Would you want to know when you’re going to die? I’ve thought about this question quite a bit recently.
>Several months ago, I picked up a new novel titled “The Measure” by Nikki Erlick, which opens with quite the plot twist. One morning, everybody on the planet (ages 22 and up) wakes up to a surprise at their front door: a small wooden box, personally engraved, with the words: “The measure of your life lies within.” Each box contains a string whose length determines the length of the recipient’s life.
The characters now face a gut-wrenching decision. Do they open the box and find out how long they will live? If yes, what will they do with that knowledge? If not, which means they’re choosing not to know, will they live any differently?
The question is not entirely a hypothetical one. A few months ago, out of a morbid curiosity, I visited Death Clock, a website that labels itself the “Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.”
I entered the month, day and year of my birth, my gender, mood (from pessimistic to optimistic), whether I smoked tobacco, and my height and weight. I hit the submit button, and a second later came my answer: “Your personal day of death is Wednesday, April 23, 2031.”
If true, I had nine years to live; I’d be a few months short of my 74th birthday.
About the same time, my sister, who is 60 and being treated for advanced ovarian cancer, was told by her oncologist that time may be running short. Of course, it was only a doctor’s guess and her current chemo regimen has significantly improved her tumor markers. Regardless, she’d be considered a “short stringer,” one of those who will die before their time, in “The Measure.”
I’ve wanted to be a “long-stringer,” ever since I had cancer in my 20s, but thanks to Erlick’s book and now my sister’s illness, I’ve recognized that focusing on exactly when my time is up is unknowable and probably not particularly good psychically. So I’ve decided instead to focus on how I want to spend those years, not just the number of them.
In any case, longevity doesn’t come with a guarantee of good health, and those “bonus years” may hold less value if confined to home or suffering from debilitating conditions.
As the characters in “The Measure” discover, a long string (meaning many years of life) does not equal happiness. And while the characters who get short strings initially feel as though they’ve come up, well, short. gradually, they find greater meaning and richness in their comparatively fewer days. Their newfound knowledge alters their perspective on what matters.
One of the novel’s characters, Nina, who is married to one of the short stringers, says: “It’s easy to look at our time together and think that we were so unlucky. But isn’t it better to spend ten years really loving someone, rather than forty years growing bored or weary or bitter?”
After her partner, Maura, dies — indeed early — Nina explains that their relationship “felt deep, and it felt whole, despite its length. It was an entire, wonderful tale in and of itself.”
All this brings me back to my little sister, Julie, and the deep angst I feel at what may turn out to be a premature death. I want her to live forever. (Maybe not forever, but, please, longer than me!)
To help me with these stomach-wrenching feelings, I’ve turned to friends, my therapist, a higher-dose antidepressant, meditation, ketamine and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work on the five stages of death and dying. All of which work — some.
Oddly enough, “The Measure” has provided me with a greater sense of peace and acceptance than I’ve found anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate that Julie is likely to live fewer years than her older brother. But I’ve watched and learned as Julie has lived as big a life as anyone could imagine. This proved true before her diagnosis but even more so in recent years.
Soon after her diagnosis, Julie emailed me to say that she’d already had a full life, even if it’s cut short. Since then, she has focused on what matters to her — seeing her daughters graduate from college, celebrating 35 years with her wife, going away on trips with the whole family, visiting with close friends.
In other words, Julie has fine-tuned those relationships that mean the most to her and not dwelled on those that she may miss out on in the future.
I remember thinking at our recent Christmas dinner about a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is not the length of life, but the depth of life” that matters. And then I thought about what Nina, in the novel, tells us: “When we think about the greatest love stories ever written, we aren’t judging them by their length … . [A]nd even though I’ve been given more chapters than Maura, her pages were the ones you couldn’t put down. The ones that I’ll keep rereading, over and over, for the rest of my life. Our decade together, our story, was a gift.”
It’s not about how many chapters we’ve lived but how rich and exciting those chapters are. Or, as the late poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For starters, I’m not going to listen to the Death Clock. I don’t want to know when I’m going to die — but I do want to live each day as though it could be my last.
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