This morning, before my usual 7 o’clock meeting, some of my A.A. posse and I got into a spirited debate about dying alone and which animal to have by your side when you inevitably do. "You don't want to be with a cat" someone offered, "they'll eat your eyeballs out before your body is cold. Maybe before you are even dead!" "Oh please" a cat loving member of our tribe countered. "A dog could do that too, depending on the breed." "What about birds?" I asked, "what would a pet bird do? Would a parrot eat human flesh?" I asked Maria, a devoted rescue-parrot owner. Although horrified by the thought Maria surmised that yes, Stewy (her parrot) would probably eat her if he was hungry enough. And off we went on a gruesome and oddly hilarious debate about all of our sad, lonely demises and whose body would get found (or eaten) first. This all happened before 7 a.m. and I felt right at home. Laughing at the absurdity of the human condition. The absolute instability of our lives. The fact is that any one of us could have an aneurism hurtling violently towards our brain stem right this very second and there isn't a goddamn thing we can do about it.
I knew a young man in his early 30s, I'll call him Steve, who died that very way. Walking up the stairs to his apartment, with his girlfriend, after dinner on the lower east side of Manhattan, he stopped mid-way up the stairs and according to her "just tumbled backwards." He had not made a peep. When she ran to him at the bottom of the stairs he had already stopped breathing and she couldn't find a pulse. The autopsy showed that he had suffered a fatal brain aneurism. This was a sobering reminder. We are all here on borrowed time.
About 18 months later I went to a memorial service for Steve. He had been perfectly healthy when he dropped dead and because he was an organ donor and in such good shape they had been able to harvest whatever was harvestable. I was soon to discover that is pretty much everything.
All of the recipients of Steve’s organs had been invited to his memorial service, and several of them came. It was a surreal and moving experience. "I have Steve's corneas" a young woman told me, as we waited in a line to be seated. "And I have one of his kidneys" a middle-aged man told me. Someone else at the memorial had his other kidney. His skin had gone to a burn victim. His liver had saved a young father’s life. So there was joy and sadness at the memorial, mixed in with deep gratitude for Steve and his selfless act of checking that organ donor box.
"That could be any of us" Steves girlfriend told me a few days later. "Just poof! And you're gone." His death had shocked her deeply. But after she had grieved for several months she had what she described as a shift in perception. "Since it's clear that I am not in control here" she told me "I'm going to stop trying to be. I'm going to stop sweating the small stuff. I'm trying to relax and see what the universe has in store for me." And she has changed since Steve’s death. She was devastated yes, but as she healed she became happier, freer, lighter. Steve’s death has shown her that our lives are a gift. A mysterious and sacred gift that can be snatched away from any of us at any time. “And there ain't nothing we can do about that" she says "so Carpe diem folks! Carpe diem."
Trust me, there is a link there between Steve and A.A. and the conversation we were having before our meeting about which animal would devour our lifeless corpses first upon our deaths. In A.A. we mention the unmentionables. The fear of aging and illness and dying alone is just one of them. Many of us in recovery have actually come back from the edge of death (while active in addiction) and have come to regard our lives as something to be cherished. In recovery we have been graced with a second chance at life, which is a miracle. We also talk about our total lack of control in this life, and how scary that can be. That’s usually a taboo subject in polite company. We don't control our bodies. Case in point is Steve’s aneurism. We don't control the drivers on the roads, as witnessed by how many people are killed each year by drunk drivers. We don't control the psychopath that walks into a supermarket with a automatic machine gun and mows down 15 people. Innocent people who were perhaps just picking up something they forgot to get for that evening’s dinner. We don't control much of anything in our lives at all. And I have to accept that. Because if I don't accept life on life's terms I'll cry. And I'll drink. And my crying and drinking days are hopefully a thing of the past.
I don't drink or drug my fears away anymore. But the world is still the same place. As wondrous and amazing and terrifyingly unpredictable as it has always been. But thanks to what I have learned in my years as a member of A.A. I no longer spend my time worrying about…and drinking over…the “what ifs”. I have learned that that’s a waste of time. In recovery we try to stay in the present moment, in the day, in the now. Avoiding (as best we can) the wreckage of the past and the fear of the future. And if I do start freaking about which pet will eat my face off first I can do it with my posse, who surprisingly have had those very same thoughts. We can laugh together about the "interesting" stories the alcoholic mind can often tell itself.
And I try, more than anything else, to live with acceptance, with some belief that there is a Higher Power. That there is a reason and a plan in place that explains it all. Even the hard things. Even the unfair things. Even the inexplicable.
The Acceptance Prayer
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a “prayer” on page 417 (or 449 if you have an older edition). It reads:
“…and acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober, unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”