Many people ask me about my tattoo. It says “You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” It’s from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic, volume 7 Brief Lives. For those who don’t know, Neil Gaiman wrote the Sandman comics in the 90’s and from it, many of us found our philosopher to follow. Every week, I immersed myself in the story of Dream and his family of seven siblings, the Endless: Death, Delirium, Destiny, Despair, Delight and Destruction. It was a fantastical universe generally set on waking Earth where ideas were characters and the realms of myth were merely lands of travel. My favorite of the siblings, even over Dream, was Death, a sweet, perky goth girl who always said the right thing as she gently took your hand to the other side.
It is not the particular words that affect me so much, making me ink a permanent reminder on my arm. It is actually the character who is told this little gem, Bernie Capax. Bernie is a character who has lived so long, he remembers walking with Mammoths. He has evaded Death and her guided tour into the other side about 15,000 years. But one day, distracted by useless thoughts, he finally succumbs to a woops, a random, avoidable event.
As Death waits patiently for Bernie to truly take in that he has passed, what’s the big question for Death? “I did okay, didn’t I? I lived a pretty long time.” Age was his marker for success. He died doing what I do every day, sitting on the subway, walking to work, thinking about movies I watched and people I’ve met. He died laying low, at an average job with an average life. His reward was quantity over quality.
Every time I read Bernie Capax’s death, I am reminded of a book I read as a child. It was a true story about a child, maybe 8 years old, who died of a fatal illness. I don’t remember anything about this book except that the final thought is that she lived a full life because she lived her short years filling the hearts of those around her. This girl was the opposite of ol’ Bernie. She never got to double digits in age, but she inspired family, friends, a hospital of doctors, nurses and workers as well as all of us who read the book about her short, passionate journey in life.
But I don’t think this little girl was better than Bernie. She was simply different. Because the same line can be said to her. She got a lifetime. No more. No less. We fill our visit on this planet like an elephant into a teacup or we simply move through, quietly, without argument, without embrace.
Sure, I think there is a sin in fighting death to the point of never living life. And I always feel such guilt on days I do “nothing” instead of having an adventure. But really, as I look at my cat of ten years, he sleeps. He has a few weeks left of life and he is not writing a great novel. He is not clinging to my foot in an attempt to love every second in his final days. He has not scheduled any ziplining. There’s no ticket to France. He’s just being. If the mood strikes, he will ask for a human to pet/feed him, headbutt my husband, knock over a cup of water, you know, the daily grind. And I innately feel he’s dying exactly as he should. He’s dying like Bernie Capax and like the 8 year old girl.
As humans, we will, no matter how much we try or not try, affect others. We will have simplicity and complexity in our living and dying. We don’t need to create a legacy. It is done. Just the other day, I shared an elevator with a neighbor and we joked about the weather. I was in a foul mood and that small interaction turned me around. That neighbor has no idea they turned my day around, but they did. They filled my life with joy with a simple weather joke.
We all fight death in different ways. Some with diet and exercise so we can get to 110. Some with a career like teaching or science that changes hearts and minds so our ideas live beyond us. Some as artists. Some as parents. We all seek immortality somehow. And that is not wrong. But it is also not mandatory. We will live and die. And that time we spend will affect other people. In the end, there is no need to worry about how much, how well, or how long we live. In the end, we get what we get, a lifetime.