Once, a lifetime ago, in one of those over-crowded, under-funded, never really clean (but loads of fun) summer share houses out at the beach, a friend of ours had an excellent idea. It was a “surefire get rich quick scheme”, he told us, “for a new gadget necessary in every American household”. He called it the Death Clock. He was an energetic and industrious young man and had come up with the idea to “keep us (and America in general) from wasting time”. “If you know how little time you actually have left on planet earth you’ll be loath to squander it”, he promised. He suggested that, based on our ages, genders, habits and ancestries, we should all calculate our approximate life expectancies. This was pre-internet and pre-keeping everyone alive far too long with drugs and tubes and machines, so we all happily chose our approximate death ages. We claimed 84 for the women and 82 for the men, before somewhat resignedly settling for a group death age of 83. We were all in our early 20s at the time, young, optimistic, bouncy. The kind of bouncy where if one were to fall hard while playing tennis or rollerblading or biking one would just pop back up, dusty, bloodied, but unfazed, and continue on with the task at hand. Eventually descending into octogenarian-hood seemed as far away and fantastical as a spaceship full of aliens landing their craft in our cluttered and dry summer share yard and demanding a cappuccino for the captain of the mothership, hovering above.
The idea of the Death Clock was to set it to age 83 that summer, place it prominently on a mantle somewhere, and press START. The clock would whir into action then: “Death Clock would like you to know that you have this many decades, years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds left to live”, it would announce at various intervals throughout the day and night. That summer, it would have hovered around “60 years left and counting - make the most of it”. I spent a lot of my days that summer laying around, feeling self-conscious - too fat and pasty for the beach, nursing terrible hangovers and plotting the evening's debauchery, so I think the Death Clock was meant to be a motivator for me, if not for all of us. We could glance up at it while soothing our dehydration and jangled nerves with caffeine, carbs and fat and the Death Clock would remind us to get off our still pert asses and to the beach or the courts or the town. To get up and go to wherever it was we were going to so that we would stop wasting our precious resource, our wildly diminishing time. We would get hourly reminders of the time we were wasting from our chiming, chirping, chastising Death Clock.
As it was, we lacked the motivation (and engineering skills) to actually make the Death Clock, but the idea has always stayed with me. Several weeks ago the actress Kirstie Alley died at age 71. “She lived a long happy life”, the entertainment correspondents crowed. “A long happy life?", I shrieked internally. “That’s not much older than me. A mere 15 years or so. 15 years is nothing. Nothing.”
So here I am in my 50s. A decade which for me has had its ups and downs but has also shown me, in no uncertain terms, what is waiting for me if I am fortunate enough to take a few more turns around the sun. I helped care for my father the last years of his life and now, as my mother enters her declining years, I am doing the same for her. And this, I think, is where it hits us. Or at least it hits me. I am going to die. If I live as long as my parents have, I will, like them, become unable to drive, walk a few city blocks, even get off of the floor by myself if by some disastrous trick of uneven carpet or wonky floorboard I happen to take a tumble. And tumbles, apparently, need to be avoided at all costs. Tumbles seem to be the leading cause of death for my parents' friends, also in their mid to late 80s. “Yes, well, he fell and that was it. You know how it goes. A fall, a hospital stay, and then the funeral.”
And I think immediately back to the summer house. A house that I did not enjoy nearly as much as I should have for its noise, constant activity and youthful banter. Those wonderful under-appreciated years where I was limber and strong and seemingly unbreakable.
It’s not that I wish I was in my 20s again but I do worry a bit when I see a 71-year-old dying and being heralded as having lived a long and happy life. I think in 15 years I’ll just be getting started. Just getting my act together. Just deciding what I should be when I grow up. Hardly ready for the grave. But then I think back to the Death Clock and,, based on that metric then, I don't have much time left. My eldest child is now 21, a man (almost), towering over me and booming in a deep assured baritone “Mom! It’s technology, not the Antichrist!” And it really does seem like yesterday when he was handed to me in the delivery room all purple and wailing and my life went from caring about myself to caring about others in a heartbeat. His heartbeat. And then the heartbeats of my other two children.
But I am still selfish. I still want more time. What if my children have children one day? I want to be bouncy for them. Unbreakable. I want to show them how to swim in a wild, violent ocean. How to run until you can’t breathe. How to jump off of anything. I want to leave something. To show that I was here. That I existed. That I had a good time on Planet Earth. That I learned a lot. That I appreciated the experience. That I was grateful.
“What would you have done differently?” I ask my father. He visits me weekly in my dreams now that he has passed. And I beg him to advise me, so I won’t make the same mistakes he may now regret in the afterlife. But he always turns away with a smile and disappears behind a wall or a crowd or the river Styx. Or any other of those sneaky avoidant devices that dreams use to shield the truth from us.
What I do know is that time flies. And I’m a greedy girl. I’ve lived a full wonderful life. Full of all sorts of good and evil and magic and plot twists. Like all of our lives, a script that even J.K. Rowling couldn't conjure. But I want more. I crave more. More hours, more days, more months, more years, more decades.
I still have not installed a Death Clock on my mantle. The hubby, for all his wisdom, thinks it's a bit too “macabre” for the suburbs of Manhattan. But he likes the idea. As do I. As do some eastern religions who have used the symbol of the skull to remind us that death is coming for each and every one of us and not one of us really knows when or even how. I often wear several skull bracelets around my wrist. Not human skulls (although that would be fabulous) but smaller skulls, hammered out of gold and silver, with shiny chips of diamond or sapphire as eyes. They twinkle up and me, my own glittery personal Death Clock, beseeching me to remember that every day, every hour, in fact every moment we are alive, is a blessing, a miracle, and a gift to be cherished.