So far, I’m healthy, thank Pan, for a man my age, and except for a few non-life-threatening annoyances of long years’ use, my body seems to be holding up OK, and I’m grateful for what luck I’ve had. But I know that could change any minute. The stranger’s cough in some store, the contaminated fingerprint on the copier, the idiot with his nose outside his mask, who knows, you could get infected almost anywhere, via all sorts of sneaky vectors, and there really is no safe place.
So it’s a good time to think about contingencies, just in case. And the most inevitable and uncertain roll of the dice is death. If you catch COVID-19, it’s a long shot that it will kill you—unless of course you’re old, or fat, or already sick with something, or possibly young and otherwise healthy, nobody’s really sure why it takes some people—but this seems to me as good a time as any to get ready to die.
One thing I’ve always loved about gospel music is its existential urgency: You’re going to die and you’d better be ready to meet your Maker. If you believe in sin, you’ve sinned and it’s time to atone. You wish you could apologize to whomever you’ve hurt. And if you go down that road of remorse you’re in danger of being drawn into a black hole of a past you’ll never escape from. But maybe there’s a way to exorcise those bad deeds, some ritual—confession or spirit dance or primal scream—that can cleanse your soul of the shame.
Or you can forgive yourself for being human and screwing up repeatedly as nearly everyone does. You can accept your imperfections in whatever time is left, and maybe there’s time to correct them in your behavior and in relations with others. Maybe it’s not too late to change for the better.
There’s nothing like a deadline as a motivator, and the ultimate deadline is the greatest motivator of all because there is no grace period or overtime or extra innings. Death is a dead end. So you’d better get it together before it’s a done deal.
Thinking you could die any day brings your surroundings into sharper focus. More and more I appreciate the small pleasures—the sight of pelicans, smell of jasmine, sound of a song in the car, tactile feel of addressing an envelope and selecting the perfect stamp for the recipient, taste of the pasta sauce made from ingredients bought at the farmers market, friendly twinkle in the eye of the farmer as she hands you your change and you exchange masked thank-yous—and I seem to find them everywhere now that I’m about to be bereft of everything. When you’re about to lose it all, you realize what a gift it has all been.
So from imminent loss of everything comes a suddenly discovered abundance of what could never be kept anyway. As W.S. Merwin put it: “What you do not have you find everywhere.” Or Gary Young, my old friend who barely survived cancer in his 20s: “I’ve never felt more alive than when I was dying.” According to one biographer, the last words of Jorge Luis Borges were: “This is the happiest day of my life.” Or Page Smith in his final minutes: “It’s been a great life.”
These expressions of appreciation, of gratitude, of relief from all the suffering and distractions, remind me of how I’d like to live the rest of my days, no matter how much or how little time I have left. I don’t know whether time can be “wasted”—but I want to make the best possible use of it while I have the chance. That means not clicking on every link or trying to be liked or aspiring to other people’s expectations. Being ready to die means being ready to tell the truth. Any words you say could be your last.
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