How to Live Until You Die
When my father was scheduled for emergency bypass surgery, he told me that he knew he would never leave the hospital alive. An overweight, chain-smoking, and self-loathing diabetic, my father simply wasn’t willing to consider the total lifestyle overhaul that would be required of him post-op. It may be an oversimplification to say that I think he chose to die rather than to change, but that’s what he did, two days after his procedure.The doctors had no explanation—he had come through the surgery fine.
My grandmother, age 94, lingered, bedridden and on the brink of death, for months. Her eyesight, hearing, speech and cognition were all but gone. I knew she was in pain and I wanted to do what I could to ease her passing, so I flew to Chicago and spent two days at her bedside, telling her over and over that she had loved and been loved, that her life had mattered, that we were all fine, and that it was okay to go if she was ready. She died the afternoon of the second day, after a half-hour of unusual lucidity in which she focused her eyes on mine and gazed, smiling, at me while I held her hands.
My other grandmother was six months past her 90th birthday and had lived with cancer for a decade. She was admitted to the hospital with a non-fatal complication of her illness, and chose not to tell the doctors she had a heart condition. She died two days later, and when her son went to her condo, he found all her legal papers spread out on her table. She had never intended to come home; she went to the hospital having chosen to die.
The idea of choosing the moment of one’s death might strike some of you as morbid—or perhaps, for those of you who’ve lost a loved one who very much wanted to live, insulting or painful. But I know that almost each and every one of you can tell a story like the ones above. And actually, I find these stories empowering and affirming.
The reason I find these stories so exciting isn’t because I’m eager to die. It’s because I figure that if we—or some of us—have the power to choose the time of our death, then we also have the power to choose to live.
I’m not talking about thinking one’s way out of a fatal diagnosis or about miraculous recoveries achieved through mind control alone, although I’ve seen them happen and wish for that kind of an amazing turnaround for anybody who isn’t ready to go. I’m talking about the everyday, ordinary kind of miracles: the kind that happen when we choose to live and be present every moment we’re still here.
I figure that if we—or some of us—have the power to choose the time of our death, then we also have the power to choose to live.
It’s important to note that my grandmother may have chosen her time to die, but she also put in 90 good years of choosing exactly how to live first. She was a rebel who roller skated on Navy Pier and rode a heavy, old-fashioned road bike around Chicago well into her seventies. When she passed out in a Walgreen’s, she talked the paramedics into taking her to her scheduled hair appointment in the ambulance instead of the hospital by promising to go to the ER later—which she did, perfectly coiffed. When she woke up in recovery from her last surgery, the first thing she asked for was her tube of bright red lipstick—it wasn’t vanity; it was what made her feel like herself.
How many of us just plod along? Living, sure, but not actively, consciously and intentionally. How many of us are on autopilot instead of making ongoing choices about what our lives look like?
Quite a few songs, poems, and philosophers advocate living as if each day were our last, and for many, that kind of urgency galvanizes them into gear. But that sort of thinking runs the risk of being fear-based: Oh, God, I’d better learn how to skydive and snorkel and visit Egypt today, because I MIGHT DIE tomorrow!
I’m talking about something equally conscious but gentler. There’s no need to flog yourself into heightened awareness with a whip crafted from fear. Simply take a deep breath, let it out, and ask yourself, “What do I want to do today?” And the next. And the next. And then do it. It really is as simple as that.
Still not sure what I mean? Watch a young child. They aren’t afraid to die—in fact, they may not even have an understanding of mortality yet. But they are fully, totally present in each moment, and they are single-minded in their pursuit of what they want.
Can you choose to live, consciously, intentionally, playfully, as a child does? Can you reach out for the sparkly toys nature and the universe offer and know they are your birthright? Can you wear your equivalent of bright red lipstick, celebrating the youness of you, every day of your life?
You know what? I think you can. Better yet, I think you know you can, too.