1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Nine: Death
Posted on September 29, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
Well, I guess it’s closer now than it was in 1998, isn’t it?
Not that I knew that in 1998, by which I mean I couldn’t have been 100% certain then I would reach 2018. Statistically speaking, it was likely in 1998 that I would live another 20 years, in that I had no major chronic illnesses or habits that would put me within death’s grasp — I didn’t indulge in hard recreational drugs or do daily BASE jumps or anything like that. But you never know, do you. Car crashes kill a lot of people annually, and I do regularly drive or am carried in cars. Perfectly healthy people randomly develop cancers. I’ve slipped down my stairs at least four or five times in the last twenty years, each time ending in nothing worse than a bruised tailbone, but each time it could also have been worse. I could slip in the shower and klunk my head. That does in a whole lot of people. There are lots of statistically not improbable ways to die young, before you even get to the unlikely but flashy ways, like lightning strikes or bear attacks.
So, I could have died sometime in the last twenty years. Unlikely? Yes. Possible? Absolutely. And this would have upset me, because in the last twenty years I had unfinished business.
For example, raising my kid. Aside from the personal desire to not miss any part of her childhood, there is also the fact that, provided you’re not a terrible parent of the sort children write gut-wrenching memoirs about later, after years of therapy, it messes up kids to have parents die while they’re still growing up. I wouldn’t have wanted to have my own kid go through that, if it was at all avoidable. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the experience of being a parent to her, and being a parent along with Krissy.
I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any part of the last twenty years with Krissy, either. She’s pretty great, you know, and I’m a better person because I’ve gotten to be with her. I wouldn’t be the person I am without her, so in a way I would be incomplete as a person if I had had to leave her at any point in the last twenty years (it’s not to say that here in 2018, I’ve been perfected. I still have work to do. I’m just further along). The same thing applies to my friends, both the ones I’ve known for the full two decades, and the ones I’ve met since 1998, some of which are now among my best friends. I think of the people I’ve gotten to know, and would be sad to have missed any of them, and the experience of having them in my life.
And then there’s the other stuff. My life’s work, as it were.
Look. With work, I try to practice what I call a philosophy of sufficiency, which among other things means looking around at what you have and saying, if this is what I get, it’s been enough. This has meant that when I hit any particular milestone in my writing life, I could be happy with that in itself and not necessarily worry about what might come next. So: I’ve written a novel? Awesome, no matter what, I’ll have done that. Sold and published the novel? Cool, I’ll always have been a published author now. Been asked to write a sequel? Groovy, the books have done well enough that people affirmatively want more. And so on.
I’ve not been perfect practicing this concept of sufficiency; when I won the Hugo for Best Novel, one of primary emotions I felt was relief, because now this was a thing I didn’t have to worry about anymore, which meant I had been worrying about it. But even when I slipped, I still had it as a practice: Be happy with what you have achieved. Enjoy the moment you’re in now, because you don’t get to go back to it later. Plan for tomorrow but don’t neglect today, because today will always be a thing you did.
For the last twenty years, at every step, I practiced happiness at where I was at. At the same time there were still things I wanted to do, and things in my career I wanted to see if I could achieve. I like to think I could have been happy with where I had gotten, if I had suddenly needed to go and this, whatever this ended up being, was as far as I got. But there still would have been other things I would have wanted to do in my career, or at least, to see if I could do them. In 1998, there were a lot of these other things.
Now it’s 2018, and guess what? I kind of did everything I wanted back in 1998, and even before then. Or, to put it in another, more relatable way: I got to be the person I wanted to be when I grew up.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t still things I want to do, careerwise. I think it would be nifty if anything of mine ever finally made it to film or TV, for example, and there are a few other things I’d love to do, with my writing and in other areas, before I shuffle off. But in a sense all of that is gravy. My philosophy of sufficiency tells me that what I have already gotten is not only enough for me and my career desires, but that I’ve gone beyond that now. Not matter what else I do, I feel like I’ve hit all my marks.
So now I’m ready to die!
Well, no. Not precisely. I’m very happy to stick around for a while yet. There is more for me to see and do, including the things I don’t even know I will be happy to experience when they happen. What I am saying is that for the last few years I’ve felt like, if something happened and I had to go, I wouldn’t be saying, “but wait –“. For the last few years I’ve been feeling that if this was all that I got, that it’s been more than enough. That I’ve done enough, seen enough, loved enough and been enough that it would be okay to go, if I had to.
Which is kind of a weird feeling, I have to say. Again, I’m not in a rush to die. I like existing. I don’t believe in an afterlife so I don’t believe I’ll exist as a consciousness after I die. I won’t be anymore, except in the abstract manner of my writing (hello!) and in the memories of other people. I’m not scared of death, but it does make me sad. Existence is pretty great, or has been for me.
