With all due respect for our dear friend, Throwback Thursday, who has had a long and illustrious life (records indicate this trend began five years ago, which, by social media standards, makes it nearly geriatric), I'd like to propose a new, albeit slightly more challenging concept: Fast Forward Friday. For sure, it will be hard for most people to come up with images to match the idea, but my goal isn't so much about visuals as it is about thinking. It's selfish of me, I know, but I'm hoping that people will start talking about death.
Worldwide, about 108 people die every minute. Someone you know is going to die this year. You are going to die, eventually.
Please don't get me wrong; I don't have an unhealthy fascination with death. I don't spend my days wallowing in the macabre. I have not dyed my hair black and I'm not collecting raven artifacts. On the contrary, I love everything about being alive.
And that's because death and I have been in the same room many times -- we know each other pretty well: in the seconds after the speeding car hit me, and in my hospital and hospice work. I have sat with people for hours and hours while they labored through their last breaths; I have stroked the feet of a young man, while nurses were pulling the tubes that were keeping him alive, out of his body. I have watched a human being take their very last breath: intake...and then...nothing. Once, I stood at the bedside of a woman I had never met, who was unconscious and dying alone, and saw the image of a young man hovering over her right shoulder. "I don't know who he is," I told her, "but he's waiting for you." I learned later that she had had a son who committed suicide as a teenager.
Death is one of the most beautiful mysteries we can contemplate. Mixed-in with the trauma and tragedy and sorrow and regret is magic and light and warmth and love. Still, we travel through our days, most of us not wanting to believe that we are going to die. We push it off into the corner until it's too late. Death is out there, somewhere, and we all hope that it will come calling when we are 95 and have lived a long and satisfying life.
I can guarantee you that it doesn't work that way. Not at all.
Last week my doctor removed an oozing, itchy spot from my right forearm and at 7:30 on Wednesday morning she called to tell me that, "Yes, actually there is some cancer in there and we have to take out some more." Since then I've had images of me placing the ball in the divot in my arm during rounds of mini golf in the summer. Or maybe putting my keys, which I can never keep track of, in the new indentation in my arm. I've thought of how it could become a kind of a party gag, except that I never go to parties.
Now as I'm moving through my days, I look down at my arm and talk to my cancer. "How's it going in there, guys? Are you napping? Or are you multiplying?" I imagine this little army of cells, busy at work, stealthily moving further afield and taking down my life.
Last night I went to a board meeting in Middlebury: Hospice Volunteer Services. The reason for the board: death. After that I met with some folks to prepare for a storytelling event in which I am participating in a few weeks. The subject of the stories: death. Let me tell you, there is no finer way to spend an evening than sitting around with folks who are telling stories about people they have loved who have died. The air outside the Charlotte Library, when I left after 9, smelled so very sweet. And the peepers were making their beautiful noise in the pond out back. Give me a good story about death any day, to wake up all my senses and remind me how goddamned great it is to be alive.
If we are lucky, we eventually find ourselves wrestling with the Very Big questions about life: Why are we here? Is there a God? Why do we have to die? (And each spring...Who will prevail in the the Stanley Cup playoffs?).
Shake the hand of death in your lifetime and what you will discover is that it's that very deadline -- the truth of your death -- that will heighten your awareness around every single bit of beauty your life holds right now. Death doesn't destroy the meaning in our lives, it does just the opposite: it is the birthplace of all of our infinitely unique and beautiful acts of creativity. The very fact that we have an expiration date lends purpose and meaning and at least a small degree of urgency to the situation. You are going to die; I am going to die. And we don't know how and we don't know when, but we do know that. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...but today, if the fates will allow...hand in hand, making music, making love, making lunch, making the world brighter with our light.
Please take a moment on this, the very first Fast Forward Friday, to ponder what Kafka said about the meaning of life: "The meaning of life is that it ends."