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We all have differing relationships with Death. Some have come face to face with it on battlefields, city streets, or ICUs. Some scroll right past it like an advertisement on a social media timeline. Most of us are aware of Death but are afraid to look it in the eye.
It feels odd to say, but Death has become a close friend. I invite Death along with me throughout my happiest moments—in the mornings over coffee, when my son gives me a big hug, seeing my wife’s warm smile, or when I go out for runs. I have gotten to the point where I actually want Death there with me. Don’t worry—it’s not as dark as it sounds.
And it wasn’t always this way.
I’m pretty sure I was introduced to Death when my grandfather died a week or so before the first day of sixth grade. Despite being raised with the afterlife-believing theology that comes with a religious upbringing, the mystery of Death was suddenly terrifying. No one could tell me precisely what happens the moment after I would take my last breath. The lack of answers kept my breathing shallow and my eyes deeply acquainted with the contours of my bedroom ceiling. Despite this, like most of my fears, I leaned into it—even, for a time, considering becoming a mortician. Eh, too much school.
After receiving news that my first marriage was going to end, I realized that worst-case scenarios were, in fact, possible. I buried my emotions about the divorce in order to cope. This resulted in me becoming a hypochondriac. I believe that this made my death anxiety resurface. I was certain that every odd physical sensation was a malady that would flip over my mortal hourglass—like such a scene from the Wizard of Oz. I knew that it was only a matter of time before an odd symptom would lead to a doctor’s visit that would then result in bad news.
Then one did.
A few years into my blissful second marriage, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Despite an early detection that allowed for a virtual cure thanks to one out-patient surgery, I would still have to undergo regular scans to ensure that the cancer had not spread. Every year, I’d get the “all clear,” and go about my life for another 11 months. One month out, when the next scan was scheduled, my emotional burners would ignite beneath my guts. Just as my anxiety would begin to boil, another “all clear” would swiftly cut the burner off once again.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, I befriended Death. At a playground.
With the place to ourselves, I chased my three-year-old son up ladders and down slides. Through wood chips and sand. Jumping, running, swinging, and laughing. As he continued to expend his virtually endless energy stores on climbing and sliding, I sauntered over to some nearby swings to take a load off. As I let a tailwind rock me back and forth, I savored the tired sensation of chasing a toddler up and down the grounds. With a joyful sigh, I felt the presence of someone approach and take a seat in the swing next to mine. I didn’t have to look over to see that it was none other than Death.
Death wasn’t there to take me. No, he was simply there to show me what mattered.
The silver clouds reflected a handful of straw-like rays to the east. The ecstatic cluck of my son’s laughter echoed off the nearby treeline. The air in my nostrils carried notes of a recent spring rain as it filled my chest and then flowed out again over the top of my graying mustache. For a few moments, the entire world was free of buzzing notifications, jealous gossip, the frantic compulsion to keep up appearances, and gripping one’s own biases like a bull rider behind the gate. As Death rested its bones on the swing beside mine, he wiped away these diversions like blemishes from a lens—if for just a moment.
I know that, somewhere, my mortal hourglass is hissing with the trickle of sand from one chamber to the other. There’s no way to invert such a device, tighten its waist, or thicken the material within. To make matters worse, our petty squabbles, unfounded anxieties, and insincere motivations only work to scoop handfuls of sand out of the top halves of our mortal hourglasses.
Most of us look to the upper chamber of our hourglass—filled with worry and expectation about what is hiding in the sand. If we’re not gazing at the top of the funnel, we’re frantically sifting through the particulate that has already fallen through to the bottom. We’re desperate to hold good times up to the light or bury the painful particles we unearth.
Where should we be looking? The only place that matters—where the dust falls.
As the air kisses the falling grains, this is where our attention should be—hovering between chambers. Only here, with the tremor of the device, can we change its travel through time and space. And while the top of the hourglass contains an unknown matter(s) and the bottom holds inaccessible sand, what falls between the chambers is the golden powder of life. The only time we can observe this golden powder fully illuminated by the setting sun is in free-fall in the waist of the hourglass—after it has left the above chamber of the Future and before it lands in the chamber of the Past in the belly of the vessel.
You’re not going to die. No, you are currently dying. Like mine, your hourglass is hissing with the falling sands of time. The sand below represents every day given to Death. The sands above contain materials you cannot access. Instead of filling you with dread, this realization should infuse the present with vitality. It should compel you to stop squandering your time on pursuits of hollow vanity, insincere gestures, or needless self-inflicted anxieties.
Your relationship with Death while alive should not be one of paralysis but instead a motivational friendship. Death doesn’t come around to frighten, but to inspire. Death is not something to run away from, but to run with every mile of your life. In the parlance of the youth of the early 21st century, to invigorate your daily life with clarity, purpose, and richness, Death should be your “bestie.”
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”