But it’s not like we get a choice in the matter. We all die. Sooner or later, our brief moment here is gone and what we had is all we’ll ever have. At 49, I’m perfectly happy to have another decade or four (or six!) before I have to go. But it’s a comfort, in an existential sense, to feel like one has done enough with one’s life that leaving meant no unfinished business left behind.
That’s where I am now, at least. I wonder if 69-year-old me (or 89-year-old me!) will look back on these words and think, oh, kid. You have no idea what else life had in store for you. I kind of hope he does, and that the years in between now and then were also enough, in their way. I’ll let you all know, if I get there.
As a 69 year old, I can tell you. ..nothing. Just keep taking care of yourself. What I’ve lost in the last 20 years, mostly, has been people. First, each of my in-laws. Ten years later, each of my parents. It’s weird knowing that you are now the oldest generation, though I do still have aunts and uncles. Also, sadly, a number of friends.
Apart from my wife’s knee replacement five years ago, we’re pretty lucky, but time comes for us all, so enjoy it while you have it.
But clearly, you know that.
Looking at your twitter feed: You should be glad that Ladyhawk was instrumental, or you would have used those. The 17 year old me would have gone with the Dead Kennedys – Mellow out or you will pay!
I’m only a few years older. Somehow I never expected to live to get that mailing from aarp, or show my ID for a $1.25 discount. The arthritis I could do without, ditto constant checks for any one of a litany of medical issues that could result in my stopping breathing. What I mostly miss is becoming the older generation and the silencing of those who were here before me. Some were aggravating voices no doubt, but they were there and now there is only silence. I do welcome those who come into the world constantly. They are a reminder that no matter how conservative (or liberal) you may think you are, newer perspectives will rock your world and challenge your views on an almost daily basis. Being trained as a historian, I am amused at some of the turmoil of the daily news feed cycle when someone complains about this or that issue of the moment. Now having lived through more than a few of those events, I am sometimes amazed that we go on: sometimes with pessimism and sometimes optimistically; but we do go on. I’m no longer the “it” generation. Mine vowed not to repeat the same mistakes of the past one, but did anyway and seems to be bent on making a few new ones as well. John, I hope you can be around to live them and see your kid give you grandkids (or just grand kitties if that is her choice) and continue to watch as we lurch forward into an uncertain future one day at a time until the time comes and you are ready to go. For all of us at some point for all of us the great equalizer will come to our door, our bedside or meet us wherever we are. For me, I hope when my time that reaper will ride a certain little gray horse so beloved by me. I still miss him.
I want you around more than you want you around, because I cannot apply the philosophy of sufficiency to your writings. I want more of them to exist. For many years. However, if I predecease you, I’m surprisingly okay with you not writing more after I’m gone.
But your novels could be prophetic. Your 89-year-old self could be in the military!
Prediction: In 20 years you’ll write about how glad you are to have seen Athena grow from 20 to 40 and the parallel about your additional years with Krissy. I mean, this seems like a really easy prediction, right?
There’s so much misery and anger on the Internet. I like reading about families that are as happy as mine. Carry on, Scalzis!
The John Scalzi persona on Whatever seems extremely level-headed and aware of the fragility of life. Keep on writing, obersving and, the most important of all, loving the ones you love. I’m ten years older, and what I can say about the decade ahead is that loss becomes closer and living becomes more precious (while at the same time, the mental willingness to let go increases). It’s an amazing thing, being alive, isn’t it?
I’m 55. Have had 50 surgeries thanks to one very bad summer at age 29 that introduced me to death twice (2 car wrecks 3 months apart – nope, neither my fault). Since then death and I have exchanged greetings several times through the never ending, snowballing medical issues & emergencies related to that one summer.
Also….my younger sibling was murdered at age 27; my older died recently at 57 from an accidental overdose. Mum followed him 5 months later from a fall & subsequent TBI. My Pop died of cancer when he was only 38. I’ve lost one child and watched another almost die multiple times from a variety of disabilities and dumbass decisions. The hardest part of that? Signing all the medical permission forms. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve signed. Of all the things we’ve been thru, it is those damn forms that bring me to grief, not the blood or guts. Each time feels like I’m acknowledging death standing across the room, silently waiting…
Some days I hope to make it to & thru April 5th, 2063. Given my history it seems highly unlikely but on those days I give myself a pep talk and say that all the bad is already behind me so it is smooth sailing forward!
Other days I’m so beset by loss and grief I almost feel ready now. Not to leave of my own accord or actions but to just slip away. Just to go so nothing else can go wrong. On those days something small will shake loose the melancholy. Yesterday it was an initially unseen chipmunk in the bird feeder who popped its head up with cheeks stuffed completely full of sunflower seeds to stare at me as I walked by. How utterly delightful! I told death “not today pal. Not today”. And he listened.
