Facing death in order to live

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!” I read the fabled bedtime tale to my toddler whose wide-eyed terror matched my own about the big, bad pandemic wolf trying to destroy us (and the 7.6 billion other people in the world).

Prior to the pandemic, I shielded these stories from my beautiful, innocent child. I only read him books that were happy, naively believing I could protect him from the world’s pain. Perhaps I thought I could I could also somehow shield myself from suffering. I had led a privileged white-skinned life, with good health and financial stability. It was easy to pretend there wasn’t a world of suffering outside of my bubble, and easy to push any notion of sickness or death out of my mind.

Enter a once-in-a-century plague. Death came into sharp focus for the first time for me, and for so many others.

Living in this anesthetized, epicurean, pleasure-seeking culture, death was always something that happened over there, to someone else. Pandemics happened to two-dimensional black and white film strip people, people on page 154 of dusty textbooks from bygone eras, people who lived far away in primitive settings. Death happened to old people, which I most definitely was not, yet. It happened to people who had bad luck, got clumsy, got sick, did stupid things.

That wasn’t me. Death wasn’t for me, so I didn’t have to try it on for size.

Though, truth is that when I looked real close in the mirror, it was easy to see that I was on my way to old; my smooth, silky skin now on its passage to rough and tumble, an extra fold forming under my eyes, a glint of silver rearing its ugly head from under my hairline. I could hide it, sure, but it was still coming for me. Still, it was easy to dismiss it and go on with my day.

Death didn’t whisper in my ear or knock gently on my door. When the pandemic hit, the notion of death pivoted sharply from being an abstract happenstance in the-far flung future to a suffocating anvil inches from my face. Death draped itself around my throat and clung tightly, taking my breath away even as the virus remained at threshold’s edge. The anxiety pulled my brain apart like sticky taffy and tied it in knots. Panic gnawed at me in the dark of the night in the space between when my head hit the pillow and sleep rescued me.

“I could die,” soon gave way to, “I will die,” if not of this plague then of something else — heart disease, kidney or liver failure, rapidly replicating radical cells, a treacherous fall. My heart will stop beating. My blood will stop coursing. My brain will cease from firing the magical electrical currents that flow through my limbs, my love, these words. It may be tomorrow, a year from now or four decades, but death is an inevitability.

I turned full tilt to stare down death in the face.

I could conjure up what it might feel like to lose all control over your fate. To know that you wouldn’t get to see your child grow. That you would gasp for your last breath, that a darkness would take over and you would cease to exist. At least in this form in this world in this life.

I know I am not alone in this revelation. The past 18 months have taught so many of us that life is a temporary and precious gift, that nothing is promised.

Once I learned to breathe through the stunning fear of this actuality, I realized something truly astonishing. Life is not measured in years or decades or even minutes or seconds. Life happens in moments. Acknowledging my own mortality was the necessary catalyst for me to step into my truth and fully appreciate those moments that I would have previously glossed over. Watching my wife play wrestle with our child. Catching the fiery sun dip below the horizon. The feel of my soft cat curled up in my lap. The sound of my child’s laughter. The blast of cold air as I step out the door on a sub-zero morning. The gleam in my wife’s eyes when she smiles. The comfort of my mother’s embrace. The smell of wood in the fire on a crisp, early summer night.

Death must exist for life to stand in brilliant contrast to it. In accepting my own death, I am learning what it means to truly live.

I now read my child bedtime stories that parents one hundred years ago read to their pandemic babies, stories that talk openly about trickery and pain, loss and death. I am not afraid to show him death. I am less afraid to face my own.

I no longer hide the truth about death because I know in full candor that it is a part of life.

#MWC Death

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Allison Hope

Allison Hope

Writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep. @bubballie www.urbaninbreeding.com