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What Lies Ahead

When I think of death, I think of the night I got the call that my troubled, nearly 40-year-old brother had died or, 10 years later, when my mother had a stroke and was gone in an instant, or the afternoon we sat at the hospital and waited for my father to finally let go. Those occasions always bring a weird rush of feelings—deep sadness mixed with relief from the pain that inhabited each of them. When I think of death, I don’t think of my own. And yet, since the year I turned 50, I have frequently lamented what often feels like such a short walk to the end.

We come at our own demise from so many different directions. My dad never wanted to discuss “arrangements,” he said, because he was sure he was going to live for so many years it was pointless to talk about that so early in the game. When my friend Lowry moved in with us, she was quick to show us the garment bag that contained her burial clothes. She ended up living so long—to age 98—that she first updated the outfit and later decided to be cremated. When I do think of my own death, I realize I haven’t yet considered what the actual end will hold. And, like many people, I don’t have a clear image of life after death. It’s the part before the end that flummoxes me when I let it.

Mostly I imagine I might, if I am extremely lucky, live another 30 years. Just this week I read an actuarial study that set the average age of death for women my age at about 88, or 23 more years. In so many ways, that feels like five minutes. And, if I allow myself to really ponder that very short period of time, it is an absolute wonder to me that I ever spend one second worrying, being angry, looking at my watch as I wait for something boring to end, rolling my eyes at the blunders of humanity, or doing anything I don’t want to do.

I’d like to think I am learning to relish as many of these spectacular moments as I can on this path through my last 30 years.

A huge part of me thinks I should be spending my days in deep appreciation of my friends and family, the delicious books that line my shelves, the color of the sky just before dusk, the tartness of an apple when it is cold and crisp, and the look on my dog Tairiq’s face when I walk in the door. What is perplexing is how hard it is to remain in that state of mind.

Sometimes I think this must be at the core of the elusive meaning of life—that we are here to learn to be here, to appreciate being here, to not worry about how long we’re here, to fall on our knees in gratitude for the joy of getting to love other humans. The purpose of our lives cannot possibly be to spend them engaged in worries about money, power struggles with other people, fears about what horrible things might possibly befall us, and angst over all of those conversations we replay in our heads at night when we’re trying to fall asleep.

When I think that, in some ways, my life is almost over, it kind of crushes me. No more Jodi, or long-suffering 17-year-old, or the smell of rain, or the early morning light, or me. But then, some vague sense overtakes me—a comfort or a hope—that there will be all of that and more on some level, or I won’t know and won’t care. But honestly, what happens after we die is not nearly as confounding to me as this feeling that I shouldn’t waste this brief bit of life I have left. It’s a tall order, and one I forget the moment I start complaining about Donald Trump or having too much to do in too short a time.

I get it that I can’t live every minute as if it were my last. It would be like looking directly at the sun—too much all at once. Still, I think I will feel better about this whole deal if I remind myself more frequently to find the thing I can enjoy in as many situations as possible. Sometimes it might just be a silly, human quirk; other times a laughing kid or a great meal or a profound passage in a book. I’d like to think I am learning to relish as many of these spectacular moments as I can on this path through my last 30 years. I'm convinced there is a kind of eternity present in that appreciation.

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