I was twenty-seven when I did something incredibly stupid and dangerous. I often still feel the need to apologize to my mother for putting her through prolonged worry, but I had reached maturity, finished university, gone out into the workforce and felt that somehow I had missed my destiny. I couldn’t tell you what it was, just that my life was an empty disappointment. My job was okay. The people were nice and I was liked. There were promises of advancement, and one women at the head office had made it clear that she was interested. The whole world, my whole life was before me and I turned my back on it.
A friend asked me before I left, “but what if you get killed?”
I answered with the bravado of a young man. “Then my tombstone says I died at twenty-seven.” At the time I meant that in the lifespan of the solar system, let alone the universe, it was essentially the same as gasping my last breath at eighty.
But I hadn’t really learned that lesson yet. It was later, when I truly did fear for my life, when I stood beside men who did this every day and weren’t flinching, that I took that lesson into my heart: I was going to die no matter what. Someday, somewhere, I would have a tombstone that marked my passing from this world. It was just a matter of time, and in the grand scheme of the universe, a minuscule amount of time.
Now a few of you will think that’s depressing, but I found it liberating. While I sometimes forget the lesson of that time in the day-to-day rush of life, I’ve held it in my heart and it has allowed me to continue to do things that I might never have ventured had I lived as if I could coast on forever.
At a family function over the holidays, my brother talked about cancer screening, saying that if my father had gotten some at fifty he’d never have gotten the cancer that killed him at eighty-three. Eighty-three! If I should live so long! I’m not against cancer screening, and I’m going for a check-up myself in a couple of weeks, but it sounded as if my brother believed that dad could have lived forever. It sounded like he was saying that we weren’t going to die as long as we had good health care. I know if asked he’d state that of course he knows we’re all going to die, but I don’t believe he’s taken that knowledge into his heart.
Some days I wake up and wonder why I chose to be an author, why all my career decisions have been built around getting more time to write. On a good day I remember that I’m going to die. On a good day I remember that I have to fight to get every bit of me down on paper so that when I go at least some of me will stay behind, if only for a little while. I want to reach as many people as I can, to give them a moment of ease, a moment of insight and maybe even a sense of their own mortality so that they can do great things too. I want my grandchildren (if I’m so lucky) and maybe even great-grandchildren know another side of me, to be inspired by me.
I want to be great in a quiet way. Not a president. Not a mover and shaker, but a persistence presence that spreads over time, even after my novels are forgotten and the electrons have spun into chaos, or the paper has returned to the earth.
But the other gift of that great insight into my mortality is a fearlessness about who I am. I don’t care if people think I’m a literary genius or an purveyor of pulp, and this has allowed me to write books about anything, whether it be a lost soul wandering in Afghanistan, a construction worker afraid of heights or a plague of vampires in Chicago. Yes, vampires. It’s more the situation that interests me, how people respond to the pressure, how they struggle to survive, how my characters interact that fascinate me.
So giving myself up for dead was the best thing I ever did. I can do anything. I can write anything. It’s my destiny. To die. When that moment comes I won’t look back and say, “what if?”
So what did I do that was so dangerous? My friends and family know. My readers will already have guessed, and the rest of you…does it really matter? It’s knowing you’re mortal that sets you free.
But don’t worry, I’m not reckless. I want to see my children grow up, so when I run at night I watch out carefully for cars. They scare me. No need to go too soon.
And mom…sorry about that little episode.