Life Spans

A few years back a beautiful and charismatic woman who was my next-door neighbor told me, repeatedly, that she was not going to die. I suggested that perhaps she’d experienced the part of her being that’s eternal, but she said, no, this was not it; her body was not going to die. I might die myself, if I chose to, but she wasn’t going to. She spoke in a tone of certainty, but her truth, however she had found it, was not what happened. About six months ago, this woman succumbed to her human destiny. She died.

As we all will.

My friend Donna Hood and I teach a course on some of the things we can do in light of the fact that we are going to die—record our favorite personal stories, write our own obituary. Who else is going to remember what matters most to us! Donna asked her elder daughter to write her (Donna’s) obituary, and she (the daughter) remembered an ancient and minor beauty crown but forgot to mention the existence of her own father.

We used to call the class “Preparing for the Inevitable,” but a few weeks ago Donna convinced me to change the name. “It scares people,” she said. “They don’t want to think about death.” Now we’re calling it “Legacy”—and it turns out Donna was right. Next week’s class has only one space left.

That’s fine, but death is inevitable. I do like to think about it. This is an ongoing contemplation for me, and it comes up in various forms:

What should I do with the time that’s left?

When I die, is there anything I’ll regret not having done?

How can I organize my life to make my death easier for people around me?

Yesterday morning I got an email from a man whose wife—healthy, vital, in her mid seventies—took our class about six months ago. In writing her own obituary, she had placed her death in 2028, far enough in the future that it didn’t impinge on today. This woman has now lost her mental faculties and is, in many ways, dead to life as she knew it. Last week, and her husband wrote to thank us for the fact that his late wife had written her obituary and a brief account of her life story. He said, “It was very important for the family to see this.”

So, our preparation to depart from this life can make a difference to the people who love us.

And once we acknowledge that our life will end, we might also be willing to look more closely at what supports us in living—what human beings actually need in order to live. Air. Water. Earth. Light. The list is short but pithy. If you have time for a two-minute video clip, this Conservation International link (sent by a friend this morning) is worth seeing.

In terms of life spans, what humanity does on this planet isn’t going to kill Mother Earth, but we could do in our own species. For sure, we’re wiping out others. That too is worth thinking about.