A few years ago In York I met some people in the kings arms they had date of death tattoos on their arms all six of them bit spooky they actually believed dates? Who knows that unless they all believe in reincarnation so you know your coming around again? Time travellers would be better. Twelve monkeys Bruce Willis flipping from decade to decade chasing time jumpers interesting
Please just take it easy on the stairs! That would really look dumb in your obituary…
Well, that’s one way to hopscotch through the actuarial life table.
Without wanting to reveal any spoilers, John, I can tell you this: If you manage to maintain a modicum of physical well-being and sufficient cognitive capacity to pass one of those minimal ‘what day is it, where are you, who is President’ tests…
The best is really yet to come.
(hint: It involves young people, related to you by blood or divine connection, who will reveal amazing things to you, and bring you incredible joy and incredible pain and infuse a whole new palette of metaphorical colors into your existence.)
When I got my current cat 2 years ago I realized she is probably the last cat I’ll ever have. I’m divorced, doubt I’ll remarry, and when this cat dies I’ll be old enough that a new cat will outlast me and nobody I know will adopt her. I’m not going to adopt a cat only to have it go into a shelter when I kick the bucket.
Might adopt an older cat, we’ll see. We’ve both got a good 10 years (knock on wood) before decisions need to be made.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s I used to wonder what I would be like, at age 57, when the year 2000 arrived. How different would everything (and me) be? Would I be an arthritic mess (you know, 57 is very, very old)? Well, nothing actually happened except for a Y2K scare. Things seemed to change gradually in normal progression. Now I’m 76, and things still don’t seem to have changed too much to cope with. Sure, a few more aches, but nothing to prevent exercise. A little slower connecting disparate parts of my brain, losing some of that spark that comes from aha moments. But still the same. Every age milestone I hit, I see that people still live at least another ten years. And living is the most natural thing to do.
Not to be deliberately morbid here, but my dad died suddenly when he was 40 and I was 17, and it sucked. (Still does, but in different ways – weirdly, I’m now older than he ever was. Freaks me out, man.) So for Athena I’m thrilled that didn’t happen to you. (And for Krissy, of course, your relationship blows me away, but I’m thinking more of the daughter’s perspective here.)
Meanwhile, I have no idea how much longer I might have – if I got my mother’s family genes, I’ve got several decades to go. My dad’s? Probably not as long. We’ll see. Meanwhile, look out world, here I am.
In 1963 when I was four months old I was given up for adoption. In June 2001 I met my birth father. In September 2001 I met my birth mother. It turns out that after I was born they got married. But soon after that they decided they weren’t prepared to raise a child so gave me up and went their separate ways. I now have a great relationship with each of them and they got back in touch with each other. Earlier this year we found out my mother has a rare, degenerative, and fatal kidney disease. When I called my father to tell him he said he’s been getting more and more calls like this. Then he said something so simple and true that it will stay with me until I die: “Seventy is different than Sixty.”
At 72 and playing with my children’s children’s children. My Son, you have no idea.
I had no idea that I would be
Living at the end of the road, on top of a mountain, on account of one of the Hawaiian Islands trying to commit suicide by submarine twice…
I still ride my bike. Drive on freeways. Fly in airplanes, have a non-conforming life style.
And plan to still be at it for another 20…
Oh did I mention I have a boy who writes damn good books.
I’m looking forward to reading the one’s you haven’t written yet.
Putting off dying,. Seems dull to me.😎😎😎
“Call no man happy until the day of his death” – Solon, via Herodotus
(Originally Greek, I suppose, but in the latin translation “felix” also implies
fortunate, which is a bit ambiguous.)
Speaking as a 69 yo approaching 70, you won’t think less of this view what you reach this milestone. It’s pretty spot on. I found that my view of the world changed only slightly from 49 to now. They weren’t necessarily cast in stone and some have modified since then but by the time I’d reached 49 my life was well formed.
This post reminds me of a song I learned as a small child at a Jewish preschool. It’s called “Dayenu” and it’s associated with Passover. As I remember it (and Wikipedia corroborates), “Dayenu” means “enough,” and each verse thanks God for a different blessing and says, essentially “If you’d stopped there, it would have been enough. But you gave us even more!” It’s so sing-song and catchy that a 4 year-old can learn it and, apparently, read a post 26 years later and think “yeah, that’s about the same thing.”
(P.S. The “In popular culture” section of the Wikipedia page on “Dayenu” is glorious.)
I, too, reached my “career goals”–to be a Captain in the Army and to be a Philosophy professor after that. And that does feel good. But the best thing (being in my sixties) is the past year with my granddaughter, watching her grow from 1 day to 1 year (birthday just last week). Nothing like being sixty-three and still being able to crawl around on the floor with her, and laugh and play. Or seeing her beginning to walk in the last few weeks. Or just sitting there watching my daughter with her daughter. So much to live for, and yet each moment is worth the whole thing.
Thanks for your writing, sir. It stirs the mind.
So jedikalos, are you aiming for ‘king’ so you can complete the old triple?