There were reminders everywhere last week, things telling me that one day I’d be gone from this world, something thought of fondly in memory like the 8-track or the Lite Brite. First off, I was sick. My body felt weak and I couldn’t eat. Secondly, probably because I was sick, cigarettes were making me cough a lot, and that reminded me that smoking is bad. Thirdly, I was depressed. There is no greater reminder of death than depression; sometimes I’ll think about the CDs in my collection and the girls I’ve dated and I’ll be dumbfounded, slowly grasping the idea that I have terrible taste. Similarly, when I’m sick, smoking, and depressed, it suddenly dawns on me that I might not live forever.
Plus I have bad circulation and cold weather makes my feet go numb. A few months ago I was having coffee with a friend, in the smoking section. The windows were all open for ventilation, making the smoking section so cold they could’ve filmed the sequel to March of the Penguins there. In a flash, I couldn’t feel my feet. The sensation of it, of having no feet or maybe that my body had cut my feet off like a bartender cutting off a drunk at last call (“Listen, feet, I think you’ve had enough blood…I’m going to have to stop serving you tonight”), made me terribly lightheaded and I started freaking out. I felt faint. I told my friend I had to get out of there, go home, and in a crazy haste I fled to the subway.
“You’re not dying,” I sternly told myself. “Stop it.”
Part of my brain wasn’t listening. I knew exactly why. I’d thought I was dying before. It was Professor Ruby and her lecture. How she said the feet and the hands get cold. I hopped up and down on the subway, not caring if people stared at me.
I saw my reflection in the subway mirror. All the memories were there, in a jumble. Professor Ruby, the ambulance, the freak outs, and, of course, my dance moves in the bathroom.
In order to get my Bachelor’s Degree, I had to take two gym classes. I was 20 years old, young and sprite and healthy enough and moving towards being a college graduate. The new semester was about to begin and the woman in the counseling office was making my schedule.
“You need a gym credit,” she said.
“I took golf last year,” I told her. “That was pretty good. Is there anything else easy like that? Maybe yoga or something?” What can I say? I was a skinny, chain-smoking artsy nerd with a pony tail. The last thing I wanted was to take basketball with a bunch of jocks. It wasn’t my idea of a good time. It would make me as miserable as the frat boys who somehow got signed up for poetry electives and looked, every class, like they were in the fourth quarter of a game they were losing badly.
“Um, sorry,” the counselor said. “Yoga is filled.”
“Frisbee golf? I heard there’s Frisbee golf.”
“There’s Ultimate Frisbee. Is that what you mean?”
“Hmm, that involves a lot of running. What else do you have?”
“Well, the basics, really. Soccer. Basketball. Football. Running.”
“Running! Football! Oh God no!”
She could probably sense the dread in my voice and so, with a sigh, she pitched me an alternative suggestion. “You can take Death and Dying. It counts as a gym credit.”
“Sign me up.”
In summary, at my school, you could either take an active sport or, for those not so physically inclined, you could choose to take Death. And I, happily, chose Death.
If the Grim Reaper ever approaches me with similar options, I’m going with football.
To no surprise, Death and Dying turned out to be taught by a new-aged loony named Professor Ruby who had big glasses and a pet wolf. Yes, a pet wolf. She’d come into class frazzled and say, “I couldn’t get any sleep…Eli was howling all night.” I’d nod and think, “Well, you do have a wild animal living in your house. Maybe Eli the wolf is getting a little stir crazy.” The structure of the class was simple: we would learn about the process of death itself and about how we, as humans, deal with it. We had to read books on grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and we’d be taking a variety of field trips. And we would be forming a support group for each other, should anyone in the class suffer a loss, or should Professor Ruby be eaten by her pet wolf.
There were about twenty students and we all dove right in. Professor Ruby talked about her mother’s death and encouraged us to openly share our own experiences. Many students did, telling the class about friends or family who had gone, and it was then that I realized what a stranger I was to death. My whole family was alive (with the exception of my grandfather who died when I was really little) and I’d never lost any friends. I felt almost embarrassed by it, like a poser or something, sitting there all naïve in a classroom full of people who had authentic Bridge to Terabithia experiences. Why hadn’t anyone in my life died? What was God waiting for? Didn’t he know I needed material for class discussion?
After a few weeks, I started getting massively bummed out. The class wasn’t a fun and easy cake walk like I’d thought it would be. We were given the exasperating assignment of writing our own eulogies and I really struggled with mine. It made me think about my life. If I died that day, what good would anyone have to say about me? My roommates noticed how melancholy I was getting.
“What are you doing man?” they’d ask. “You’re just sitting here in the living room…did the TV break?”
