And what if you knew

A full moon is hanging through the winter branches of the oak trees on the far east side of the property, and clear across the sky, Mars is lingering behind Jupiter with Venus shadowing the big planet. It’s as if they should hold their breath before sinking below the earth’s surface.  

It’s a clear night, cool but not cold, and Orion is ablaze with its blue headlights on in the upper right corner. It looks like a comet ripping open the Hunter’s bow. I stare that way a while half expecting to see the belt suddenly spin in a circle like the old Orion Pictures logo. It doesn’t.

The sky saved me again tonight.

Earlier a friend of mine asked, “So what would you do?” It’s a real question, a serious one few of us decidedly consider more than during a passing whim of light conversation.

What would you do if you knew you had less than a year to live?

Read that again and take it seriously.

I’m sure the romantic in us would like to burn out a la Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Skydiving, Rocky Mountain Climbing. But it’s not likely.

The bills are debilitating, and the energy is fried. People we love live all over the country these days, and you probably don’t want everyone coming to you as if every single day is last rites. Plus they have to work, tend to their own days and nights.

The answer is probably not too varied from the answer we already have while hoping and expecting to have several dozen years left: See those you love as much as possible, work if you can to pay bills and not leave a mess behind for others to deal with, maybe travel if you can.

What will you do in those months before you “close the door behind you”?

First, I’m certain I’ll be keenly aware of all the projects I started writing or planned to write but didn’t get to. I’ll remember that I wanted to become more serious about playing guitar. I’ll remember that I was going to make next year’s garden the best one ever, and plant fig trees, and get a dog. I was going to go back to the Camino with Michael and train across Canada. A friend of mine and I were going to go to the Netherlands. We were going to do a European River cruise.

I was going to restain the house.

But those long-range plans will all be suddenly moot. I suppose that the best we can hope for is we get to the end of our dreams before the end of our days.

Still, I’m pretty sure what I would want to do. I’d get up early and sit at the bay and watch the sunrises whether it was sunny or not. Something I do on a regular basis anyway, but I’d do it more. And more still.

And I’d go to the river with my son and watch the sunset, skip stones, feed the gulls. We’d talk about art and music, about movies and travel. And we’d note all the colors in the sky as the sun disappeared up the Rappahannock.

I’d invite friends over, sit on the porch on a warm summer evening, have a few drinks, some music in the background, and talk about the baseball game, talk about what people we know are doing, about Molly’s new book or Rick’s new essays. We’d laugh about that time we….and we’d get quiet when someone mentions next Christmas. We’d change the subject to how beautiful it is out.

“And when the morning light comes streaming in

We’ll get up and do it again.


I won’t look at photo albums from the Island, or watch videos from when my son was small; God no, no videos. I won’t talk about any more seasons, no. Just this one.

I will talk about my dad, About Cole. I’ll tell funny stories about Dave and Bobbie, about Rachel and Trish.

I’ll speak of how I never could get the African story right, knowing that the truth of that time would be coming with me. And then I’ll finally tell everyone about something else, something beautiful, something still nearly completely mine.

What would you do if you knew?

I’d call everyone I love, but not to say goodbye or even to tell them. I’d just say I felt like saying hi, catching up. And we would, and we’d laugh, and we’d say we have got to get together, that it’s been too long, and not to let another five years go by. Then I’d call the next person, then the next.

I’d remind myself that the truth is I’ve already lived completely out loud and nearly always on my terms, and it has been enough for a half-dozen lives. No kidding. I’d keep telling myself that. Because it’s true. What a journey it’s been so far.

Okay, the superstitious Irish side of me is thinking even posting this blog is a bad idea. But the ballsy New Yorker in me is thinking to lay it all out there right now, because you never know, like Eddie who at 11:45 pm one December 15th was talking to a coworker, and at 11:52 pm he was dead on the street, a car hit him. He never saw it coming.

He had no idea. We have no idea.  

And there’s the thing: Knowing allows you to rewrite the ending how you want your character to finish this story. But not knowing allows you to exit completely unaware of what didn’t get done without having to face the fact that most things didn’t get done simply because you simply didn’t bother to do them. No mysteries to unravel, no excuses and fallacies to face—just reality—you just didn’t bother to do them.

Life happens that way. So does death. Knowing roughly when you’re going to die forces you to face knowing how much you didn’t live at all to begin with.

Maybe tomorrow morning that can be different. Another sunrise, or the first; another phone call to an old friend to thank him or apologize or to just say hi. Another glass of cider on the porch listening to the Mets, talking about that time we….talking about that time we didn’t…and maybe a sunset, most certainly a sunset.

Maybe tomorrow the lines won’t bother me, the rude clerk at the convenience store won’t bother me. Perhaps by lunch time I’ll realize that sitting on the deck at the café working on that editorial for the paper is refreshing and satisfying. Or that talking to students about potential, about the hope of what comes later, about the swiftness of now and the thinness of life, is more projection than it is lecture. And I’ll feel good about it. And they’ll look forward to another class. So will I.

And I’ll come home, and again, at least one more time again, get out the telescope and watch how Venus is tucked away, shy. And we’ll stare toward that blue blaze on the upper right corner of Orion, and understand that life is expanding, faster and faster, running out into the distance, and only those who are told they’ve got a limited amount of time left on this planet seem to understand what that means.

And the stars won’t seem so far away anymore.

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