“Life is for the living. It is not for the dead. Life should be music. And death a note unsaid.” ~Langston Hughes
Nine years ago I was sitting in my cubicle at work in Omaha, Nebraska when the receptionist phoned to tell me my father was there.
When I met him, he was smiling and wearing one of his favourite double-breasted suits. Before he gave them to his accountant, he wanted my signature on tax preparation forms. Things like this were always taken care of by my dad.
It was Friday, February 5, at 1:00 AM. Although we briefly considered getting lunch, in the interests of time and convenience, we ultimately chose not to. We planned to see each other on the weekend. We were all planning to go on a vacation.
My dad had told me one week earlier that he would take me to Vegas to celebrate my thirty-first birthday. I’d never been to Vegas. It was a lot of things that I wanted to talk about, including booking hotel rooms and buying concert tickets.
I completed the tax forms and thanked my father. Then, I walked back into my cubicle. I don’t remember anything else about this day. It was in reality just like any other day. It was normal. Humdrum, you might say.
But the next day…
The next day is forever seared into the pathways of my hippocampus, every detail a tattoo on my mind’s eye.
Because the next day…
That’s the day my dad died.
The morning call that my sister made to me was a vivid memory.
My memory is of running half a block to my car on Howard Street and another block down 12Th. The whipping wind, the cold and the freezing cold are both memories I have. I remember the saplings lining the streets of downtown, their branches brittle and bare, scratching the ether like an old lady’s fingers.
The seventeen minute drive from my home to get me there is still a vivid memory.
It was the hospital. The stairs.
I remember that my mom wasn’t there.
We called three times. Are you wondering where she is? Why isn’t she answering? Who’s going to tell her?
It seems like our lives are defined by days, even moments, like these—the most joyous or the most unbearably tragic.
I miss my dad.
It is his huge, heartfelt loss that I feel. That was, according to our sources.
The lingering smell of his perfume, which is a kind of leathery, woody mix, that came in a simple green bottle, has been a great memory. My favorite part of his laughter is the jolly high-pitched giggle. I miss seeing him in my clothes—the shirts and shoes and jeans that I wanted to throw away because they were clearly going out of style.
I miss the things I never thought I’d miss, the quirks and ticks and peccadillos that drove me crazy—like the way he’d crunch his ice cubes or noisily suck on a piece of hard candy in an otherwise quiet movie theater.
It makes me wonder if it would be easier to write today than tomorrow. Or if I chose to write this after nine years instead of ten years because ten years is one of those nice, round numbers we use for milestone birthdays and anniversaries and other such occasions we’re supposed to celebrate. Maybe it’s because ten year is a decade, and that 10 years without my father just seems too bizarre to comprehend.
When I think of the last time I spoke with my dad, I can’t help but also think of that Benjamin Franklin quote—the one about how nothing is certain except death and taxes.
Only one of them is predictable.
Our brains have been shown to be wired in a way that prevents us thinking about our own death, according to studies. The brain shields us from thinking about death. It sees it as an event that occurs to other people, not ours.
So, most of us, perhaps because of our biological wiring, rarely even think about the unfortunate truth that we’re going to die, and we have no idea how or when.
On the other hand, some of our greatest ancient philosophers actually practiced reflecting on the impermanence of life—otherwise known as Memento Mori, which literally translates to Remember you must die.
“You could leave life right now,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Personally, I don’t think about my own demise a whole hell of a lot.
But there’s a reason I decided to pack up my things and move to a new city six years ago.
There’s a reason I decided to make a career pivot five years ago.
There’s a reason I decided to quit my day job at almost forty years old and start working for myself two years ago.
It was nine years ago that death took a toll on my life. It was one of those terrible days in our lives that seem to rule us all.
Before I go to bed every night, I want to know:
Was I a decent person today?
Was it possible to challenge myself today?
Was it any fun?
For what am I thankful today?
What would you regret if I was on my deathbed?
Asking myself these things helps me live a more fulfilling life—the kind of life that I want to live. And I’m proud of what I’m doing here, right now. I think—at least I hope—my dad would be too.
I still haven’t been to Vegas, though.
Tony Endelman, a writer, blogger and humorist is a certified life coach. He currently resides in New Orleans. Tony is available for interviews via his website.
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