We are all, at every moment, dying. Death is with us, always; hidden behind his mask, cloaked by his veils.
The miracle is that we manage to go through our lives, for the most part, forgetting this. We work and sleep, eat and pay bills, shop and laugh, all forgetting that somewhere, a clock with our name on it is counting down our remaining time, doling out the seconds. It has to be that way, or we couldn’t function. If we lived in fear of our own mortality – of the inevitability of this mortality – what sort of life would that be?
So we forget. To the point of taking for granted. But this is as it should be.
Then every so often, something reminds us of our own mortality, and for a brief, precious time, we cling to life, savor it, sample its depths and climb to its heights. For this brief time, we are gloriously, truly alive.
Until again, we forget.
It’s impossible to live at that knife’s edge precipice of awareness for very long. Like the filament in a light bulb, we would burn out from that degree of intensity of living. It is unsustainable.
But the truth is, whether we are aware of it or not, we are all at that precipice, living our lives on the knife’s edge, every day.
Because the thing about that expiration date? We don’t know when it is. The doctor didn’t look at our tiny baby heel and make a notation of it on our charts.
Our mothers, for all their diligence, never spied it when wiping away dirt, or kissing away boo-boos.
Our lovers never came across it when exploring the secret hidden places of our bodies.
No one has seen it; nobody knows.
And yet we go on, blithely, as if we have all the time in the world.
But there are times when someone comes a little too close to the precipice; when they totter and seem to lose their balance. They sway at the edge, arms flailing, trying to right themselves. Times of injury or sickness, when a person is in the hospital and everything seems to pause, all life turns its attention to the question of balance. Death throws back his veils, pulls off his mask, shows his face.
And you go. You drop everything, put as much of your own life as possible on hold, and go to them. Because that is what you do.
The truth is, they may be no closer to death than you are. We have no way of knowing. They just appear closer. And so we go. To honor them, to be with them, to let them know we care. Perhaps, too, to see if there is an inkling of their mortality; a sign, a clue, to look for as a hint to our own. If I sit vigil often enough, will I spy Death himself? Commit his face to memory, so that I can spot him, elude him when he comes for me?
I don’t know. But the truth is that I’ve thought about it often enough recently to understand that nothing I do or do not do will affect the outcome of the patient’s epic battle for life. Whether I visit or do not; whether I pray or do not; whether I wish for it or do not. What will happen, will happen, with or without me.
The only thing I can change is my own experience of the situation.
And so I go and do my duty, make my visits, sit my vigils, all the while with the knowledge that my own expiration date is yet unknown. If I were to die in the car on the way home, no one would have made their peace with me. No one would have had a chance for that last visit, to say “I love you” one last time, to glean an iota of closure. And perhaps that is why we go. For the tiniest of semblances of control over the uncontrollable. So that we can appear to be ready, to have it all together; to have wrapped up loose ends.
But there is no control. There is only chaos. And once again I am here, on the knife’s edge, trying to get all my living in, out loud. Telling people I love them, just in case.
I guess it’s not always a bad thing.