By Judith Ford
This is, I think, the first year I’ve begun to accept the notion that I will one day die. Not that it’s been a big secret. I watched each of my parents die. My mother, who was always the dramatic one, died peacefully, while my father, who’d never been much for self-expression, died struggling and full of fear and rage. Resisting all the way. Someone once said to me that we all die as we’ve lived. Not my parents.
I turned 63 a couple months ago. Not one of those BIG ages, like 21 or 40 or even the big 6-oh, but for me, a signal. A signal to pay attention. There isn’t as much time ahead as there is behind me. I might have said that last year or even ten years ago but for some reason, on this birthday, I got it: not a whole hell of a lot of time left.
When I say that to Chris, he gets all defensive and hyper-rational. Says things like, “yeah yeah, you’ll drop dead tomorrow.” “No,” I say. “I don’t think I’ll die tomorrow, just sooner than I want to.”
My father was 77, my mother was 74. I am healthier than they were. I don’t smoke. I exercise. Will that allow me to avoid the strokes that my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all suffered?
I always imagined, when I was in my 20’s, that I would die, at 84, falling off my motorcycle on a mountain road. I haven’t owned a motorcycle since my first child was born. I’d had one crash and after that, couldn’t ride without awareness of my vulnerability. When I had my daughter, I didn’t think it was fair for me to take that kind of risk any more. I kind of miss my little Honda 90. Was it a 90? I think it was. Its predecessor was a Honda 50, a slow old thing that, when I was 22 and had never owned a car, opened up worlds for me.
Back to death. Yes. Back to death. I had a brush with it when I was 42, a major flare-up of an auto-immune disease I didn’t, before then, know I had. After that, life was different. Everything was different and nothing was different. I mean, I was vividly aware of my mortality and of how much I wanted to stay alive. For months after I was discharged, following many weeks in the hospital, I experienced the world through a bubble of heightened senses, everything glowing and glittery and inexpressibly precious. Then, it faded. Of course, it faded; things that wake you up to the utter wonderfulness of being alive always fade. Routines settle back in. I went back to my habit of writing to-do lists that would choke a cow. Back to my pattern of going to bed each night with my head abuzz with what I hadn’t yet accomplished and must get to tomorrow. Now and then, I would remember. Then 5 years later, when I had flare-up number 2 and once again did not die, I thought I would never ever stop feeling grateful for yet another reprieve.
But I did stop. I do stop. None of us is alive and awake all the time, I guess. Would I want to be? Maybe not. It’s a bit painful.
In the past few years, several of my friends have been diagnosed with cancer and are out of the immediate – but not the long-term – woods. One friend died of Lou Gehrig’s disease 10 years ago. My golden retriever died the same year as my father (1995). My favorite therapy teacher, Dick, died that year, too. How did all these vital parts of my life stop being here, taking up time and space? They were here. Now they are not. How can that be? Not even a jagged hole in the air left from where they used to be.
So when I say I’m beginning to accept the notion that I will one day, sooner rather than later, die, I am whistling in the wind. I have moments here and there where I kind of get it and then it’s gone. And I’m left with the delusion that I have all the time in the world, until I think about it. I do not have all the time. I don’t like it that I don’t have more time.
Three years ago, I pretended to have only one year left. I followed a guide by Stephen Levine, did meditations on the subject, wrote about it, kept notes, but eventually, it all felt like a sham. I knew, the whole time, that I wasn’t going to die at the end of that year. I was pretty sure.
And I realized that, if it were true, if in fact I knew for sure I had only a year, what I would do was… nothing out of the ordinary. I would do the dishes, walk the dogs, fold the laundry, sit at my kitchen table and watch the finches flock to my bird feeders. I would choose to be alone. I would choose only those I love best to be with me. I would go to the grocery store. Maybe I would clean up my files so none of my writing would be inaccessible to my daughter (who is named in my will as the trustee for my writing.) I would go on as usual as long as I could, wanting the familiar, wanting to savor, wanting to bequeath, but quietly.
I know that at 63 my remaining vibrant years are dwindling. So what do I do? I make a commitment to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with my 23 year old son next spring. Why not? There will never be a better time.
I have no grip on this at all. I think it’s a horrible terrible thing to do to people, get them all juiced up on life and then slowly – or all at once – take everything away. Not fair. I wish I could opt out. Of death. Of the many losses of aging.