№ 285 (Horizons, Time, and Death)


This post originally appeared on a previous incarnation of a personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date. 

Yesterday morning I woke at about 8:00 AM to the sound of a hundred children cheering in unison, singing a chant I did not understand but found wonderful to hear. The closest thing I can relate it to is being woken by a cat that loves you and nuzzles your face when it can’t stand your being asleep any longer.

I now live adjacent to a middle school and above a day center for senior citizens. It’s usually about as quiet a locale as you could find in a metropolitan area of 38,000,000+ people. So when I was lying there half-asleep, suddenly listening to many ecstatic voices coming from somewhere nearby, I was initially confused. But it was such a happy sound that I couldn’t be annoyed by it.

As it turns out, there was a tennis competition on for the day, and the cheering lasted a solid ten hours. As background noises go, one could do worse than the rampant enthusiasm of youth.

I also woke to an email from my mother about my grandmother, informing me of her declining condition, a move into hospice care, and the uncertain but probable shortness of the time she has left. She’s in her mid-nineties, has led a long life filled with wonderful people who love her deeply, but I don’t think she could ever live to be old enough that it didn’t seem to be too soon to say goodbye.

The nice thing about looking out at the horizon as you go along on your travels is that it’s always out there, always somewhere further to go. Never do we find it under our feet suddenly, thinking, “Well shit, I guess that’s the end of it.”

But the end of life is a false horizon. As far off as it looks, we will reach it. Eventually we will all reach that precipice, toes curled over the edge, looking out into the unknowable. Vladimir Nabokov wrote something in a short story called Terror that has stuck with me:

Another thing: At night, in bed, I would abruptly remember that I was mortal. What then took place within my mind was much the same as happens in a huge theater if the lights suddenly go out, and someone shrilly screams in the swift-winged darkness, and other voices join in, resulting in a blind tempest, with the black thunder of panic growing—until suddenly the lights come on again, and the performance of the play is blandly resumed. Thus would my soul choke for a moment while, lying supine, eyes wide open, I tried with all my might to conquer fear, rationalize death, come to terms with it on a day-by-day basis, without appealing to any creed or philosophy. In the end, one tells oneself that death is still far away, that there will be plenty of time to reason everything out, and yet one knows that one never will do it, and again, in the dark, from the cheapest seats in one’s private theater where warm live thoughts about dear earthly trifles have panicked, there comes a shriek—and presently subsides when one turns over in bed and starts to think of some different matter.

I have known that terror in the middle of the night, suddenly sitting upright and as stiff as a board, heart racing and breathing panicked. But it doesn’t happen much any more. Instead, I think about people like my grandmother, who I love and will miss. I think about how very long she’s lived. And I think about friends I’ve lost, like Debbie and Ezra, who never got nearly enough time but are already gone.

We do not know how much time we have. We cannot know. And so I suppose I’ve decided it’s not worth worrying about. Easier said than done, of course, but bit by bit I have been shifting my awareness to the experience of life here and now, knowing that life moves swiftly but is long nonetheless, and that we are able to fill it with good people and meaningful experiences, if only we make the effort to do so. Time doesn’t pass so quickly when we pay attention to life as we’re living it, and the horizons of life don’t seem so important when we’re appreciating where we currently stand.

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