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Wissot: Closing time

The terminally ill have to face their own deaths with unflinching courage. The majority of us can avoid the unpleasantness of it with casual cowardice. We observe other people’s deaths but can’t quite imagine our own. While it is easy to idly dream “someday my prince will come,” when we are young, the immediacy of “someday my death will come” is only grasped when we are much older.

It is perfectly reasonable to not worry about death if you are decades removed from the statistical likelihood of it happening.

But not if you are two months removed from turning 76 like me. I read somewhere that people over 75 are now legally designated as “the late elderly.” Just sticking the word “late“ in front of my name is what comes next. Fully feeling your mortality as your life comes to a close is the greatest antidote for what Ernest Becker termed “the denial of death,” in a book so titled. My powers of denial are weakening.

Until my 70s, I viewed death in the abstract; a concept that I understood but never truly felt. That’s changed. I don’t see my passing as an abstraction anymore. I look at the expiration dates on my credit cards and realize I may be expiring before they do.

Leo Buscaglia, a renowned educator and inspirational speaker in the 1980s, gave his graduate special education students at the University of Southern California an unusual assignment on the last day of his courses. He asked them to write down all the things they failed to say to the ones they loved which they would have an urgency to say if they knew they had only five days to live.

For the kids in the class who were barely in their 20s, the assignment proved illuminating. Because death was a remote afterthought to them, they had taken time for granted as if it were a lifetime pass to the movies that didn’t have an expiration date.

The things they wrote down were pretty predictable: “I would tell my parents how much I loved them.” “I would apologize to whomever I might have hurt.” “I would express my appreciation to all those who helped and inspired me.”

After Buscaglia read many of their answers aloud, he would end the class with these words: “What are you waiting for ?” “How do you know you don’t really have only five days to live ?”

I’m sure Buscaglia’s assignment had a short-lived effect on his students. When you are 21, aging is not at the top of your worries list; dying doesn’t even make the cut.

Buscaglia’s assignment doesn’t seem far-fetched to me at all. I may not go around thinking I only have five days to live but I identify with people who know that actuarial tables don’t lie. There is a reason that 85-year-olds have a tough time getting a good life insurance policy.

Does dying bother me? Yes, of course, it does. But not because I fear being dead. I have tricked myself into believing that the only people who don’t know they are dead are the dead. Busy being dead takes your mind off of not being alive, or so I’ve told myself.

Dying saddens me more than it frightens me. It stems from my being a happiness denier. I was the guy at the party who wasn’t having a good time all night and a half an hour before it ended started to have fun. I equated happiness with sappiness; a condition reserved for the rose-colored glasses crowd. It’s not. Happiness happens when you give up being unhappy and learn what really makes you happy.

The gods in charge of time have enabled me for 75 years to listen, learn, laugh, love, read, write, think, travel, work, play, succeed, fail, apologize, forgive, remember, forget, sleep, wake, repeat, repeat, repeat. If that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will.

I blindly waited until the twilight of my life to be gobsmacked by the glory of a sun that has risen and set almost 30,000 times since I was born; 27,394 to be exact on my birthday this past January. Why did it take me so long to fully appreciate being part of that many sunrises, that many sunsets?

How do you not bow down and pay homage to the heavens for your time on this slice of the cosmos? Here’s how. By losing your way in the weeds of the truly trivial and ignoring the monumentally magical all around you.

Foolish me.

I hope you who are much younger and wiser don’t make the same mistake.


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