The Breaths I Have Left

When I was eight, my father gave me a copy of Death Be Not Proud, a book by John Gunther about the life and death of his son Johnny. By the time I turned the last page, and I say this in the kindest possible way, I’d become a bit of a hypochondriac and completely death-obsessed. Not only did I start worrying that every time I got a headache I had a brain tumor (as little Johnny did), but I also became convinced that the end was near. Very near. When my parents walked out the door, I wondered whether I would see them again. When my brother went to day camp, I was concerned he would get run over by a car. I just couldn’t believe that an eight year old had died — and that everyone else would die as well. It didn’t seem fair; it didn’t seem right. Or, as Woody Allen said when asked how he felt about death, “I am strongly against it.”

In my twenties and thirties, I elevated my death-obsession into a spiritual practice. I learned Buddhist mediation, went to graveyards with teachers who were intent on teaching us what I’d known for years: Life is short. People die. You will be amongst them. I travelled to India and saw the burning ghats in Benares. I witnessed how long it took a body, all its bones and muscle, hair and eyes, to turn to ashes. (FYI: A long time. I had to get a Coke halfway through and come back for the rest.) I learned so much from spiritual practice — about ease and loveliness and my crazy mind — but it didn’t dispel my fears of death. If anything, it exacerbated them because I became more aware of the shortness of any life. My life, in particular.

The old saying in Buddhist circles is that this human life is so precious that it is as if each one of us is like a turtle who lives in the ocean and comes up for air every hundred years. Normally, the turtle’s head would emerge through the waves. If by chance the turtle — aka you — puts her head through a bucket that is randomly floating on the surface, it would be extremely rare. Attaining a precious human life is even rarer than that. So, since you have a chance this one precious life to discover who you really are — your true nature — don’t waste a single second.

Talk about pressure.

As I headed into my forties and fifties, people around me were dying or had died. My father, my dear friend Lew, my cat. My aunt Bea. My friend Linda. And every time, it was the same: how could a person (even those with four legs) be here one day and gone the next? Death was so irreversible, so final, so forever — unlike, say, buying a pair of shoes from Zappo’s with a 365-day-free return policy. But then, something unexpected happened: As part of a routine medical procedure, my throat closed, my heart rate skyrocketed, my blood pressure dropped and I had the strange sensation of leaving my body. I was conscious enough to realize that this was It — I was dying. I remember being surprised that it was happening so quickly, and on an ordinary day in September. (I was hoping for harps and orchids and long soulful glances of loved ones when I died, not a cold tiny examination room with a nurse with a purple happy face pinned on her smock.)

Although there were many compelling insights during (and after) that near-death experience, one that has remained with me is the visceral understanding that all my years of being death-obsessed weren’t actually about dying or death; they were about life. They weren’t about fear of the end, they were about longing to be awake in the middle (also known as NOW, as Eckhart Tolle has taught us). I wanted, as the poet Mary Oliver says, to spend my life “married to amazement,” not wedded to regret or exhaustion. After the medical procedure, I realized that death could happen to me on any ol’ day. And that this life wasn’t a dress rehearsal for some bigger better promise around the corner. This was it -- and my breaths were numbered. I didn’t know how many breaths I had left, but it became apparent that no matter how charming I was or how many organic pomegranates I ate, not dying was not an option.

Within a few days of being home from the hospital, I made a list what I loved. Of what I would regret not doing if I had died in that examination room. The list was very short and incredibly simple. It included being present with any task, even washing the dishes. It also included writing, being with my husband, spending time in nature, working with my students and being with my friends. I began quitting things in which I didn’t want to participate. I said no to parties I didn’t want to go to, invitations I didn’t want to accept. I quit a graduate program in which I was enrolled, I started working on a book I’d wanted to write for years. I spent time with trees, particularly a maple tree in our driveway. I told my husband regularly what I cherished about him and our life together. Over and over, with each day and each choice, I asked myself: is this something on which I want to spend the breaths I have left?

Years have passed and I am still asking the breath question. Not always, of course. Sometimes when my husband and I are fighting, revenge, not the number of breaths, is uppermost in my mind. But even then, I can often pull myself back from the brink and remember that, really, we are all alive for about ten minutes and I don’t want to miss a moment. Or a breath.


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