I had kind of a panic attack the other day because I thought, for just a few moments, about dying. I mean, really thought, not just one of those passing realizations you have that someday you will die. I imagined myself on my death bed, ill or old–I’m not sure which–and I tried very hard to think about how much I pain I’d have to be in to want to die.
You see, I’m not religious. I don’t buy into any particular system of faith. I call myself spiritual because I am fairly open to new ideas. I’d like to believe that there’s life after death. I’d like to believe a lot of things that involve faith. I’ve kind of made up my own religion, my own thoughts on what a higher being could be. But I know it’s all lies I tell myself to make myself feel better. I think that’s probably why religion never stuck to me very well… I’m not good at trusting anything on faith alone (hell, I don’t have faith in people to catch me which is why I’ve never successfully done a trust fall). So now matter how much I want to believe something, I just can’t. It’s how I’m wired.
When I look realistically at death, I realize that the most likely outcome is that my life will just end. It will be like falling asleep if it’s gentle and like being knocked out if it’s sudden, unexpected, or tragic. I had a taste of this notion when I hit a dog and crashed my bike on a commute home from work back when I lived in Denver. I don’t even remember anything other than the sensation of my bike wheel hitting the dog, and then the realization that I was going to crash, and then nothing. A big blank. I know my head hit the street from examining the huge dent on my bike helmet days later.
I woke up in an ambulance sometime after the accident. How much time went by? I’m not even sure. I figure at least 20 minutes to a half hour. I don’t know how called 911. Or when 911 was called. Or who found me on the street. But I woke in the ambulance to someone calling my name. (Thankfully, I always carry my wallet with ID one me.)
I was confused. I didn’t know where I’d been. The last thing I remembered upon reaching consciousness was waiting out a rain storm in a BP station about halfway between work and home. I didn’t understand why I was in an ambulance. People were working hurriedly over me. I had an oxygen mask on and an IV in my arm. The ambulance rocked me ungracefully around as it bounced along the city streets.
“Do you remember what happened?” one of the paramedics asked. I must have given him a blank look because he prompted, “You hit a dog…?”
And suddenly it all came back to me in fast forward. The ride home, speeding up my bike to over 20mph in an attempt to make the radar speed limit sign in my neighborhood flash, the white blur moving from my the corner of my eye right into the street… I hit a dog! I remembered.
That event shook me to my core. What if I’d taken a fatal hit to the head? Thankfully, I always wear a helmet. But a helmet does not always save a person’s life. What if I’d died? I wouldn’t even know. I just never would have woken up. And the world would have gone on without me. Game over. Unlike a cat, or a video game, I am not awarded extra lives.
Every once in awhile, my mind slips to thoughts about my own death. I think about being on my death bed and realizing I’ve got little time left. I have witnessed people die before. I’ve seen them go in fear and against their will, as with my first husband, and I have seen them slip away peacefully, as with my Grandpa H. (and, as I heard told, my Grandma H. also went). It’s easier for me to imagine going out the way my husband did–fighting, unwilling–than to imagine going of my own free will as it seems my grandpa did. No matter how much I think about it, I cannot imagine being so worn down that I want to die. When I look at death, I see darkness and oblivion. Nevermore. And it scares the living crap out of me.
It’s hard to imagine the ceasing of one’s existence. I mean, unless you’re Bono or a Beatle or some other equally as famous person, the majority of the world does not care if you’re here or not. Most of the world does not even know you exist. It goes along fine without you. And yet the world is all that I know. And all I know is my single sliver of existence in the grand flow of time. When I think about all of history, anything that came before me is just as real to me as any story I’ve read in a book of fiction. I wasn’t there when the Civil War took place, I never knew a world in which racial segregation is the norm, and, while I’ve known people who have fought in World War II and Korea and even Vietnam, these events are really just a story to my frame of reference. All I know is the way the world was when I became aware within it (which was much later than the day I was born), all the events that have happened in my life time, and the way it is now. I imagine this experience is the same for everyone else as well.
Yet… it’s impossible for me to real absorb the idea of no longer being in the world. Of no longer being. How is that possible? I feel so real to myself. I’m full of thoughts and ideas and ponderings. Where does all this energy go when I’m gone? Does it just deflate like a balloon?
It likely does. I’ve seen it happen with my first husband who was a very real person to me and all those who knew him, but to those who only know him from my description, he’s as real as a book of fiction too.
It makes me rather sad.
I admit that I fear death. Not in any way that keeps me from doing the things that I love to do. I realize that if it happens, it happens. I can’t hide from death by never leaving my house. What I have trouble dealing with is the realization that no matter how alive and real I feel now, I am going to die someday. I think that is the fact I overlook a lot. I still think I’m immortal, I guess.
I’ve been ill before. I’ve had mind-splitting migraine headaches and I’ve doubled over with a really bad fever. I’ve had the chills, I’ve been so sick I was throwing up every half hour. I’ve dealt with depression issues. I lost my first husband at the age of 26 and suffered with about 4 years of grief-related depression. Through it all, I’ve never wanted to die.
I can’t fathom suicide. Volunteering yourself to die? No way.
No matter how bad life has gotten (since being a teenager when I couldn’t think things through like this), I’ve never wanted to end it all.
Stay in bed for weeks and not do anything but stare at the TV, sure.
But die? Never.
To want to die would require me assurance that life continued after death. And I don’t have that assurance. So for me there will always be fear and trepidation about death. I try not to think about us. I’m sure most of us don’t. But it’s always there, looming in the distance, and I never completely forget it. Every once in awhile, reality hits and I find myself staring down the gaping black maw of life’s terminus, and for just a second I feel like I know what it’s like to face death. My heart pounds. All the air in my lungs turns to a vacuum. I feel cold and alone.
It’s not that I think about death all the time. The reality of it just worms its way into my thoughts from time to time. Perhaps it’s when I feel most comfortable and happy with life that I’m reminded of that nothing lasts forever. I wish it did. Don’t we all, right?
Well, with any luck, it’s a long way off for me. I’m still aiming to live to be 100. Maybe by the time I get there, they’ll have found a “cure” for death. Or at least doubled the human lifespan through many medical advances. I think, though, that no matter how much time we had to live, we’d still feel it wasn’t enough. And maybe if we could live forever, we wouldn’t appreciate all the beauty and wonders in life enough. That’s what they say, anyway. I think I would still appreciate all the beauty and wonders of the universe. Forever is a nice number.