Saturday, February 06, 2016

Before I Die...

Driving home from work this week one day, I found myself listening to the "TED Radio Hour."  It's a show on NPR based on TED Talks, a series of really fascinating lectures on all sorts of topics.  If you don't know about TED Talks or the TED Radio Hour, you can click on their names for links to find out more.  I'm sure you'll find them interesting.  
This day's episode was about Rethinking Death.  It was snippets of TED Talks by people talking about some facet of dying.  By coincidence, I had heard from my sister the day before that her cancer, which they thought was gone, had returned and spread to different parts of her body.  When I heard the theme of the show I felt compelled to listen.  
The segment which I took the greatest personal interest in was from a talk given by an artist in New Orleans named Candy Chang.  It was after losing someone that she turned the wall of an old, abandoned house in her neighborhood into giant chalkboard.  On the board she stenciled the beginning of a sentence.  "Before I Die, I want to:."  There was a blank line following for someone, anyone, to pick up a piece of chalk and complete the sentence with something they want to do.  

Before I die, I want to...  Win a Hugo and/or Nebula Award for some piece of fiction I wrote.  

Listening to her talk, it quickly becomes clear that the question isn't about dying itself.  Death is something we try to avoid, and is something that we don't want to talk about.  But considering it brings you in touch with your life.  The things you think will complete you.  The things that make you happy.  The things that express who you are.  

Before I die, I want to...  See a baseball game in every professional stadium in both Major League Baseball and the Japan Professional League.  

I am afraid of death.  That's the honest truth.  I sometimes have trouble going to sleep because, increasingly as I grow older, it seems like a dress rehearsal for the day when I'll close my eyes and not open them again.  A reenactment of my death before it happens.  I will snap awake, jump up in bed and will say, "No!" out loud, as if to deny the existence of death or my inevitable participation in the process.  

Before I die, I want to...  Ride a rocket into Earth's orbit.  

But this question, with its inherent acknowledgement of our limited time on this planet, doesn't draw my attention to that moment of slipping into oblivion.  It makes me think of the activities, the events, the things, and the people that I enjoy.  It makes me think of my dreams and aspirations.  It makes me think of good stuff that makes me smile.  It makes me day-dream.  

Before I die, I want to...  Go to Japan at least three more times, in the Spring, the Fall and the Winter.  

I might not get to do all of these things.  When I woke up the next morning after listening to this talk, I filled a page with the things I want to do.  Some of them, such as "Before I die I want to be the invited Guest of Honor at a science fiction convention," depends on other people making choices about me.  But like they say about making your own luck, it also depends on me doing the things I've already promised myself that I would do, that I want to, that I enjoy doing.  In this case, it's not a wish for the doing, but a wish for the recognition of my doing.  That's something we all want, no matter what it is we want to accomplish while we have the time.  

Before I die, I want to...  Find "her."  

It's appropriate that Ms. Chang started this project in New Orleans.  This is the same place where funeral processions turn into parades celebrating the lives of the people being remembered.  It's a life affirming question.  And the answers can...  Should give direction to life we're living now.  

Before I die, I want to...  Be invited to give a TED Talk of my own.  

When the doctor gave my sister the news the state of her health, she naturally asked him how much time did he think she had.  His reply was that he couldn't tell her if she had until tomorrow, next week, next month or next year.  He had no idea how much time she had left.  
I thought about this reply after my conversation with her.  His answer is appropriate for anyone asking such a question.  Whether they are sitting in a doctor's office, or sitting at home watching TV, or while running the marathon they always wanted to run, or boarding the plane for the dream vacation they've been planning for half their lives.  We assume that we'll continue on, emotionally.  But we don't know how long that is.  
Which makes the completion of the sentence, "Before I die, I want to..." a signal.  A indicator light on our personal dashboard telling us that something has to be done before the trip is over.  Or it should.  At least that is how I'm trying to respond to it.  

Before I die, I want to...  Become the person I think I ought to become.  

Before I die, I want to...  Publish my novel.

Before I die, I want to...  Walk the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage. 

Before I die, I want to...  Say, "I do," to someone.  

Before I die, I want to...  Really, really feel alive.  
That is the best way to finish that sentence.  And the best one to live one's life.  


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