On Death…and Life

I first met Death when I was maybe ten years old.

He showed up when I was delivering newspapers one early sunny morning and found a customer of mine laying face up in a flower bed with a knife jutting out of his chest. It was close to halloween and for a moment, I thought it was someone’s idea of a prop or a prank. But it wasn’t. It was Death.

Cold, unforgiving, brutal, and stark.

Throughout the years, I’ve seen Death an awful lot. There are several distinct occasions in my life when I should have died. And when you come that close to the edge as I have, you tend to develop an odd sort of respect and curiosity for it. I don’t dwell on it, but I certainly am aware of it. In many ways, my own mortal clock hovers about due to the fact that my father passed when he was 48 years old and his father before him at 47. I turn 46 in October and I’d be a lying sack of shit if I claimed that their deaths don’t affect me at all, because they certainly do. Granted, their lifestyles including heavy smoking, which I never took up aside from trying it every now and again with cigars and clove cigarettes (hey, it was the 90s – everything was fucked up then…).

I’ve lost a lot of friends. Brothers. Comrades. People you bleed with, sweat with, cry with, laugh with, and ride with. The kind of close friends that you think you’re gonna rule the world with – or at least kick ass with – and then Death shows up and they’re gone in the blink of an eye.

No doubt my own chronological timeline has factored into why I post as often as I do on Facebook about motivation and living and daring to fully embrace your existence. When you see Death as much as I have, it makes you appreciate everything that much more. Every detail. Every little bit of happiness wrung from a day doing nothing but spending time with your family being goofballs and eating ice cream.

It also makes you keenly aware of how very many people fail to appreciate what they have in front of them. How much people take for granted. How thoughtless they are with their behavior. How little time they take to appreciate a kind turn or a smile or a genuine display of affection. They can’t be bothered. Or they can’t be responsible. Or some other excuse. You’ll hear the phrases like, “I’ll get to it later.” Or “Well, he knows I’m grateful so I don’t have to say thanks,” or any one of a million other terms people use to deflect personal responsibility and keep themselves insulated or protected from showing some sign of emotional vulnerability.

Yeah, you’re out there. Some of you may even be reading this. Who knows? All locked up behind those walls you’ve built thinking you’re being smart when all you’re really doing is depriving yourself of a rich life of experience and wonder. Doesn’t that get old? Don’t you get tired of pretending you’re invincible or immune from pain and hurt? Don’t you wonder what it’s like to really let your spirit soar as high as it can? Or are you truly happy living within the confines of the prison you’ve created for yourself?

You’ll laugh. You’ll blow this off. You’ll insist that you never did anything wrong or ever played a part in some risky gambit. It’s easier, after all, to simply hide in your shell and wait for the storm to pass only to poke your head out afterward and see if the coast is clear.

It’s a cowardly way to live life, though.

So I post things that ask people to examine who they are and then dare to try something different. Maybe I’m hoping that folks will learn from my mistakes.

I spent a lot of my life locked away behind those same walls that I see so many others living behind. I spent a lot of my life convinced that showing vulnerability was akin to being a weakling or a fool or someone that could be taken advantage of. I spent a lot of my life living in fear that I wasn’t man enough according to someone else’s standards of what a man was. I covered that insecurity up by training in martial arts; I covered that insecurity up by entering the military and doing other work that forced me to confront fear on a very primal level. I spent a lot of my youth mostly trying to talk myself into believing that I was a badass. And in many ways, I may have been. I could fight. I could shoot. I could harm people in a whole lot of horrible ways. I knew things that most people don’t even dream about. And that gave me a lot of shell to surround myself with.

But I wasn’t a true badass.

Because it’s only when you have the courage to open yourself up to the world – to show your weaknesses and your vices and your insecurities and the things that make you tick – that you understand what true strength and true character actually is.

Believe me, doing this type of stuff is about as opposite extreme as you can get based on my earlier life. You kept your secrets, you kept everything hidden lest someone be able to use those against you. It’s how I was taught. It’s how I was trained.

But Death…well, Death changes things. Death doesn’t give a shit about your secrets or how macho you look or how many women you’ve slept with or how much money you have. Death is the greatest equal opportunity of all.

