Early September is a good time of year to think about birthdays and deaths. The beautiful summer begins to show subtle hints of the coming end. Are there more beautiful skies than in September? Was there a more beautiful day than September 11, 2001? But the weather provided no protection against tragedy.
I know someone whose mother died on their birthday. Someone else close to me told me they’d be dead by forty, which turned out to be a misunderstanding of their situation. Maybe I’d have been a better person all these years if the mistake hadn’t been cleared up right away.
We went to the zoo today and at the picnic table, I had a thought—suppose everyone died on their own birthday. You’re guaranteed to die on that date, but the year, time of day, and manner are unknown. So every year, the closer you get, to yours or a loved one’s, the more nervous you get. Maybe you make preparations. Maybe you cry. Maybe you party.
Would we live any differently? If we know someone’s birthday is coming up, do we start making amends? Do we treat them more kindly? Or do we grow indifferent if they keep coming through unscathed, year after year? Shouldn’t every moment of life be poignant?
So why don’t we act this way all the time? At least if you knew you would die on your birthday, you’d have the day narrowed down, at least. But any one of us can die at any moment, even right now.
Three years ago today, my mother and I left home in the morning. She was driving me to get a blood test and then we were going shopping. In twenty minutes, I was surrounded by a cracked windshield and deployed airbags and a dashboard torn asunder and crowds of people and firetrucks. Some stupid bitch on her phone had blown through the red light as we crossed an intersection, plowing through the driver’s side door (my mother was driving). My mother was seriously injured. Three years later, we’re still embroiled in a never-ending lawsuit.
What I had always “known” in an intellectual way became truly known—we have no idea what’s going to happen to us. I didn’t even see the car coming or our car skidding down the length of two or three houses. One moment we were going along just fine, there was a pain, and the next moment everything around me was destroyed. I experienced nothing but the aftermath. My mother said I never made a peep. What terrifies me even more than being in another accident is how in one split second, everything can change. When I see people living like morons, wasting their health and life, I want to shake them and scream “Don’t you get it? Everything can change tomorrow!”
My paranoiac fear of death certainly increased immediately after that; even now I am too preoccupied with the fear of my own sudden death or that of someone I love. And, of course, my Catholic guilt demands that I keep death in front of me. But why don’t I channel that into something more productive? Why don’t I care more? Why do I fight unnecessarily? Why do I waste so much time?
If we really take it to heart that anything can happen at any time—and this is true, no one can deny this—why don’t we treat the people in our lives like we believe this? If I knew for a fact that I would die tonight, what would I have done differently today? If I knew it was your time tonight, how would I treat you? So why don’t I do that now?
….Should I not bother going to work tomorrow?