Dying, not dying

Barry Smith

Sustain’d and sooth’d

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

“Thanatopsis” (excerpt), William Cullen Bryant

I had to memorize that poem in high school. To this day I think of it from time to time, and I can still recite that last stanza by heart. But memorizing isn’t the same as learning.

Something occurred to me while the new year was being rung in a few weeks ago. It was this: “I’m going to die.”

True, true, we’re all going to die. I know, I know. Well, except that I only sort of know, just as many of us only sort of know. For me it felt like more of an eventuality, with an emphasis on eventual. I mean, yeah, sure, I’m gonna die at some point, but meanwhile I need to re-watch all of “Game of Thrones” so I’m totally caught up when season four starts.

But recently I had a sudden rush of mortality. For reasons that later proved to be unfounded, I was convinced that death would come a-knockin’ very, very soon. And I did not deal well with this insight. I was neither sustain’d nor sooth’d, and despite my best efforts I could not find the drapery of my couch to wrap about me. I’m not even sure my couch has drapery.

And just because my scare has passed, I’m hardly out of the woods, because the end is still nigh. I have no way of knowing just how nigh, but it’s statistically more nigh with each passing day.

And as I emerge from this experience, I can see that the “gonna-die-soon” me is a very different person than the “gonna-die-later” me. This is more of a surprise than I expected.

Gonna die soon: I read “The Places That Scare You,” by Pema Chodron. This Buddhist perspective on life and death is expansive and inspiring, and I’ve been turning to Chodron’s work in times of difficulty for several years now. For my limited degree of understanding, she illustrates well the importance of being present to each moment, not trying to hold on to the good or race past the bad. Life is unstable and unpredictable, and to pretend it’s anything else is the cause of suffering. The present is all there is, and to fully accept that is where true life exists.

Gonna die later: I read “Daredevil: the Man Without Fear,” by Frank Miller.

Gonna die soon: Upon hearing the neighbor’s dog barking early in the morning, I ponder the wonderful variety of life and how much I love living where I do. It’s peaceful yet full of variety. And now I’m awake earlier than I might have been, giving me a chance to get out of bed and start this glorious day earlier than I would have, thus squeezing that much more precious life out of this fleeting existence. Oh, that I could live to hear a dog barking on many a thousand more mornings.

Gonna die later: Shut up, you @#%& dog!! (Puts pillow over head.)

Gonna die soon: Wow. A glass of water. Is there anything more amazing? I can feel it go all the way down, this life-giving fluid absorbing into my very cells. And right from the tap, too. Cold and clean and ever-flowing. In a world where drinking water is becoming a luxury, I am so fortunate to have this opportunity to quench my thirst in the safety and comfort of my own home. I am truly blessed.

Gonna die later: I should have some water. Oh, wait, I just had some. Huh, I barely even remember it. Almost like I poured a glass of water and drank it completely unconsciously. Weird.

Gonna die soon: Gaze unblinking at the horizon in bittersweet agony. Try to take it all in and be present and not think of all the times I overlooked the richness of life for the sake of things more trivial.

Gonna die later: Rewatch all of “Game of Thrones,” so I’ll be totally up to speed when season four starts up in the spring.

Gonna die soon: Write out letters to friends, family and loved ones. Tell them without cynicism or sarcasm, what they mean to me, how happy I am that I got to share some time with them and how I hope that they live every day filled with appreciation and love for the precious gift of life.

Gonna die later: Write this column.

So now, as I head into a fresh new year, who’s going to be doing the driving? The “gonna-die-soon” me or the “gonna-die-later” me? With any luck the two of them will be able to reach some sort of compromise.

Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays. More at