I always thought that when I die, I would want it to happen slowly. Maybe not cancer slowly, but nevertheless to have those few minutes before I die to understand that this is the end. To know that I spent my whole life wondering how it would end, and now I know. I’m a true storyteller: I need to know how the story ends. To spend my whole life wondering how I’m going to die and then to not find out seems unsatisfactory. I want to be able to reflect on my life. I want to have a last thought and say it out loud if there is anyone there to hear it. To go through the process of slipping away. To understand, finally, what dying means. But getting kicked in the head changed all that.
I arrived early at Krav Maga to spar with Nils. We went three rounds and I wasn’t at my best. I remember us touching gloves and saying, “Last round.” The next thing I remember is a floating sensation. White light focusing in on fluorescents. Nils sitting me up and taking my gear off and me saying, “What? No, we can keep going.” Then asking the same three questions in a loop for twenty minutes: “What happened? I got knocked out? Did anybody see?” I had lost consciousness for three seconds; I had been knocked out. Someone offered to drive me to the ER. I said I had to go to an NYU plenary lecture and I went. I made my way to the ER five hours later and found out I had a concussion.
The enlightenment I had from the experience was this: if that kick had killed me, there would have been nothing sad about it. For me, that is. I would have sparred, I would have said, “Last round” to Nils, we would have touched gloves, and that would have been it. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or reincarnation. I don’t believe in life after death. I believe everything goes black. A yanking of the power cord. The three second blackout would have been permanent. I never would have known what hit me. There would be nothing sad about it.
Nothing sad… that made me think. What was so sad to me about dying? I realize now that I’m not afraid to die, but rather I’m sad to die. There are two reasons. One is the people I leave behind and the knowledge of how hard it will be for them. The second reason is the wasted potential; all the things I could do which I won’t. The family not built, the career not had, pieces of writing not written, movies not made. If I were shot right now or were in a car accident and was about to die, those two things would make me sad: the thought of my parents and sisters at my funeral, and the thought of all the ideas in my head not written down and gone forever.
But those two things have a shelf life. When I’m 85 years old, they will become irrelevant. My parents will probably be gone, my sisters will be in their seventies and eighties and it won’t be as sad for them to see their brother go. For my children and grandchildren, it will be natural. As for wasted potential, whatever I wanted to do my entire life and haven’t done by 85 isn’t wasted potential, it’s just a wasted life and a very different conversation for me to have with myself. A conversation along the lines of “what have I done with my life” and “I haven’t done all that I planned,” which is sad in its own right, but has nothing to do with death. So if these two thoughts are irrelevant when I reach 85, then that means that at 85 I will no longer be sad to die. The day I won’t be afraid to die and I won’t be sad to die, death will cease to be an issue. So really, my big realization and what I learned from getting kicked in the head is that I want to live at least until I’m 85 and to die of old age. This seems like a trivial realization given the fact that most people want to die when they’re old, but now I know why I want to die when I’m old. Also what I learned from getting kicked in the head: protect yourself at all times and always keep your hands up.