Three Years Ago Today

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?

32 thoughts on “Three Years Ago Today

  1. Sorry this is an essay again! Wow, jesus, this was heavy. I can’t imagine the long-lasting impact that would have and could potentially have. Or rather I can, but doesn’t bear thinking about. I can see how this could so easily lead to existential crisis. How is your mother now?

    With that last line you reached the endpoint of this philosophical line of thinking— the fact is, we can’t live like it’s our last day or last moments, because all meaning and purpose would be gone from life and we wouldn’t bother doing anything meaningful. If we can’t work towards or plan to do anything, it all becomes meaningless and we become nervous paranoid wrecks. This is a symptom of long-term mental health problems/isolation too, where we feel incapacitated or helpless.

    I’ve been fighting this feeling my whole life and even more so in the last few years. The conclusion I always reach is that I HAVE to have faith in knowing that I and my loved ones will be alright tomorrow, next week, that nuclear war won’t happen this year. That I won’t die of a heart attack before I manage to recover from trauma and become functional again. A certain amount of irrational, blissful ignorance is necessary. This goes right to the heart of what it is we’re doing here as humans. We HAVE to create meaning and artificial constructs because the entire universe is terrifyingly vast in space and time, and that whole thing is entirely pointless. If the entire universe is pointless, then what is our individual life? There is only one objective answer to that.

    Contemplating yours and your loved ones’ mortality is a useful and healthy exercise to some extent— because it helps you to find the meaning you place in life and your purpose. And this comes back to your question at the end— if it was your last day on earth, should you bother going to work? Well that depends on what your work is. In the extreme case, if your work involves saving 100 lives on that last day, then definitely and you wouldn’t question it :). But as with all things, we have to be somewhere in the middle between taking everything for granted and being ready for our impending doom, lol.

    If we don’t value what we’re spending our time doing, or we realise we’re not valuing those close to us, then each day is an opportunity to take steps towards living what we DO value. That’s easier said than done however, because short-term obstacles can hold us back or slow us down— fire-fighting things during the day, or depression sapping our motivation. But committing to that journey and taking satisfaction in small actions in that direction can bring a lot of contentment.

    Shortcut to the answer: we (mostly) all just fucking love helping each other and being valued and helped in return! So find ways to live that ethos :). A day where you managed to help someone is NEVER wasted :D. And you’ll never regret it at the end of your life, even if you end up penniless ;).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, Robin, thanks so much for your response. I’m glad it landed here first :). You make so many excellent points here, reasonable but very meaningful points. You’re right, if I am in a perpetual state of expecting death to happen at any time, I’d be paralyzed and useless after the first four hundred apologies to everyone. I think a certain amount of reflecting on mortality is right, but not to the point where I do nothing with my life because I expect an asteroid to crash through my ceiling at any moment. As you sum it up perfectly, “we have to be somewhere in the middle between taking everything for granted and being ready for our impending doom, lol.” And I deliberately leave the “lol” there because laughter is a big part of it too. Thanks so much for this reply and I’m glad you posted it so lots of people can read it.

      Here is the link for anyone stumbling upon this post : https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/108614451/posts/3541843296.

      PS. Thank you for asking about my mother. She still suffers a lot of pains from it because her leg and collarbone were broken which is what drags the lawsuit out because of endlessly piling-up bills.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for this comment! I’m so glad it was helpful. Sorry I took a few days to reply, it was a difficult few days and I tend to put off the replies requiring more thought then!

        And indeed, laughter and dark humour is one of the most important things in challenging situations. It’s cool to see you have this similar approach!

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    2. I also want to add re: my mother, it’s more than just broken bones. She has bad PTSD and has sort of unraveled over the past few years and it’s very difficult for me to witness. She’s not really someone who knows how to process emotions, so she doesn’t know how to handle this. It’s very hard.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of weeks ago and this has put a lot of things in perspective for all who know him. My boss organised a big get together and contacted all his workmates from over the years, but did it help? I don’t know but I hope it did

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Birthday deaths would guarantee that risky behavior would reign for the other 364 days of the year. Then, on each person’s birthday, they’d hole up, exist as safely and security as possible. And then tomorrow – skydiving, rock climbing, gator wrestling.

    Only society’s pressures to be compliant force us to consider our impact on each other. The Universe just doesn’t care. If wearing orange and walking backwards on Wednesdays was part of your tribe’s rituals for acceptance, you’d comply. Feeling remorse at lost opportunity, failed attempts to reconcile past grievances, sorrow regarding one’s lost youth — those are our rituals. The Universe, as Bill Murray states, Just Doesn’t Care.

    But, you know all this, Ms. Nietzsche.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So in other words, all the same problems we have would still be here, just rearranged a little bit. Maybe we’d be even worse. So I guess it’s a good thing we don’t know when it’s coming. I don’t know if it’s a common enough ritual to feel regret or remorse for things. At least, reading the paper, it doesn’t seem that way.

      Fact of the matter is, I don’t care if the universe doesn’t care, I care if I care. But the universe’s apathy is a gift to me, handing all the caring over to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mark Twain was born and died with the passing of Halley’s Comet. Mother Teresa quote was regarding your being nicer to each other, and the thought was what if your birthday was celebrated everywhere generically. Discounts, free cake, free lunch…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oof. I’m so sorry that you and your mother experienced this. How awful! Wishing your mother a complete healing of body, mind, and spirit, comfort to you and your family helping/caring for your mother, and a positive outcome to your family re: never-ending lawsuit and bills. I can absolutely imagine how this experience would be traumatizing.

    My theories as to why we don’t “live like we’re dying” or live as though “today is our last day”, even though these could totally be true (in addition to being song lyrics – I’ll spare you the Tim McGraw and Nickelback songs):

    1) I’m not sure that knowing this actually gives you enough direction for what to do next. If I accept the premise that life is short, uncertain, and quite possibly over tomorrow, should I spend my last day being selfless and giving, or should I be selfish, and hedonistic and do whatever I want? I could make the case for either, and they contradict each other.

    2) It’s incredibly difficult to sustain the existential burden of contemplating sudden death when you also have to get through mundane life responsibilities day after day. There are only so many existential crises you can manage if you also need to buy groceries, pay taxes, look after a child, etc. because those day to day things require mental energy.

    I might write a blog post of my own re: #1 at some point.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, JYP. You make many good points here. The problem of what to do with my life would not be alleviated, just rearrange them. And I imagine it would be tiring to live in a perpetual state of existential crisis. No, that’s a luxury that should be dipped into now again so it stays fresh.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. While I’d never deny the legitimacy of mental health and emotional illnesses/struggles, sometimes the existential stuff verges on first-world-problem territory. And I admit I am the foremost of the first-world complainers.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. “Why do I waste so much time?”

    This is what I think about all the time! I mean, I do fear death, both the process and the not knowing what comes after it, but I still procrastinate a lot in my day to day. Then I ask myself the same question, and inevitably, the thought about not going to work soon follows.

    Because what am I doing, doing things that I don’t want to, if I could die at any time? But I guess my pain hasn’t outgrown my comfort, and that’s the reason why I still waste time. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

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