Of all our symbols for life, surely water reigns. Fuel of existence, we even come to fruition smothered in its electrolyte rich variant. Believers of various faiths use it as a starting pistol for the spiritual journey. It can bleach the sin-stained, and repel nocturnal evils. Water = Life. So, odd, perhaps, to have been blissfully immersed in it when I lost my immortality.
Summer was on full-blast, and thirteen-year-old me chin deep in a river. A classmate, recently arrived at the opposite bank, was gesturing in my direction. Heads swiveled to bulls-eye me. The new arrival waved a c’mere.
I remember that high in the trees behind him an orange ribbon-strip of something tossed in the breeze. I remember that the river-rocks were slippery, and I struggled to make progress sans skinned ankles. I remember that the kid yelling to hurry up was sunburned everywhere but around his eyes. What I cannot recall, now thirty years later, is my classmate’s exact words. I did know, as I climbed out of the river and made a half-shuffle, half-run down the railway bed toward home, that a friend was dead.
“Everything’s groovy, everything’s fine, all God’s children, they gotta die.” Nick Cave
His name was also Peter, and he had been swimming across a lake well away from my river when an epileptic seizure carried him under. Water ended his life and water baptised me in cringing, vivid mortality. Suddenly, I was aware that we all teetered on the edge of fragility, and death wasn’t reserved for the old, the non-human, and gods-gone-slumming. Now you’re here, now you’re not: Thanatos’s morbid peek-a-boo that reduces us all to startled children.
Is thirteen young to become conscious of how temporary this strutting-upon stage really is? Was I a late boneyard bloomer? There is a cavernous difference between acknowledging intellectually that everybody dies, and feeling, knowing, accepting that you and the people you love could end at any minute; and, eventually, the minutes will run out. Youth perceives its own demise in the same way we acknowledge that in X billion years the sun will burn out, vapourizing everything from alpacas to zebras. That distant stellar death can seem as far away as our own. Eventually, we become aware that the count is determinable and fixed. As ‘Jack’ says in Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
Like anyone still sucking oxygen, I’ve been getting older since the bright lights of the delivery room needled my new-opened eyes. Only recently do I also seem to be getting old. The future has ceased being standoffish and begun looming and craving attention. It seems especially interested in flipping through this odd photo album containing only pictures of things not done, experiences not experienced, and opportunities pissed away.
It’s a fat fucking album.
“I was dead for billions of years before I was born, and suffered not the slightest inconvenience from it.” Mark Twain
Such awareness, when it arrives, must be dealt with. Many nestle into whichever faith was injected into them during upbringing, an inoculation against impermanence. Others acquire one. Some stand on life’s accelerator in an attempt to cram as many pulsebeats into their quota as possible. Regardless – excepting those who suffer psychosis (or wish to) – we act with unthinking and unblinking belief that we shall be here for the foreseeable. We speak of the future, near and distant, as certain and foregone. We put away money for when we retire, not if. We plan a wedding for next year, book flights months from now, sign up for next semester’s courses, say see you next week, and fill our daytimers with appointments we will keep. Surely, we carry the knowledge that none of this is certain – that the hair-trigger aneurysm, blown-tire bus, falling piano, or treacherous bar of soap might make such plans moot. We instead gather oblivious temporal momentum, leaving the ‘if I’m still here’ unspoken and for Fate to fill in. The alternative is to be in a constant state of flux and half-being, à la Schrödinger’s cat. Carrying about your own demise like a timebomb strapped to your chest is no way to live.
I have been asked if lacking a belief in an afterlife makes me more fearful and, despite these present ponderings, no, I have no particular fear of death. I will by no means welcome it. I expect to drag my heels and scratch at the Reaper’s fleshless fingers the entire way out, should it be unwise enough to give me any sort of warning. The awareness which prompted this column is more about things left undone, and the frenetic scrabbling to ‘make up for lost time’, (another phrase beholden to our sheltering delusions, for time only gets spent or given away; it falls through no pockets). No, the fact is, life’s ration of time becomes more valuable without the consolations of religion. The corollary is that the ill use of it feels like even more a crime.
“Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.” Bertolt Brecht
Now, I do like me a drop o’ metaphor, so here: each year of living is a floor of a great Building of Being. Born at ground level, we mount the stairs to higher floors. The rooms sometimes get better appointed, and always more cluttered. The baggage we drag up those stairs also gets heavier. As we climb, new tenants occupy the lower rooms. Our view is better than theirs, we can see across great expanses of experiential landscape, and even try to share the view with them, shouting down stairwells, (to general apathy, especially from those inhabiting the floor numbers ending in ‘teen’). Eventually, we reach our uppermost floor, whether the 60th, 80th, hell, a few even make it to the penthouse. And then we run out of funds, the bill comes due, and some bony bastard of a Manager shows up and tosses us out the window.
Ok, yeah, I let that one get away from me there at the end. It happens.
Despite that I count on climbing quite a few more floors before I fleeth as a shadow, (as Job’s author wrote), the point is that an evaluation has begun, the result of a new, crystalline awareness, and coerced acceptance. A ‘what was to be done/what has been done/what can I still get done?’ process. Some might call it a mid-life crisis, but I disagree. Fast cars, nubile girls, heavy drinking, all are mere clichés and symptoms and, frankly, do not apply. (Sidenote: this is not to imply that any auto dealerships or comely young women who care to convince me I need a more active mid-life crisis are not welcome to give it their best shots.)
I refuse to shy from the temporary nature of my consciousness-container, or the knowledge that one day that consciousness will evaporate. I do wonder occasionally what I have that will be of use to Organ Reclamation Services, and do not smoke, drink heavily or poke anything into my eyes, so that they might harvest a worthwhile crop. Once they are done, burn me and urn me. The dead feel no sentiment.
“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end.” William Shakespeare
We are simultaneously fearful of and fascinated by death. We devise extensive and convoluted mythologies to soothe ourselves. We face the thick fog of future, refusing to consider that the road might drop off somewhere ahead. We seek the often contradictory balance between pleasure and extending our lifespans. We struggle to be, see, have, find and create what we desire, before we’re done. Struggle, because it seems there is always someone else wanting to drive.
So, if you will indulge me a final metaphor: as you notice the mileage piling up, as the odometer scrolls with determined haste, you become increasingly conscious that the engine has only so many miles in it. Best ignored, then. Instead, perhaps neither the years nor the mileage matter so much as ensuring that, for as much of the journey as possible, yours are the only hands upon the wheel.