What to do if you had just one day left to live

Two writers contemplate their last moments.

 

What would you do if you knew the world was ending, and you had 24 hours to live? I put that question recently to Ana Maria Spagna, friend and fellow writer, with a blush — it seems like a drinking-game question, after all, nearly trite in its grandness. But I meant it, because it seems to have burbled suddenly into my zeitgeist — tropical storms and earthquakes and raging wildfires as regular news, methane burps and Yellowstone rumbles as potential threats, and my major childhood fear of imminent death from Russian nuclear weapons now revived from North Korea. “Oh,” she said, gazing out at the waters of Puget Sound from the cabin where we were staying on Whidbey Island. “Well. …”

We both looked at the evening blue expanse. We were on the island teaching a class called “writing for change” — I’d joked we could have added “before it’s too late.” The students had just departed, tired and happy, and Ana Maria and I had a quiet evening, so I posed the question I’d just been journaling about.

If I had one day and knew it, I told her, I’d indulge. Assuming I could get to all this stuff and people, I’d satisfy my senses: gin-and-tonics, French fries, kissing, holding, and being outside listening to oceans or mountains or birds. My other priority would be to hug my teenage kids and try to serve them in whatever way I could, though my guess is that they, too, would want sensory experience — to get tipsy or into the arms of another, perhaps — and indeed, I’d encourage them to go forth and do so.

Laura’s question caught me off guard. I’d just returned from a walk, or an almost-walk. High tide had claimed most of the beach, leaving me to clamber over driftwood, under low-hanging madrona limbs, through scratchy patches of salal to a small dry cubbyhole, where I sat on round rocks and breathed in the sea’s unfamiliar fecundity: rot, fish, salt. Across the water, I could see the mountains of my home, some 80 miles east, silhouetted in the late daylight. I felt the satisfying exhaustion of work well done. We’d led an intense three-day workshop, connecting with other writers, good people striving to make meaning of our world. What would I want if this world were ending? To be in those distant mountains, with Laurie — the love of my life — and some good whiskey. I’d want to be outside. Maybe I’d want music: Van Morrison, perhaps, and Nick Drake. What else? I pondered as Laura sat by the fireplace, wine glass in hand, and we watched bald eagles circle and land in the fir trees on the shore.

So we quickly agreed on the basics, at least when it came to physical activities. But then I wondered about my inner world. Could I control my fear, knowing, as I do, that accepting the simple fact of my mortality, or anyone’s mortality, has been the challenge of my life? Particularly if we were talking the mortality of the whole damn planet! I decided I’d want to seek some sort of chin-up equanimity and face death with a bit of curiosity. So I’d meditate on gratitude, likely — thanking all the authors who have taught me and kept me company, the environmentalists who worked hard, the politicians who tried to make it right, all the good souls who engaged. I’d call a few people and tell them what they meant to me, although I think they already know, and I’d think of all who had already faced this mysterious unknown. Then, at the very last moment, I’d try to settle into a place of curious calm, lift my face to the sun, or the moon, and breathe in and say, “It’s nature. Debitum Naturae. My debt to nature is to die.”

 

Illustration by Sarah Gilman

Nature, yes. A few years back, someone asked me what I’d write about if I knew I was going to die. The beauty of nature, I said. The answer surprised me. I’ve written about many subjects: civil rights, community, politics, relationships. But in the end, it’s the beauty, the holiness, as Northwest writer Brian Doyle would have said, of sunshine, rain, river, trees, birds, fish, sky, and humans, too, as part of it. That’s what matters most to me. The irony is: In order to write, I spend my days alone, typing on a computer, indoors. I love my work. But this is not how I’d spend my last hours. Just: Laurie, whiskey, music. Sex, maybe. Gratitude, plenty. It’s funny, I rarely listen to Van Morrison now; it’s more rollicking fare, louder, cynical. But my day-to-day music, like my day-to-day work, is not what I’d want in the end.

