Thoughts with Richard Bleil
The proverbial experts tell us that human beings are the only animals aware of their own mortality. I’m not convinced that this is true. The rituals seen in elephants when they come across the skeletal remains of their own kind is difficult to interpret as anything other than an understanding of mortality. Be that as it may, although humans may be aware of their own mortality, we certainly don’t seem to act as if we really do.
I started thinking recently about last times. Some are obvious and can be planned. My friend is facing the last time she will be taking courses in her undergraduate degree. She will, no doubt, have a planned graduation party (and very well-deserved) by her friends and loved ones, but I wonder if, during her final exam in her final course the thought will cross her mind, “well, no more”? There’s a good chance that it will, though. After all, it’ll be pretty obvious.6
Around 1985, I died for the first time. Sitting on a highway with a speed limit of sixty at a stop light with nobody behind me but a line of traffic ahead, I watched, helpless, in my rear view mirror as a driver slammed into me at full speed without even slowing down. By the medical definition of death, no, I didn’t die, but there came a moment of odd calm, resolve and clarity that, yep, this is it. It was interesting that it was just resignation that I felt, as opposed to panic or fear.
Honestly, that crash could have, and in a different vehicle probably would have been the end for me. One of the last thoughts that crossed my mind was “well, I guess I don’t have to write that report now.” That means that I would have written, had I actually died, the very last report of my life.
When I was married, I made it a point that, every time we separated, I would kiss my wife goodbye as if I would never see her again. Whenever I went to work, or she went to visit somebody, or whatever the cause may have been, I gave her a kiss that I would never regret if something unexpected happened and, indeed, it was our last kiss. On reuniting, I would kiss her as if I never expected to see her again. I continued this tradition right up until she told me that she wanted a divorce. My last kiss with her was very passionate, as was the last time we made love. I didn’t realize it would be the last time, but I’m happy I realized that it could have been.
My friend’s sister is in very bad shape. She has been fighting cancer for many years, and the odds are very high that, as much as it breaks my heart to say this, this could be the last holiday season that she sees. Of course, many years ago doctors told her that she would pass before the end of the year, and she’s seen at least half a dozen holidays since then. It can honestly go either way. If you think you’re seeing your last, you might just be surprised, in this case pleasantly. As a side note, my friend is, understandably, very upset by these events, and my heart hurts for her, but I did have an odd thought. Perhaps, in a strange way, her struggles have been a blessing in disguise. Whether or not the blessing outweighs the struggle I do not know, but her sister lives very far away. Because of the struggles though, my friend, her siblings and even her children have made the trip to visit with her sister far more frequently than they probably would have had it not be for this terrible medical condition. In a strange way, it has kept her and her family very close.
Another friend of mine had a boss die of a heart attack, much like the one that I suffered. Obviously, not exactly the same as I survived mine (although I did technically die during my bypass surgery). His was so fatal, so unexpected and so fast that he was found in a chair, with one sock in his hand. He was much healthier than I ever was and had been out for a run. He sat in the chair, made a very quick call, and was removing his socks, a task half completed when suddenly he passed on. I do not know the nature of the call or to whom he was speaking, but I wonder if it would have been a different conversation if he knew then that it would be the last time he ever was on the phone.