Do you want to know when you die?


Do you want to know when you will die? I’ve been thinking about this question a little bit recently.

Several months ago, I picked up a new novel, “The Measure” by Nikki Erlick, which begins with exactly the same plot twist. One morning, everyone on the planet (ages 22 and up) woke up to a surprise at their front door: a small wooden box, personally engraved, that read: “The measure of your life lies within.” Each box contains a chain, the length of which determines the recipient’s longevity.

The characters are now faced with an agonizing decision. Do they open the box and find out how long they will live? If yes, what will they do with this knowledge? If not, that means they choose not to know, would they live differently?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. A few months ago, out of morbid curiosity, I visited the Death Clock, a website that bills itself as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is fading away… second by second.”

I entered the month, day, and year I was born, my gender, my mood (from pessimistic to optimistic), whether I smoked tobacco, and my height and weight. I hit the submit button, and a second later came my answer: “Your personal death day is Wednesday, April 23, 2031.”

If true, I had nine years to live; I’ll be a few months away from my seventy-fourth birthday.

Around the same time, my sister, who is 60 and is being treated for advanced ovarian cancer, was told by the oncologist that she might be running out of time. Of course, it was just a doctor’s guess and her current chemotherapy regimen had significantly improved her tumor markers. Regardless, she will be seen as a “short stilt,” one of those who will die before their time, in “The Measure.”

I’ve wanted to be a “long chord” ever since I was He had cancer in my twenties, but thanks to Erlick’s book and now my sister’s illness, I’ve realized that focusing on exactly when my time is up is unknowable and probably not psychologically good. So I decided instead to focus on how I spent those years, not just how many.

In any case, longevity does not come with a guarantee of good health, and those “extra years” may have less value if they are confined to the home or have debilitating conditions.

As the characters in “The Scale” discover, a long streak (meaning many years of life) does not equal happiness. And while the characters who get short strings initially feel as though they’ve come out, well, short. Gradually, they find greater meaning and richness in their relatively few days. Their newfound knowledge changes their perspective on what matters.

“It’s easy to look back on our time together and think we’ve been so lucky,” says one of the novel’s characters, Nina, who is married to a short-handed pennant. “But isn’t it better to spend ten years truly loving someone than forty years being bored or exhausted?” Or bitterness?

After the death of her partner, Maura – early indeed – Nina explains that their relationship “felt deep, felt complete, despite its length. It was a complete and wonderful story in itself.”

It all brings me back to my little sister, Julie, and the deep anxiety I feel for what might turn into an early death. I want her to live forever. (Maybe not forever, but, please, longer than me!)

To help me get through these painful feelings, I’ve turned to friends, my therapist, higher-dose antidepressants, meditation, ketamine, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on the Five Stages of Dying and Dying. It all works – some.

Oddly enough, “The Scale” It gave me a greater sense of peace and acceptance than I have found anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate that Jolie probably has fewer years to live than her older brother. But I watched and learned that Jolie lived as big a life as anyone could imagine. This was proven true before her diagnosis, but it has been even more true in recent years.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Julie emailed me to tell me that she had already lived a full life, even if it was a short one. Since then, she’s focused on what matters to her—seeing her daughters graduate college, celebrating 35 years with his wife, going on trips with the whole family, and visiting with close friends.

In other words, Jolie cultivated those relationships that meant the most to her and didn’t focus on the ones she might miss out on in the future.

I remember thinking at our last Christmas dinner about a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is not longevity, but depth of life” that counts. Then I thought about what Nina tells us, in the novel: “When we think of the greatest love stories ever written, we don’t judge them by their length…. [A]And though I’ve had more chapters than Mora, her pages are the ones you just can’t put down. Ones that I will continue to read, over and over, for the rest of my life. Our contract together, our story, was a gift.”

It is not about how many seasons we have experienced but how rich and exciting these seasons are. Or, as the late poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what do you intend to do with your wild and precious life?”

For starters, I’m not going to listen to the death watch. I don’t want to know when I will die – but I do want to live each day as if it were my last.

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