On Tuesday, Robert Jackson Bennett and I started following each other on Twitter, and we chatted a bit, the way two writers on Twitter are wont to do. He mentioned that he wanted to write a blog post about his anxieties about death at some point, and I encouraged him to do so in spite of his reluctance. In fact, I said if he wrote the post, I would write about it too.
I kind of didn’t think he would do it. But he wrote this beautiful post, which is very much worth your time.
So. Here we are. And I have to keep a promise to write about death.
I’ve been afraid of death since I was eleven years old. At that time, my mom was clinically depressed, and she was suicidal. Death, I understood, could come at any time, and it was very, very real. All of my questions about death, all of my uncertainties, came with the very high stakes of immediate relevancy.
I hear that teenagers have this period of time in their development when they think they’re invincible. I never had that. I knew I could die. I knew life was an appallingly fragile thing, and I knew tomorrow might devastate me, leaving a hollow scream where my heart had once been. I knew tomorrow might never come.
I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I tried anyway, of course. I watched for signs of imminent doom. I learned to read people. I was inconveniently present. I sang “Candle on the Water” over and over. I never let my mom leave the house or go to sleep without telling her I loved her. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. But it was all I could do.
When you live like that for long enough, it changes you. By the time my mom died of cancer eight years later, I had formed an intimate relationship with death and uncertainty. And one way this anxiety about death manifests itself is in my relationship with time.
You see, I never feel like I have enough time. Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t resulted in me being a workaholic or dashing around an overscheduled life. What it does mean is that I’m very aware of the passing of time, and I care about doing what’s important to me right now, or as soon as possible to right now.
It also means I hate wasting time doing things I don’t think are important. I don’t like running errands. I am the worst carpool participant I know because I calculate exactly how much longer I’ll be driving instead of already being at an event or doing the next thing I want to do. I don’t like how long it takes to clean my house or brush my teeth or cook my food. I get very restless when I’m waiting. Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy spending hours talking to a friend or walking around with my dog or practicing singing or writing or teaching a student or sitting on a plane so I can see or experience something amazing. I am either approaching infinite levels of patience or else I’m struggling to find any patience at all.
I know in my gut there will never be enough time. I love the world so much, how could there be? I will never have enough time snuggling with Nala, and I will never have enough time to write all the books I want to write, and I will never have enough time to learn all the things I’d like to learn. I won’t have enough time to meet all the people I’d love to meet, and I won’t have enough time to see all the places I’d love to see.
And most painfully, I won’t have enough time with the people I love. They will all die too soon for me, no matter the circumstances. And I will die too soon to love them as much as I want to love them. And all of us will be wiped away, our lives and loves and stories forgotten.
What, then, is left? How do I deal with this anxiety around death?
I love with everything inside of myself, even if my heart breaks repeatedly. I notice what is precious to me, and I hold it close. I celebrate being alive right now, and I celebrate that you’re alive too. I grieve when you leave because I refuse to downplay your significance in my heart. I laugh and I play and I work and I do things that scare me. It all matters to me, and when it doesn’t matter to me, I ask myself what I need to change so my life will become more in line with what I care about.
Robert Jackson Bennett said: “Maybe this is what I think the human condition is: shrieking and raging at the universe to pay attention, begging it to understand that this matters, and hearing silence.”
I’ve been hearing that silence since I was eleven years old. Bad things happen, and they change how you see the world, and you know it’s happening and you don’t want it to happen and then it happens anyway. And you can never return to that place of innocence that you never appreciated until you lost it.
But we still have choices. We can choose to be ruled by our fears, or we can cultivate bravery. We can give up, or we can work for what we care about. We can be silent, or we can tell our stories. We can close down, or we can open up.
If the universe answers with silence, so be it. We don’t need the universe to tell us what matters. We already know.
Death is always there, lurking in its otherwise deserted corner. Every moment it stays there is a victory. Every achievement I make, every milestone I reach, every hug I give and every connection I strengthen. Every breath I draw, every story I tell, every place I visit, every song I sing, every day I make the smallest bit brighter for another person. Every time I look into your eyes and we have a moment of truly seeing the other person standing there. They are all victories, and they all matter.
I am afraid to die, but I am so lucky to have this chance to live.
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