“No, I’m thinking about my funeral.”
And then they would leave immediately. In the following months, things got worse. Professor Ruby was brutal, merciless. We went on field trips to a hospice and a morgue. We talked to people who were dying. She showed us a videotape of a sick child passing away. I was devastated by it. Eerily, almost every student in the class had someone they knew die that semester. More people cried in Death and Dying than they do at the Grammy’s. It seemed like every class we were getting up and doing a group hug for so-and-so, because her grandmother just passed. “This is a place where we openly share our thoughts on death,” Professor Ruby said. “There is no judgment…only support.”
I wasn’t sharing my thoughts. Why hadn’t anyone close to me died? I thought I knew the answer. It was because, I thought, I was the one marked, the person chosen. I could feel it. I thought of the dying child in the video – there weren’t any other members of his family struggling through something like that. No, they all sat around him healthy as could be. Maybe my whole life I was the sick child and I didn’t even know it.
That’s when the freak-outs began. I’d smoke pot and totally lose it, convinced that my time had come. On one occasion, I took the ice cube tray from the freezer and started sucking on ice cubes. I thought that the ice cubes were the only thing keeping me alive and when the tray ran out I’d be dead. On another horrible occasion, I got a nose bleed and called 911. “I’m dying!” I shouted into the phone. “Send an ambulance! Hurry!” They sent three. By the time they got there, my nose bleed was gone and the paramedics kindly told me that I was okay. It was humiliating and I felt like a crazy person. I wondered what would make me call the ambulance next time – bad gas? Maybe halitosis?
I started filling a flask with vodka and taking it to school with me. I’d sit outside on a bench by myself, drinking. Once in awhile someone would come up to me and go, “Hey party animal! Starting the weekend early!?!”
“Nah, it’s just the only way I can deal with class.”
For all of my freak-outs, none of them had happened in the class itself. Somehow I was always able to maintain composure through it and then break down afterwards. That changed the day Professor Ruby gave the lecture on the signs of death our bodies show when we’re dying. It was a long lecture, and I squirmed in my chair listening to it.
“First the hands go cold.”
“My hands are cold,” I thought. “Oh my God, they’re freezing.”
“The feet get cold next.”
“My feet are ice cold,” I thought. “This is it! This is it! Why hadn’t it dawned on me before? All along…this was the plan. IT WAS PREDETERMINED FROM DAY ONE THAT I WOULD DIE AN IRONIC DEATH IN DEATH AND DYING CLASS!”
I got up and rushed out of class. I was hysterical. My body was covered in sweat and I couldn’t breathe. For about ten minutes I walked in circles down and around the hallways, and then I darted into the bathroom. I threw water on my face. I looked at myself in the mirror.
“I don’t want to die,” I thought mournfully. “I won’t let myself die.”
If things weren’t totally bizarre already, they quickly got there. Looking at myself in the mirror, I raised my arms and, without much logic behind it, slowly began to dance. First it was my arms, then my hips and legs joined in.
“See! You’re not gonna die! You can move! You can dance!!!”
I was possessed. I began shuffling my feet and swinging my arms over my head. The thrill of being alive filled me.
I was so caught up in the rush of movement and vitality that it took me a moment to realize the bathroom door had opened and two students from class were standing there, looking at me. “Oh!” I shouted, abruptly ending my groovetastic gyrations. “Hey! What’s going on?”
“Um,” one of them said. “Professor Ruby was worried about how you left class like that…she told us to go check to see if you were okay.”
I giggled nervously. “Yeah…I’m good. Just…you know…I’ll be back soon…”
What on earth could they have thought? “Yes, Professor,” I imagined them saying. “Bill’s fine. He just had to dance.”
Before the next class I emailed Professor Ruby and told her I had some problems at home and couldn’t come in for awhile. The semester was almost finished at that point. Perhaps she could sense that the class was more than I could handle. I went in for the final class and turned my exam paper in. I was given a B and that was it.
Death was over.
How is it that human beings, despite all of our destructive behavior, can so often block out death?
It’s because, I think, our bodies and minds are so filled with life that it’s impossible to grasp any end to it. Dancing in the bathroom, or jumping up and down on the subway, or even writing this, I felt strong and present, whirling with force. Isn’t it like that all the time? Even the small things we do, talking to each other or eating a grape or walking through the cold to get to work, they’re all complete with energy and being, the gravity of existence. Isn’t that what keeps us from wandering into whatever other worlds we believe in? Our movements, our ability to touch one another, the gift of being able to laugh, they all keep us firmly rooted with the wonderful weight of being here.
How can I possibly think of dying when everything inside of me tells me every second that I’m so very much alive?