 

How true that is! What I want to spend my life doing is wildly different than how I’d spend that last day. I want to spend my life writing, adding to a conversation geared toward a better way of being human and living on the planet. That normally entails skipping the gin and tonics and fries. Instead, it consists of long stretches of being alone, at a computer, or attending meetings, or digging my fingers into my scalp while a politician speaks. It struck me as odd: Despite the world’s potential destruction, in which my work would be destroyed as well — that existential why bother? question again — I still honor that human need to leave a mark, a tangible record. As I watched some faraway seabirds settle into the water and dusk descend, I considered: Maybe, after all, I’d hug the books, too.

 

I laughed at the image, a last snuggle with our paperbacks. When wildfires recently threatened our home, at the last minute I cleared a couple dusty shelves of small literary journals, my earliest publications, hard-won. I stuffed them in a rolling suitcase too heavy to lift. I probably wouldn’t take it when the time came, but the act of gathering them felt ridiculously right.

Silence fell; too far to hear the water on the rocks. I poured myself a glass of wine.

As I gazed at the mountains, I asked Laura another, harder question: “What if we couldn’t make it home? What if we couldn’t even call our loved ones? Would you want to be alone?”

I wouldn’t. I’ve protected my solitude fiercely my whole life, but no, no. If it was just us and the writers in our weekend workshop? I’d want to be together. Wrap our arms around one another. No substitute for Laurie or family. But to be connected.

 

Yes, even in the arms of near-strangers — that death would be preferable, as long as they were making an effort toward calm, toward peace.

Though it might depend, I told Ana Maria, on how we were dying. There had been news that day of violence. Of course.

“I really want to die by nature,” I told her. “The methane burp or Yellowstone rockin’ the world.” I realize human-caused and nature overlap a bit, I told her — the methane burp being exacerbated by climate change and all. “But there wasn’t intentionality there. Stupidity in how we treated the environment, yes. But not intentionality. I can’t stand the idea of a mass die-off caused by a purposeful, human-caused event — a nuclear blast, for example. Or a shooter. I’d just die so angry. I’d need to be alone, to stomp and to scream and to wail. I’d spend my last hours cursing the fate of those who caused it, cursing the fact we hadn’t done better. It would be just so much, much easier if it’s my mother Earth and her wily ways.”

 

I agreed. Sort of. I wouldn’t want a violent death. I wouldn’t want to look another human in the eye and see evil, or have to think too long, in those final Astral Weeks-soaked hours, about evil. But I’ve long since given up wishing for a grizzly or a cougar, either. A few years back, a cat we loved died a long, painful natural death. When the next cat arrived, we swore often that we hoped he’d go in a blink to a predator instead. When he did, we wept inconsolably, hoping he didn’t suffer, knowing he did. A natural disaster would give us the benefit of not worrying about who we’d leave grieving, or even what we’d be missing, like a kid who can’t sleep while the party’s still going strong. The truth is: I don’t know how I want to die. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need to think about it. As Laura and I gave in, at last, to weariness and wine, I headed to bed with an odd feeling of peace, even given this most discomfiting of conversations. Maybe because of it.

The next morning, we went kayaking, and we spoke of the eagle and the coastline nature and sky. We both agreed on the wisdom of having an End of the World Whiskey Bottle hidden somewhere in our homes. We agreed how crucial it is to talk about all this, and we shared, in brief, stories of good deaths and bad deaths we’ve known and witnessed. And we agreed that although we’ve dedicated our lives to writing, and we’d both struggled to put it first, and indeed, have plotted the course of our lives for the sake of writing, in the end, our books wouldn’t matter that much. At the end, we don’t want words. We want to be held by a loved one, and by our planet.

 

Laura Pritchett is the author of seven books, most recently Making Friends with Death: A Field Guide to Your Impending Last Breath. Her work has received the PEN USA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and more. laurapritchett.com

Ana Maria Spagna is the author most recently of The Luckiest Scar on Earth, a novel about a young snowboarder and her activist father. Follow
@amspagna

 

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