It waits for you in the shadowy corner of a sunlit room. Quiet and still. Patient. Almost like an old friend with whom you have no secrets. One day it will emerge from the shadows and frighten you, even though you knew it was there all along. It may reveal itself as a spot, a surprisingly small one, on a brain x-ray, or a lesion on your back or neck, or perhaps as a stab of chest pain and shortness of breath. Of course, not everyone receives a warning. For many of us, the final moment will be as abrupt as a cat pouncing or a door slamming shut. Not enough time even to compose a regret or a complaint.
Too busy to notice?
Every now and then we need to remind ourselves that taxes aren’t the only thing we can be sure of. The world seems to be moving so quickly — with information being spat at us faster than we can assimilate it — that we rarely have time to think about death. Transportation managers, especially, are guilty of failing to confront their mortality. “But I’m too busy to die,” they say. You’re not too busy. I’m not too busy. No one is too busy. We all need to put our lives into perspective. Time passes quickly when you’re immersed in the day-to-day grind. The years get behind you with astonishing speed. As I write this, I can hear my 15-month-old son in his crib upstairs. It’s nap time, but he is resisting. He’s not crying, but rather babbling like babies do to keep themselves company. If other parents are to be believed, he will be leaving for college next week. That’s how fast the years rush by, they say. “I can remember when she was a baby like it was yesterday,” one friend says of his 17-year-old daughter. Someday that will be me, reminiscing about my son’s too-quickly-gone childhood. I try to cherish the moments as they come and imprint them in my memory. They are fleeting, however, and I know they will not last. But that’s what makes them special, isn’t it? Last week I found out that a coworker and friend has a brain tumor. Tests still have to be done to determine how to proceed with his treatment. We used to share an office and have eaten lunch together nearly every day for five years. For several years we played tennis after work on Wednesdays. We played doubles against a couple of insurance claims adjusters. Whether we won or lost, at least a few minutes on Thursday morning were devoted to a set-by-set analysis of our match. I miss that. This news has made me alternately sad and hopeful. Not everyone dies as a result of a brain tumor. Advances in medicine are announced every week, it seems. I am reluctant to think that he will not return to work, that one of us will not again appear in the other’s doorway promptly at 11:30. He would simply say, “Lunch?” I would be more verbose, “Want to grab a bite?”
Don’t ignore the inevitable
We are all so frail, yet we deny it. Of course, to consider it every day would be maddening. We cope with the prospect of death by ignoring it, until it is forced upon us. My only suggestion is to remind yourself occasionally of the brevity of life, especially when you’re frustrated or angry or just sad. Don’t let these be your final thoughts: I wasted too much time worrying about minor problems. I should have taken that vacation to Hawaii or the Caribbean or to Europe. I should have marveled at the age of this planet and the shortness of my ride on it. I should have smiled more often. It’s not too late.