Dying was a big topic of conversation last week. That’s not surprising when the week begins with the revelation that one of our most beloved entertainers could make everyone in the world laugh but himself, and continues with the passing of a Hollywood legend who from her teens had made glamour and celebrity look as easy as falling in love with Humphrey Bogart. (The unexpected third member of the celebrity triumvirate of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall was the venerable character actor Ed Nelson who, while nowhere near as famous, was every bit as familiar.)
But it wasn’t just in the news that death was so apparent; it was here at home, too. It wasn’t just the clear signs of summer gasping its last breaths – school starting, the days growing shorter, and NFL referees beginning the long season of throwing penalty flags at the Oakland Raiders.
There were other, completely coincidental signs. Our neighbor’s beloved kitty disappeared late in July, and every passing day made the return of her sweet mew on our doorstep less likely. By coincidence, I was just finishing a book I’d long intended to read, William Manchester’s weighty look at four even sadder days in American history, The Death of the President. The massive outpouring of global grief from that long-ago time, not to mention the loss of optimism that still feels fresh, saddened me anew.
And last Thursday would have been my late mother’s 93rd birthday. Something she said to me in the kitchen of the home I grew in when I was ten years old has always stayed with me. I don’t know what prompted such a morbid comment, but she said, “I am not afraid of dying, because I know you kids are smart enough to take care of yourselves. I’ve done my job.” I think we were making my lunch for school at the time, which made the statement and its setting even more preposterous.
But it begged the question of when it’s okay to leave. For Lauren Bacall, it was okay; she’d gone to be with Bogie, just as Kate had gone to be with Spence and George had gone to be Gracie before her.
Me, I have my mother’s stoicism. If I go tomorrow, cut down by some moron texting in his car, I’m okay with it. I’ve had the best time. The first thing I’m going to do after I die is write somebody the most heartfelt thank-you note for inviting me to absolutely the very best party in the world ever. It has some moments early on that made it seem like it was going to be a dud, but I got to be a writer, marry a doctor, and swim in a Tahitian lagoon on my 50th birthday. That, along with getting to live in Silicon Valley, calls for eternal gratitude.
But not everyone’s as lucky as me. One of my friends is facing the triple trauma of divorce, job loss, and moving out of his house. He’s fought depression his whole life, and the idea of his muddling through while someone like Robin Williams couldn’t amazes him (my friend may have been trumped by the revelation of Williams’ Parkinson’s disease, but just barely). Even as he railed at Williams during lunch last week, he admitting knowing the feeling all too well – that depression is like smokestack emissions: eventually it darkens everything so deeply that you can’t even remember what things are supposed to look like, or how they looked when the world was new. Everything just looks black.
So how do you respond to a week full of dying? The answer is the same for those of us who are happy and those of us who are sad, because none of us escape its inevitability. The only thing you can do is to avoid regrets.
It’s not a question of creating a bucket list and checking each item off one by one. Not everyone can afford to splurge on Tahiti, or Venice, and almost no one can afford the drinks at Harry’s Bar near St. Mark’s Square. No, experience the little things. Try a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (or better yet, work your way through Talenti’s gelato options). Venture back to the place you had your first kiss, with the same person if you can. Rent a convertible. Call in sick and go to a baseball game. Stick your feet in a stream. Hold hands with someone you love, even if it makes you feel silly.
The time to say “I wish …” and make it happen is now, because on that sad day in the future when you or someone you love is gone, the opportunity will have long been lost to eternity.