The elderly couple from California we met during the last days of our road trip left an indelible impression on me. We met them on the ferry ride from Bainbridge Island to Seattle after they had visited Bainbridge Bakers, a favorite place they never missed a chance to visit. They were on their way to an Alaskan cruise before the husband’s open heart surgery. I blogged about the encounter here.
I have thought about them often recently, wondering what had happened to him. I thought about calling Bainbridge Bakers, but I procrastinated, which is uncharacteristic of me. Last night, my husband told me that he had called Bainbridge Bakers and talked to the owner, who had just heard the news of the husband’s surgery that morning.
He didn’t make it.
I suppose the reason I procrastinated was to delay the possible inevitable. When I said goodbye to them, I was caught off guard by overwhelming sadness — I had sensed that they knew the odds were against them. Now, the man, with the broad gentle smile, the kid-like enthusiasm, was gone.
I am sad for his wife. But I find comfort at the thought that they must have had a great time on the cruise, savoring every morsel of pleasure in life.
Today, I found out that an acquaintance, an accomplished BigLaw partner in her early 40s, was stricken with late-stage terminal cancer with only months to live. I can’t help but to wonder whether she would have chosen to live differently if she had known years ago that she only had a short time left. Would she choose to go on a splurge, fulfilling her last desire while still physically able, like the old man? Would she live out her last months like the Laura Linney character in “The Big C”, Showtime’s new dark comedy about the transformation of a suburban housewife after being diagnosed with terminal melanoma?
Perhaps this is too much morbidity for one day, but I can’t help but to think about my own mortality. How would I live differently if I knew I were going to die soon? I guess the operative word is “soon”.
The fact of the matter, as much as we don’t want to admit it, is that we are dying every day. We have been dying since the day we were born. I used to think — and still do — that death is the only equalizer because every one inevitably dies. We can die at any moment. It takes an average of only 5 minutes to die from not breathing. Accidents can happen at any time. I was reminded of this reality when driving on Route 2 in Montana with its many roadside white crosses, each indicating a traffic fatality.
Of course, death is not something that should be on the forefront of our mind all the time; otherwise we’d be paralyzed. However, perhaps it is healthy to ponder about it every now and then.
If you are already living the proverbial “live each day as if it were your last”, then hats off to you. But I doubt any healthy person who has never brushed against death lives that way on a day-to-day basis. I think we all live according to an internal clock, whether consciously or subconsciously. We defer certain dreams or undergo certain pain because we believe in the existence of a future.
I used to believe that each action is a result of our brain doing an intricate cost/benefit analysis. But I realize that this formula is missing an ingredient: the internal clock. Costs and benefits are measured against time. For example, the reason I undergo the agony of improving my writing is because I think good writing will be useful in the future. It makes sense to spend months or perhaps years to hone the craft to have decades to enjoy the fruit. I certainly wouldn’t do it if I were going to die in a year or two.
So, what is my internal clock? If I’m honest with myself, I think it is around 25 years. My mother died at the age of 55, so 59 seems reasonable.
What is yours?