Death Is Forever… and So Are You

Lessons from a Decade of Dancing with Death

Photo: CourtesyThe author with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Sawyer

You can measure forever in a variety of different ways. That’s been the overarching lesson of my past decade.

Marrying the love of my life in a raucous Gaviota Coast rainstorm and then, four years later, becoming a father on a similarly rain-drenched spring day outside Cottage Hospital recalibrated the way I related to time in a most beautiful, basic way. It became powerfully intertwined with my notions of love for my wife and baby daughter. Endless expansion of the moment became possible, like a 10-minute dream that seems to last a lifetime. Forever was a love song.

Of course, the infinite isn’t confined to one-way traffic. My lessons have stretched toward the dark as much as they have bent toward the light.
My father passed without warning in the predawn hours of an otherwise unremarkable President’s Day. My mother, too, died without warning, also in the predawn hours of an otherwise unremarkable Mother’s Day. These were reality-shattering blows, both deaths coming decades before the law of averages suggested they would or could.

The trapdoor to forever opened wide and swallowed me whole. In death, forever became a bleak oblivion of impossible grief. Forever was the absence of everything.

The fates weren’t done with me. My life/death-measuring lessons continued in earnest. I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, stage IV neuroendocrine, at the age of 35. Two years later, in the middle of a cancer-related liver surgery on the anniversary of my mother’s passing, I flatlined on the operating table. Twice.

The recovery was the most disorienting, life-altering experience I have ever had. My mortality was no longer an existential abstraction. I went to the edge of an infinitely flowing river and drank from it, willfully deciding after one sip not to jump in. I had never considered choice to be a part of the equation. Once again, my relationship to time twisted in new and potent ways. Forever was just another way of saying “right now.”

And still the teachers taught me more. This past summer, after more than five months of pregnancy, my wife and I lost our son before he could ever take a breath in this world. It was a brutal assault on hope, the instantaneous destruction of nearly half a year of shared dreams and desires.

Death, we learned, is the ultimate burden of the living. Chaos is the common denominator of this life. Forever was an intoxicating lie.
So now what? How do I walk boldly in a world that I know to be so impossibly fragile and fleeting? When your death résumé is as stacked as mine before you’re old enough to qualify for an actual midlife crisis, how do you stay stoked about life? These are big questions, and, in truth, my answers are no different than anyone reading this right now.
Death is the only thing promised to us when we are born, and so we all struggle, in our own ways, to be brave in the face of this life. Each waking day brings a new version of this struggle.

The trick, if there is such a thing, is to embrace this truth. Recast the struggle as nothing more than reality. Do not flinch at the thought of forever no matter in what context it comes calling. Stay curious about the adventure.

Too often, our death anxieties stunt our joys. Life, however, sparkles most beautifully when seen in the sharp relief of death’s inevitability. The eternal dirt nap awaits us all, and that is a good thing.

There is freedom in the finite. Embrace it. You will find permission to do big and daring things. You will find a better, happier, healthier version of yourself along the way. Your moments will become lifetimes unto themselves, like a dream that lasts forever.

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