Everyone dies.

Not everyone truly lives, however.

This morning, I was eating breakfast and was approached by someone I haven’t seen in a long time. A really nice guy. When I knew him, he weighed about 350 pounds. Today, he stood before me at about half that weight. I wish I could say that he’d taken up working out or dieting or some other good reason for weight loss. The truth is he has cancer. And when he stood before me, I was literally gobsmacked. I barely even recognized him. Only his eyes told me his identity. The rest of him is a shell of the man he once was – loud, boisterous, full of energy, and maybe a bit on the talkative side. But a good man at that.

He’s younger than I am. I won’t elaborate on his prognosis because I don’t believe in broadcasting that type of negative energy out there. I am deeply hopeful he recovers, however, since he has a young daughter of 13 and because he is a good man who deserves a longer life with his loved ones.

The realization that this man has cancer has saddened me more than I expected it too, quite frankly. Perhaps because he’s close to my age. Perhaps because his spirit is one that always brought a smile to my face, even if it came with an annoying amount of talking from time-to-time.

Or maybe it’s because I saw the regret in his eyes this morning. Regrets of what he hasn’t yet done or people he hasn’t yet loved. Regret that he knows his time may be short and there may not be enough left to do everything he suddenly wants to do.

It’s only when you face Death that you realize how little so many bullshit things in life matter. And it’s only then that you see how much strength you have – strength you had all along – but hidden beneath a crushing weight of conforming to societal pressures or rampant insecurities. You realize – often far too late – that your supposed life has been one of near suffocation as you’ve grappled with over-scheduled madness, keeping up with the Joneses, or annoyances that are only just that and not the world-ending drama you’ve made them out to be.

And you regret it.

Death makes you a time traveler. In an instant or over the span of weeks or months, you look back and see where you went wrong. You see the foolish moves you’ve made and you wonder why you chose one path over another. You see the hearts you’ve broken – often without even realizing it – and you see the sadness you’ve wrought as is inevitable in the course of living.

You see the good, too. You see the victories. You see the love realized in the smiles and tears and laughter of those you hold most precious.

You find a measure of yourself. Sometimes, it holds up. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

And when it doesn’t, you regret it.

So I post a lot about life because regret is one of those things that can easily be avoided. And yet so many people run right toward it and it saddens me. I’m not off on some mission to rid the planet of regret (although that would be pretty sweet if we could all make it go away) but more to maybe make people think about how regret is largely self-imposed and how they can avoid it if they choose to.

Seeing my friend today (and probably calling him a friend isn’t appropriate per se, but I’ll do so anyway because it’s my post dammit) made me sad for his family and for him. It made me sad for the people I know who imprison themselves in the rush of everyday life and forget to live. It made me sad that those people will also know the pain of regret if they continue on the path they’re on.

But the future is never set.

And while Death is great at sending you back in time, Life is great at propelling you forward…to all possibilities and potentials.

Stop saying things like, “I shouldn’t.” Or, “I can’t do that.” Or, “What will everyone think?” Stop putting limits on yourself and your life. Embrace risk. Relish in the silliness of getting drunk with friends. Treasure a text or a phone call from a friend. Surprise someone with a hug from behind. Jump on an elevator and say hi to a complete stranger. Compliment someone just because you can. Go into your child’s bedroom and snuggle with them – even if they’re a teenager. Kiss your lover. Never forget to say thank you. And never stop smiling.

Our greatest strength is from not overcoming insurmountable odds. Our greatest strength comes from realizing that we are all – everyone one of us – free to live our lives to the greatest extent we possibly can…once we stop caring what others think. Our paths are our own to walk as individual souls.

We come into this world alone, naked, and afraid. We didn’t have any say in the matter.

How we leave is entirely up to us.

***

This is a long, meandering post. Frankly, I don’t know if it makes all that much sense. But I wrote it and it’s helped me work through some shit, so there’s that at the very least. If you get nothing else from it, remember to be thankful for what you have, the people who are in your life, and the adventures before you. Take a deep breath, say a silent “thank you,” and keep on livin’…

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