How Dying in 5 Years Would Change How I Live Now

I’ve begun following prompts to get some writing ideas down. I pulled this prompt out over one month ago. It has been sitting propped up by my computer, staring at me…daring me to write about a subject that wasn’t (but maybe now) is my favorite:

If you knew you were going to die in 5 years how would you change your life.

A huge Debbie Downer to start the New Year off, right? But here’s the thing: I haven’t been writing about this but I have been ruminating on it over the last 4 weeks and here is my response to that question: in some small ways.

I’d definitely change my life in some small ways but in reality, not in huge ways. First off, in case you were wondering, the prompt does not say that you’d have endless financial resources. If that were the case I’d be listing all the places in the world I’d want to visit before I was dead like watching the sunrise on Uluru in the center of Australia, putting my feet in the headwaters of the Amazon River in Peru and traveling with the Sami people of Scandinavia. I also want to spend a week with Mimi Thorisson cooking with her in her kitchen in Medoc, France. Turns out all of these lofty desires cost money and I’ll need more than 5 years to make all those dreams come true.

So if I knew I was going to die in 5 years, here’s what it might look like for me:

  1. Cry. I’d cry for a whole day. I’m super emotional and I’d spend a good portion of one whole day mourning everything I’d miss out on. Since I’m 36 now, dying at 41 would mean I’d miss so much beginning with the majority of Harold’s childhood since he’d be 8 when I’d die. Gloria would be 18 and I’d miss out on her young adulthood. I’d miss out on packing my kids up for college, hearing about first kisses, building up memories together, watching them achieve and learn and love and fail and break. I’d miss out on life and that realization would have me in tears.
  2. Eyeroll. I’d spend the next day upset that I wasted the previous day because I should have been hanging with those very kids I was missing so much instead of curled in the fetal position in a dark room with sad music on repeat.
  3. Amends. I’d clean-up all the old hurts and pains I created in the world. I’d reach out to my friend who is an artist and figure out why we fell away from each other and apologize and make new promises to her. I’d fix up broken relationships I left hanging. I’d apologize to the people I let go so easily.
  4. Letters. I’d write more letters to people I love: my husband, my children, my parents, my siblings, my friends, strangers who do good things, organizations I care about. Of the few things I have of  my grandparents (all of whom have passed away) letters are my favorite. I cherish the swooping, perfect script of my grandmother. I’d write real letters. On paper. With a pen or pencil. Then I’d mail them with interesting stamps. Emails are great and fast and easy, and I’d still send my weekly emails I currently write to my children, but handwritten letters make my heart double-beat. I can’t be sure the recipients would cherish them, but I’d love writing them and with 5 years, I’d have a lot of time to get down what I want to convey about my love for my people before I was gone.
  5. Dance. How cliche, I know. But I’m actually trying to organize a dance party this year–I mean like a big dance party with all our friends because for me dancing feels so good. It is so funny and great and I’m pretty sure I’d want more funny and great experience before I die. Dancing it is!
  6. Stop Buying. I’d stop buying material stuff. Who needs more clothes when you know you’re going to die? Sure I might buy a few pair of running shoes if mine get worn out, but stuff is ultimately meaningless. Whatever I have now is likely sufficient. I can’t take all my suede shoes with me after I’m dead. It won’t matter which generation of what smart phone I have in my back pocket when I die. What a relief it would be to not have the pressure to buy and instead of keeping up with the Joneses I were just keeping up with my family.
  7. Invest in Experiences. I’d definitely take some trips in my 5 year time slot. I’d want to take a family trip or two to beautiful, calm places like the Pacific Ocean or Northern Minnesota. I wonder, though, how injected trips might be with an impending melancholy with a ticker-tape going through my brain of “this is the last time we will…”
  8. Hire a Cleaning Crew. Indulgent, I know. But I’m not going to spend my last 5 years on earth scrubbing toilets, my friends. My spiritual director suggested choosing mindfulness in even the most mundane of tasks: folding laundry, washing dishes. And maybe in this pretend world that has me only living 5 more years I would practice some of the mindfulness as long as I was side-by-side with someone I love. Maybe if Harold were washing dishes next to me–his small, soapy hands feeling for the stray spoon at the bottom of the sink–I would fall in love with dishwashing again. But if those moments don’t arise because we’re at a park or visiting the Giant Sequoias, then I’m hiring a cleaning crew to help my passage from this life to the next exclude the need to stop and clean the mirrors.
  9.  Video. I’d create more videos. I love watching old movies of my grandparents–what they were wearing, how their hair was done, the way they moved and laughed. Our old home videos don’t have sound but they do have soul and I’d like to leave some soul videos for  my kids and husband to find after I’m gone. I remember sobbing when I watched the movie My Life. In it a man is about to become a father for the first time and gets the news that he is also dying. He starts videotaping instructions for life for his unborn son: how to shave, how to enter a room, what music to listen to. I dare you not to choke up when you watch this trailer of My Life:

So, you might be wondering, so….what? Not much has changed in my life with this pretend impending death in 5 years. The kids still have to go to school. We still have to make dinner and drive people to rock climbing and concerts and birthday parties. There will still be arguments, but probably fewer. There will still be bills to pay and taxes to figure. Christmases will come and go. Birthdays will pass. What I would cherish are the moments when my kids come to me for hugs: after falling off the bike, after feelings were hurt at a birthday party, for comfort, for solace, for wanting to push into my core one last time.

We can’t “live like we were dying” everyday. I don’t believe in that. What does that even mean? Being grandiose in everything you do? Giving away all your money? That kind of behavior would last approximately one day and then you’d be like: “Dang, I have to buy milk but I gave all my money away because I lived yesterday like it was my last day but I still have cereal on the shelf today!! Gah!”

I look through the above list and actually I could do these things: write more letters, stop buying so much stuff, make amends, shoot some videos. I don’t need the omen that I’d die in 5 years to take some action on really living right now. Is death the end of it all? I don’t know. Do I need to know if it is? Not really. I love the mystery of death just like the mystery of birth. No one knows why a woman goes into labor. It is never the same circumstances. Is it the size of her uterus, is it the volume of blood in her body, is it the size of the baby, is it the length of the umbilical chord? We don’t know. No doctors or scientists know what ingredients of a life recipe needs to come together for a woman’s body to begin labor and birth a baby. I’m so glad we humans cannot predict anyone’s exact commencement of birth nor the very moment of death.

Knowing all the secrets is very unsatisfying. Living a good life, writing letters, making videos, creating experiences with your tribe–that is satisfying. I’m all in. Are you?

I guess this is just another version of the 5 things to say before you die:

I love you. Thank you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Goodbye.

How would you change your life if you knew you were going to die in 5 years?

4 Comments on “How Dying in 5 Years Would Change How I Live Now

    • Thanks so much for reading, Rachel! That means a lot to me. Got your beautiful Christmas card. Do all the guys turn 40 this year?? We were just talking about Peter’s 40th coming in August.


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