Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Do you want to know when you will die?


Want to know when you’re going to die? I’ve given this question some thought recently.

Several months ago, I picked up a new novel titled “The Measure” by Nikki Ehrlich, which opens with quite the plot twist. One morning, everyone on the planet (age 22 and older) wakes up to a surprise at their front door: a small wooden box, personally inscribed, “Inside is the size of your life.” Each box contains a string, the length of which determines the recipient’s lifespan.

The characters now face a bold decision. Will they open the box and find out how long they will live? If yes, what will they do with that knowledge? If not, does that mean they choose not to know, would they live differently?

The question is not entirely a hypothetical question. A few months ago, out of a morbid curiosity, I visited a website called Death Clock, which identifies itself as the internet’s friendly reminder that “life slips away…second by second.”

I entered the month, day, and year of my birth, my gender, mood (from pessimistic to optimistic), whether I smoked tobacco, and my height and weight. I hit the submit button, and a second later came my reply: “Your personal death is Wednesday, April 23, 2031.”

If true, I had nine years to live; My 74th birthday is a few months short.

Around the same time, my 60-year-old sister, who was being treated for advanced ovarian cancer, was told by her oncologist that time might be short. Of course, this is just a doctor’s guess and his current chemo regimen has significantly improved his tumor markers. Regardless, in “The Measure” they are considered a “short string” of premature deaths.

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I wanted to be a “long string”. I had cancer in my 20s, but thanks to Ehrlich’s book and now my sister’s illness, I’ve come to realize that focusing on the end of my time is unknowable and not particularly good mentally. So, I’ve decided to focus on how I want to spend those years, not just the number of years.

However, longevity is not a guarantee of good health, and those “bonus years” may have less value if confined to the home or suffering from debilitating conditions.

As the characters in “The Measure” discover, a long string (meaning years of life) does not equal happiness. And characters who get short strings initially feel like they’re coming off as, well, short. Gradually, they find more meaning and richness in relatively fewer days. Their new knowledge changes their perspective on what matters.

One of the novel’s characters, Nina, who has a short string of marriages, says: “It’s easy to look back on our time together and think we were so lucky. But isn’t it better to love someone for ten years than to be bored or tired or bitter for forty years?”

Nina explains that after her partner Maura died – really early – their relationship “felt deep, it felt complete despite its length”. It’s a complete, wonderful story.

All of this brings me back to my little sister Julie, and I feel what an untimely death can turn into. I want her to live forever. (Maybe not forever, but, please, longer than me!)

To help with these stomach-churning feelings, I turned to friends, my therapist, high doses of antidepressants, meditation, ketamine, and the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Rose on The Five Stages of Death and Dying. All of these work – some.

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Oddly enough, “Measurement” It has given me a sense of peace and acceptance that I have not found anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate that Julie is likely to live fewer years than her older brother. But I have seen and learned that Julie has lived a greater life than anyone could have imagined. This was true before his diagnosis, but even more so in recent years.

After the diagnosis, Julie emailed me saying she already had a full life, even if it was cut short. Since then, she’s focused on the things that matter most to her—her daughters graduating from college, celebrating 35 years with her husband, traveling with the whole family, visiting with close friends.

In other words, Julie has adapted well to those relationships that are most meaningful to her and is not focused on what she might lose in the future.

At our recent Christmas party I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “It is not the length of life, but the depth of life” that matters. I thought about what Nina tells us in the novel: “When we think of the greatest love stories ever written, we don’t judge them by their length… . [A]Even though I’ve been given more episodes than Maura, her pages are simply impossible to put down. Ones I’ve been reading over and over again all my life. Our decade together, our story, is a gift.”

It does not matter how many episodes we have lived, but how rich and exciting those episodes are. Or, as the late poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Say, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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For starters, I’m not going to listen to the death knell. I don’t want to know when I’m going to die – but I want to live every day as if it could be my last.

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