I realized, only just this morning, that I could die.
I can’t say that this had never occurred to me before but, as a rule, this passing thought is followed by such dramatic and cartoonish images that a good shake of the head has always worked to send them away. I’ve had terribly violent and tragic death-focused waking dreams for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it’s a horrible car crash. Once, when I lived in Oakland, I was riding the bus on the way to BART to get to work, and I imagined a giant circular saw cutting down the center of the bus – but slightly to the right, because that’s where I was sitting – mutilating everyone in its path. Very often it is murderers/terrorists (usually the variety seen in old Chuck Norris movies) breaking into the house. See, that one is more worrisome now that I’m an adult, because I can no longer fit into the little nooks within closets and under sink cabinets anymore, which was my plan as a small child. Being an adult is a pain in so many ways.
But, none of that is real life.
Outside of these horrifying visions that casually make their way into my spaced-out brain now and then, I’ve always imagined that I was pretty much invincible. I planned on getting to my mid- to late-seventies and then dying peacefully in my sleep.
Don’t get me wrong. I know incredibly life-enriching people who have been struck down with no rhyme or reason, and I’ve been sad, and have railed against the gods for taking (enter really great person here) so early and swiftly. Meanwhile, horrible trash humans seem to live forever. But, that’s another story for another day. I am aware that anyone can go at any time, a stray bullet or freak atomic bombing could drop us without any notice at all. For some reason, though, I’ve always felt exempt from that fate. I don’t know why; I just have.
I think it has to do with the self-calming methods I had to develop in early childhood to help convince myself that the garbage truck coming down the street was not filled with Chuck Norris terrorists on their way to murder my entire family. These coping mechanisms have perhaps let the fear-of-death pendulum swing too far in the other direction, so that I’ve always just known it to be true that an untimely death is not on my life’s calendar.
Until this morning.
I was thinking about Princess Diana. I’d found a prayer candle with her on it yesterday, and I held it in my hand for a while, wondering if I should get it. I have one for Prince, and Michael Jackson, and Joni Mitchell even though, at the time of this writing, Joni is still alive. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the Princess Diana, though. In the gold glitter-bordered picture on the candle she was all in white, smiling in her patient, lovely way. Something about the expression in her eyes made me reverently put the candle back down. She was too much like an actual saint in real life for me to include her in my silly prayer candle collection. She was a perfect human being – to me – exuding warmth and compassion and that old fist-to-the-chin good humor. I’d adored her. But also payed attention to her only in my most peripheral vision.
When she died I was standing in the middle of a crowded dance floor where no one was dancing, with my friend Chris Bryers, at Club Soda.
Some guy I didn’t know broke into our circle and spoke to Chris directly, ignoring me. “Princess Diana died,” was all I heard of the conversation. We all said “whoa” or “oh, shit” and then went about our low-light sticky dance floor night. But I remember feeling an internal jerk of something. A quick incredulous jolt before batting it away and ignoring it, until this morning.
My waking thought this morning, to be precise, was: ‘Wait a minute. Princess Diana died.’
Then several minutes of horrified contemplation, this having never occurred to me before. ‘I mean if she can die, in such a terrible way….’
*several more minutes of picturing all of the different angles of the crash, she and her lover in the back seat, her having finally found happiness in love, clutching his leg and the leather seat beneath her as they careened, feeling that tight-chest feeling you get when someone is driving too fast and you’re afraid you’re going to crash, looking behind and to the sides at the paparazzi chasing you, so many mixed feelings, and then – nothing*
If Princess Diana can die…then pretty much anyone can die. I mean anyone. Even me.
That’s pretty heavy.
This morning, I regretted not buying the Princess Diana prayer candle. She was so beautiful and poised all in white, doing her soul-stare, destined for greatness. But, with not quite enough time.
What a poignant patron saint she could be. Patron saint of reminders. Patron saint of you are not exempt from death. Patron saint of, simply: do good, while you can.