A couple of nights ago, I ran into some older neighbors of mine, William and Anna, at Target. We talked for five minutes or so, and William seemed perfectly healthy. Saturday, I watched a very different William as paramedics worked on his body as he lay in the grass — trying to keep him from dying.
I don’t know yet what happened to William. A paramedic told another neighbor that they thought he was dead, but that they’d been able to get a pulse back. I look this picture from my yard as they worked on him at the other end of the street. He was taken to a nearby hospital and that’s all I know so far.
I’d already been thinking earlier in the day about the uncertainty of life. There was a traffic accident in Birmingham Friday morning on one of the major arteries into downtown in which two women were killed. A company truck of some kind swerved from the other side of the road and hit their SUV head-on. Other vehicles were also hit, but the two primary ones ended up in flames.
A 55-year-old woman was driving her 74-year-old mother to work and then heading on to work herself. The younger woman’s husband was at home drinking his morning coffee and watched coverage of the accident (and resulting traffic snarl) on television before heading to his job at the Birmingham Museum of Art. His wife’s boss soon called to ask about her and he started trying to reach her. Then a childhood friend who’s a police officer called and told him he needed to come home — because his wife was dead.
None of the people I’ve told you about so far had any idea two days ago about the dramatic turns their lives were about to take. My neighbor, William, had no idea he would collapse while mowing another neighbor’s lawn. The driver in the accident had no idea a truck was going to swerve into her lane and hit her head on. The older lady had no idea she wouldn’t make it to her job. And the husband had no idea that he would go to bed alone Friday night.
It’s nothing extraordinary to note any of this. People die every day in traffic accidents and from heart attacks. It’s not news that those can happen anytime, so why do we live in a way that almost assumes death isn’t there? And, more importantly, how would we live our lives differently if we knew when death was coming at a specific time — whether it’s 10 years or a year or a month or a day? That’s what I was thinking about this afternoon when William had his heart attack or stroke or whatever it was. What came to my mind?
- I’d let certain people know more frequently that I love them. When I was younger, a lot of things seemed important — things such as money, worldly success, ego satisfaction and living the kind of life I’d always wanted. I’m old enough now to realize that I’d rather live in a mud hut with someone I love and who understands me than to have all the worldly success and not have real love. When you’re about to die, material things are of little comfort if you’re emotionally alone and misunderstood.
- I’d quit wasting time on foolish arguments. I’ve done much better on this one in the past few years, but I can still occasionally be drawn into discussions that waste everybody’s time and energy. If I knew my time were limited, there’s no way I’d waste it on those arguments.
- I’d take more chances. I used to take chances to reach the things I wanted, but one big loss years ago made me gun-shy about going after things. Still, I know I can’t have the things that are important to me unless I’m willing to risk failure again.
- I’d spend more time in prayer. I’m specifically not talking about “doing things” for God or “working harder in the church.” If you’re a Christian — as I am — and your relationship with God is right, you’ll want to do those things. But if you’re trying to get your spiritual fulfillment from that sort of work, you have the cart before the horse. I’d spend more time with experiencing God and less time simply having intellectual knowledge of Him or having endless thoughts about what He wants. He created us to know Him. I’d spend more time doing that.
I’m not a country music fan, but there’s a sappy song from four or five years ago that touches on the idea of what it’s like to “Live Like You Were Dying.” The choices of the song’s protagonist about what to do with the precious amount of time remaining wouldn’t be mine — I have no interest in skydiving or mountain climbing — but the concept is worth thinking about. We do need to live as though we’re dying — because we are. From the moment we’re born, we’re using up whatever time we have in this short life.
There’s a part of most of us that feels as though we’re never going to die. But at some point, it’s going to be the end for all of us. One day, I’m going to be the one lying in the grass as my neighbors watch me struggle for life. Or I’ll have a car unexpectedly swerve into me and take my life. Or maybe I’ll even be a very old man dying with his family gathered around, if I’m lucky enough to have a family.
But however death happens — and whenever it happens — I need to quit living as though I have forever to get this life right. Most of us need to do that. I suspect it would make the life we have left — however long it is — far more meaningful.
Note: On a related subject, I’ve written recently about why life matters so much to me. Today’s article is closely related to that one.
Update: William is alive and still in the hospital, but he’s expected to have permanent brain damage from the time his brain went without oxygen. It was a heart attack he suffered. He had complete blockage in one valve and 75 percent blockage in another.