I have always thought I was not scared to die, but I was a lot younger back then. Once I pranked my best friend who was chatting up a pretty girl, we were on the roof top of our college dorm, and while he wasn’t looking, I stepped over the handrail, and yelled “Hey Gary!” and pretended to jump off the building, dangling 11 stories above the ground with my hands. I happened to be going through some bad times back then, my mother had recently attempted suicide.
Even though I was scared of heights, I started rock climbing. When I started, my hands and feet would sweat, and my legs would shake as I clutched desparately to the practice rock, only 10-20 feet off of the ground. I climbed the University of Washington practice rock, before, between, and after my engineering classes, often showing up to class with chalky hands spotted with blood. After several years of climbing I became immunized from my fear of heights. I became very skilled at rock climbing, a sheer cliff with an overhang looked more like an opportunity than an impossible challenge. I had mastered so many climbing techniques that my level of fear was equivalent to climbing a step ladder. Dino, my last climbing partner was climbing at my level and we developed a very competitive partnership, we were always trying to out climb each other, taking on more and more risks. As we pushed our limits we began to take more and more falls, relying on our rope to save us from certain death. I remember leaving my sleeping wife each weekend, thinking it would be the last time I saw her.
My wife made me promise that I would stop climbing when our daughter was born. So I began training in martial arts, Hung Gar, tiger crane style. My master did not allow anyone to spar until at least a year of training passed. Sparring with someone was exciting in a different way than climbing, but both sports punished you if you did not remain present. I progressed into the back room where the advanced brothers fought/trained. My school did not use much protective gear, so there were a fair share of notable injuries. Today my crooked ring finger reminds me of my youthful days. I was lucky. Someone got their nose split open, and my friend with a PhD got two black eyes and half his face swollen black and blue the night before he boarded a plane to Italy to present a research paper.
Now I am decades older, and I have liver cancer, even though my surgeons removed all of the cancer and the pathologist pronounced clean margins, I am not real confident that I am cancer free, after all, my tumor markers are on the rise. I ask myself if am I scared of dying? And I say to myself, “no, of course not, everyone will die”. But I am not ready to die. And I am not too excited about a protracted and painful endgame. I want to make sure everyone I love, knows and feels that I love them, especially my wife and daughter. I regret that I was not a better father and husband, more emotionally available. I see how I have been absent in the past with my obsession with my hobbies and sometimes work. I could have been so much more.
I worry about my wife, how will she survive all alone. Will she open herself up to be loved the way she deserves to be loved again? And what will become of my prized fishing gear, my musical instruments, my books, my tools, my punching bag? Will she fail to see its value at the garage sale? All of the material residue of my existence will have to be sorted and disposed of in some way. Give the noodle rod I built to my brother. My violins to my daughter. Turn me into ashes and scatter me in the Green River behind our home, at Snoqualmie Falls where we spent a romantic weekend, and in Hawaii where our daughter boogie boarded as a 8 year old. Oh, don’t forget to save some ashes so Naomi can mix me with your ashes when you pass away.
Have you seen the movie Titanic? The big ship hits an iceberg and is sinking, but the musicians keep playing on. I remember watching that movie and thinking how unrealistic that was. But now, sometimes, I feel my ship is sinking, and I want to be like those musicians, playing in the moment and doing what they love because that is all they can do.
I envy that old couple in the Titanic who lay peacefully side by side on their cabin bed, a life full of shared adventures, triumph and defeat, ready to die together — while panic reigned on the unsinkable ship.
I am not ready to die, but I am ready to go first.
It will be good that my daughter has a mother who can grow old with her.