness and death is never pleasant or joyful, and so we choose not to do it. I totally get it, I too would much rather write about the books I’ve read, or the new awesome thing I have been working on.
But this is precisely why I had to write about it. We all know it deep down that we’re all so fucking fragile, so precious, so irreplaceable when gone. We choose to act as if this wasn’t the case and we were all going to live forever, but deep down inside, we know. There will be no forever. We’re all living on borrowed time. 5 days or 50 years, we can never know.
“You’re going to die” sounds cliche, until it brushes off against you
For a moment, the possibility of death becomes very real. You can’t help but wonder, what if I have to spend the next 6 months of my life tied to a hospital bed? What if these will be the last 6 months I will ever get at all?
A part of me wants to say I’m exaggerating. Why the dramatic tone? Hey, you’re not even sick yet, why make such a big fuss out of a doctor appointment? Look at all those brave people who are or were seriously sick, and yet are getting on really well with their lives without complaining or seeking attention.
But is the life they’re getting on with the same life as they had before? A close encounter with death almost always makes people reconsider the choices they’ve made. They might suddenly realise they’ve been putting most of their time and attention into things that don’t really matter. They might decide some things are just too important to put them off anymore. They might suddenly risk everything to follow their wildest dreams, knowing there’s no time to waste.
Do I really need to wait until I have cancer before I can follow my wildest dreams? Does anyone?
Do I really need to wait until I have cancer before I can do the thing that scares me, cause then the fear of doing it will go bleak in comparison with the fear of never giving it a shot?
Do I really need to wait until I have cancer before I do that thing way beyond my current expertise, so that the potential embarrassment of doing it wrong ceases to matter cause I would regret it much more if I never tried it at all?
Can I afford to wait another year, decade, two, until I cross all t’s and dot all the i’s, until I learn enough of the subject to feel competent, until our house is paid off, until we have 2.5 kids and they leave for college, until we have enough money in the bank to live off interest?
Can I afford to put off doing things that excite me until it’s only reasonable to do them?
Can I afford living a life that is anything less than the most beautiful work of art I can imagine?
Even if I get to live another 50 years, there isn’t going to be a better time to start. I always think there would be, and it never comes. I’ve been putting off a lot of things off until we buy an apartment, then until we finish the renovation, then until we’re married.
Now we’re married, and the large swathes of time I thought would suddenly appear in my life are nowhere to be found. Do I really think I will have more time for my dream projects once I have kids? Do I really think I will have more energy once they move out?
There’s no time to waste, so signed up for some things that scare the shit out of me
In just about a few weeks, I’m going to lead daily meditation on our next annual company meetup, and to sing on stage in front of all our 1,000+ coworkers. I’ve never led guided meditation for other people, and I haven’t started preparing just yet, but it’s nothing compared to my fear of stage. I used to do classical solos but haven’t sung on stage in over a decade. My voice has changed irreversibly and I thought I’d never be able to properly sing again.
It’s high time I prove myself wrong.
Artwork by Deborah Koff-Chapin