My last post on the subject – promise!
I’ve heard it said that when one is suddenly face to face with one’s own mortality, the heart’s true desires come into focus with startling clarity. Hopes and aspirations, which may have been forced into dormancy or lost in the daily grind of existence, suddenly push themselves to the foreground with urgent insistence. Having recently experienced the looming specter of my own death, I can report that in my own case this was absolutely true.
Often people in extremis are consumed with the impulse to create a legacy in words, music, or art. Some remarkable souls choose to use their time on Earth to do good for others. During those few weeks when I was traveling through the valley of the shadow of death, I sat on a committee to award a prize for a student who demonstrated a commitment to community service. We ended up choosing a student who, while in no danger of dying, was bedridden with a serious injury for over a month, and spent that time spearheading an ambitious fundraising campaign for men’s health. I know of at least one other person who, faced with a terminal diagnosis, spent the last years of his life raising enormous sums of money for research into a cure for the disease to which he succumbed. Others create bucket lists of extraordinary experiences to have or places to visit before dying.
During the few days when I was waiting to hear the results of my needle biopsy, I tried to formulate a mental list of my own:
- I would quit work immediately to spend whatever time I had left with my family and friends. There was no place in particular I wanted to go, and no exciting adventure I wanted to have with them. I simply wanted to be with them.
- I wanted to play with cute baby animals. “You’re probably going to have to get me another puppy,” I announced to my husband, “and then take care of it after I’m gone.” God bless that long-suffering man – he remained stoically silent.
“Good Lord, woman. Get a grip!” I thought to myself. “Get a goal that’s not so pathetic!”
I tried, I really did try to rouse myself to come up with a list that was less trivial.
I recently re-read one of my favorite novels of all time – Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s a novel teeming with striking, memorable characters. One of my favorite characters is Lizaveta Epanchina, a blustering, tyrannical, warm-hearted eccentric who is both the soul and comic relief of the novel. She reminds me so much of my own larger than life mother. Epanchina beats her breast in agony over her own unconventionality, but it’s a trait she obviously values and seeks out in others. I’ve always been struck by a scene in the novel in which she picks a fights with her daughter Alexandra, because she’s so annoyed by the banality of a dream she has, which “had the peculiarity of being as innocent and naive as those of a child of seven.” As I struggled to come up with some worthy goals, I imagined Lizaveta Epanchina clutching her head in despair at my list, or maybe even boxing my ears in frustration.
I managed to scrounge up one more item for my list:
- Eat delicious food. I live in Charlottesville, a culinary mecca filled with award-winning chefs and restaurants for which people cross state lines. But by delicious food, I was thinking of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Funyuns, and Andy Capp Hot Fries. I could visualize myself snarfing these from a bowl balanced on my stomach while I lay bedridden, watching bad reality TV.
Alas, this episode in my life has revealed the truth to me. I am no Lizaveta Epanchina. I am her daughter Alexandra. Now I know what my greatest aspirations are: to live a normal life, to spend time with my family and friends. Oh, and to eat some Funyuns every now and then. I’m so grateful that I can.
On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 1