It was the summer after I graduated from college. I was having the time of my life living with my college roommate Hannah in Martha's Vineyard, going to the beach during the day, and waitressing in the evening. Each night I'd sink into my bed slightly sunburned and with a couple hundred of dollars in cash in my pockets. It was wonderful. Except for the fact that I was convinced I was going to die.
Hannah and I had plans to travel to Thailand for three months at the end of August; she was going to be interning at a hospital in Lopburi and I was going to be working in a home for sexually abused girls. It was surely going to be transformational...it was too bad that I believed I was never going to get there.
I don't really remember how "the" epiphany happened. I think I was lying in bed one night staring at the ceiling when I decided, "I'm going to die soon." And just like that, I became obsessed with death.
Soon after my realization, on one of our daily walks, I confided in Hannah. She looked at me incredulously, "Ker, you are NOT going to die." "But, I really think I am," I responded blankly. "Come ON," she started and listed off all the reasons why I was not going to die. I blocked out everything she said because she was convinced she was going to get bit by a rabid dog or contract malaria, dengue fever, and/or the bird flu in Thailand, so I couldn't trust her rationalities.
I talked to my mom about it. "Hmmmm...." she said. "Maybe you are going to..." "You think?!" I exclaimed, slightly relieved that even though I may be about to die at least I wasn't crazy in my belief." "Maybe...but I think you should see a therapist. We'll make an appointment with Dr. Goffman when you get back home in August." "Dr. Goffman ?" I asked, not recognizing the name. "Yeah...you know him, he's the marital therapist who got divorced from your old math tutor...the one with the long pink nails and all the cats who always said 'Shaloooom' when you and Cate arrived for your sessions?" He certainly would not be helpful.
So prior to my trip to the therapist and my trip to Thailand I was forced to sit with my death obsession for the next few months. It consumed a lot of my thoughts. My previous distinctions of life from death soon became blurred. Every time I talked on the phone, I thought that this could be my last conversation. It got annoying because even when I didn't want to talk someone, I convinced myself the conversation was worthwhile, because, afterall , I was going to die soon and this may be my last phone connection with the person before I passed away. My obsession with death was never fear-ridden or particularly sad; it was simply a firm belief that crept into my thoughts and made me appreciate, if not cling to, those fleeting moments that would have undoubtedly remained unobserved had death not been on my mind.
My nostalgia for a life that would soon fade permeated every activity. When I took walks on the beach I would stare longingly at women playing with their children in the sand. It must be nice, I sighed to myself, to live long enough to have children. When I ate my ice cream sandwiches, I'd savor each taste...I'm really going to miss these suckers I thought to myself as I licked my fingers. At night, I'd draft my obituary. I pictured my funeral. I got annoyed by the prospect of being buried, not cremated. I planned where my ashes would be spread (on the lake by my cottage in Canada) and the songs that would play as they spread through the air (enya maybe? no maybe snatum kaur.) I cried at how hard it would be for my parents to lose a child. I took joy in finally figuring out what death would be like.
When I returned home to Buffalo, I met with Dr. Goffman. He looked at me and smiled smarmingly: "well, Kerry...you leave for Thailand in a week and you're still alive, so that's good news!" "Yeah...I'm pretty sure at this point I'll die in a plane crash." I responded matter-of-factly. "You know," he started to drone, "that the statistics of dying in a plane crash..." blah blah blah. I stopped listening. I had already diagnosed the cause of my death obsession: the thought of myself living in Thailand, at this point, was so unimaginable that my brain couldn't register it, and therefore, I had convinced myself that because I couldn't imagine myself there...I would surely die before getting there. Knowing why I thought of death so much, however, didn't make the thoughts go away.
When Hannah and I met at the airport in LA a week later, I was slurping down a venti frappuccino in one hand (with whip cream of course) and eating a Wolfgang Puck pizza in the other. "This could be my last meal!" I exclaimed. 24 hours of travel later (and no sleep...thanks to my ridiculous consumption of caffeine), we landed safely in Thailand. I WAS STILL ALIVE!
Soon after my arrival, my thoughts of death dissolved into the tastes of my new life in Thailand. At the last leg of the trip, as I lay on my mat alone in an abandoned two story building in a Buddhist monastery (that's a whole another saga -see blog entry on "joy" in January 2009), I realized I kinda missed death. It's ever present presence had helped me see the delicacy of life and because of this I saw beauty more vividly. And it certainly helped me be a better person each day guilting me into treating each interaction, even if trivial, as precious.
And so, I got to thinking. Even though I don't particularly like pets (don't judge me), maybe our relationship with death is a lot like our relationship with a dog. It grabs our attention, forces us to walk with it hand-in-hand, and often causes us to stop in our tracks as we wait for it to catch up. Sometimes it barks at us and instills fear, other times it lies at our feet, patiently waiting until we acknowledge it. Sometimes its dirty and we don't want to touch it, but other times the thought of it seems gentle and sweet. Sometimes we get mad at it and push it away, begrudgingly knowing that no matter how much we ignore, it will undoubtedly be waiting at our door for us when we come home. Sometimes it forces us to change our schedule, but even when it is a burden, the appreciation of its existence brings us a greater joy. Perhaps then, it is not dogs who are man's best friend. It is death.