We keep believing that we’ll live forever, but it’s a secret buried deep under the sediment of experience. Cancer can wash away that sediment, or Leukemia, or a thousand other calls of death. But given enough time, the sediment settles again. The blinding truth of our transience is covered by tiny bits of rock . . . until it’s dark. We can’t stand in the light of our mortality very long. It starts to burn us. That’s why we bury it. We bury the truth to avoid being burned by it; we cover over to carry on. What if we didn’t?
I ask myself, How much longer are you going to do this—drink a glass of water? Bite into bread? Push your muscles into the earth at a regular rhythm? Make love with your wife? How much longer? And don’t do that thing where you say, “Not forever,” and then go back to forgetting about it, feigning eternity with regularity. You know better. You watched him die, remember? You watched him die in your living room.
But what else are you supposed to do? Treasure your moments like final drops of rain before a drought that never seems to come? Cry every time you bite into a sandwich? Write a sonnet for every step of your three-mile run? Of course not. Still, there’s something here. What is it?
We’re afraid of our transience. Ernest Becker said that we’re always chasing heroism because we want to stand out and be remembered; we want to protest our death, to believe that somehow we’ll live forever, and people will see us for the heroes we are. There’s some truth to this, but only some. Do you know why? Because all of it, in the end, is futile. We can’t control how people perceive or remember us. We can’t. But we’re stubborn. We keep trying. At least, I do.
We want to believe that our transience is a bad dream, that we’ll wake from it somehow, that we’ll see our father didn’t really disappear after the cancer. It was all a grand illusion. And then God opens his mouth: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). That’s transience. That’s your life and mine: mist.
I still remember standing—eighteen years old—in a vacant hospital room just after learning that my father would die of cancer. I stared out the third story window at the pipes that vented steam from mechanical systems on lower floors. The steam was white and full-bodied and real . . . until it wasn’t. It appeared only to disappear. Transparency came with elevation. That’s me, isn’t it?
I don’t fully believe that I will die one day. Perhaps you don’t either. Psychologists would say we have to constantly repress our fear of death in order to live. We disbelieve in our own death viscerally, even though we know conceptually that it’s inevitable. That disbelief began to battle within me after I watched my father die. What I write now is a footnote to what I’ve learned about being human after the rock of that moment struck the glass surface of my young life.
But despite all I’ve learned and seen and experienced, part of me wishes I wasn’t there that night in early June. (God, why did I have to be there? Why did I have to watch life trickle into silence like water slipping down into a cavern beneath the rock?) Something tells me I had to be there because the experience would be one of my greatest teachers. And here I am marking paper with my pen seventeen years later. It’s still teaching—mostly the same lessons that I refuse to soak in. What’s it teaching? Transience.
I have to keep writing that word just as you have to keep reading it. It’s part of what it means to exist in this world. And yet it may be the part we most repress. I once heard in a movie that being young means secretly believing that you will be the one person who lives forever. But couldn’t that also be a definition for being human? We know it’s not true. The longer we live, the more acquainted we grow with exits. The subtle songs of life in persons go quiet. New songs cry into being. Everything overlaps. It’s a symphony of going and coming, death and birth, silence and sound. We stand amidst the symphony in disbelief. Could our song really ever run quiet? Could it ever stop?
Two years after my father died, I had a mental and spiritual breakdown. I developed an anxiety disorder. The world felt like one giant wet piece of paper, ripping into fuzzy seams all around me. Nothing held. I didn’t understand death, and then I didn’t understand life. I became a cripple in a functioning body. Even the simplest task required a spiritual cane. I couldn’t hold myself up walking from the living room to the kitchen. The truth of transience had pressed the air out of me. I was having to live in a new atmosphere all the sudden, with oxygen heavy as lead. I couldn’t get enough in. How could I find my footing if I was always moving? How does steam stand up?
In the early weeks and months of anxiety, I saw the whole world moving. They say the world spins 1,000 miles per hour. It’s just so big that we can’t feel it. But when you’re shattered by anxiety, it’s like you can feel it—the constant spinning. I was caught up in motion that was always faster than my feet. Leaves went through their color journey—the green of vigor, the yellow of maturity, the gold of fading glory, and the brown of bowing out. I used to gather them in my hands and crunch them into tiny pieces—little skeletons that once held sunlight. But then I was skeletal, a pressed and ossified memory of light. That was me now, wasn’t it?
The 35-mph speed limit sign just down the street—bold, white, and shimmering in the summer—would gather dirt and rain residue as the days fell into autumn. In winter, it would darken even more with the shorter days, gray as the lonely clouds that loomed above. The summer-white glory was fading. That was me, wasn’t it?
My clothes would be clean cotton, pressed and neat. And then the fabric would gather into tabs and let a forest of tiny threads stretch into the atmosphere. Eventually, my clothes would get donated to Good Will. That was me, wasn’t it?
Transience. I was surrounded by it. I always had been, but I didn’t notice until my father’s respiratory system shut down in front of me, like an old train engine with no more coal in the furnace. Final breaths came counted.
Three. The exhalation was slow and settled.
Two. Wait. What’s happening here? Life can’t fully stop like this. We stared at his face as a collapsing star. Where does light go?
One. Hold on. Please.
And then the haunting realization that one soul had just been subtracted from the room. The star of his life had actually collapsed. His face rested like a stone on a riverbed. Decades of smiles and lifted cheeks, of furrowed brows and listening stares—all of it now behind closed doors of stillness. Transience transforms us from one thing into another.
This is an excerpt from the author’s latest work, I Am a Human: A Memoir on Grief, Identity, and Hope.
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