If tomorrow never comes: Learning of ways to live and die
If we died today, what would be our legacy? Would it be that we were dedicated to the wrong things? Ultimately, in the routine of ‘busyness’, the focus should not be on doing more, but rather on moments when we come to a stop.
It was a warm summer evening. My colleague and I raced to the check-in counter at the airport. I was ready to go on my knees and beg to get on the flight to Upington. But the attendant was firm. Her mouth was a post box slit as she said, “Sorry, but that flight has closed for check-in.”
We were scheduled for a training workshop the following day. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but my flesh was literally going to be ripped off my body if I did not make that flight. Well, maybe not, but that’s what it felt like at the time.
These were the days when I was working hard at carving the sculpture of my professional persona, which included being responsible and not missing flights. To prove the point, I even had a serious briefcase like the ones women on TV law shows carry as they stride briskly around.
The single biggest hazard to my professional reputation was… me.
I was 23-years-old and desperately wanted to come across as smart and avant-garde, even though I had just recently learnt that when you move out of your parents’ home and soak your laundry in a bucket for two weeks, the pungent smell of something dying was, in fact, your laundry. Go figure. My point is that all of this factored into not messing up and getting to Upington.
We decided to take a flight from Cape Town to Bloemfontein. Our plan was to drive through the night to Upington, fall into bed and after a few hours, wake up refreshed and ready to dazzle with brilliance at the workshop.
By the time we got to Bloemfontein, the plan was already losing its sparkle. For one, we were not feeling very dazzling. More importantly, it was late and we had a six-hour drive ahead of us.
We settled into a hired car and my colleague drove while I tried to be a good co-driver by fighting off sleep. Every time my head rolled to the side, I would jerk it up and focus my eyes on the road. It felt a bit like taking a road trip, minus the fun factor and the sun.
The night was dark and the road stretched endlessly ahead of us. I was leaning in to change the radio station when the car behind us picked up speed and moved to overtake us. It was then that we saw, ahead of us, coming up from a blind rise, the bright lights of an oncoming car.
Panicked, the driver who had been trying to overtake us veered towards us, hitting the side of our vehicle. It was like trying to swim out of a riptide – our car careened across the road and then back again before beginning to roll.
In the process of rolling, I realised with tremendous clarity of mind that I was not ready to die.
In that moment, it felt as if time was an elastic band; it was expanding and drawing itself out before snapping back in on itself. As I contended with imminent death, I called out to whoever it was that had authority in these situations. I can’t remember my exact words, but it amounted to, “If you spare my life, I swear that I will be good and true. I will never again tell another lie, ever. I will commit my life to serving for the greater good. I will treat every moment of every day as being a precious gift.”
In case you were wondering, I survived that car crash. For a few months, it marked me. It changed my sense of the value of my life; that it was time-bound, precious and something not to be squandered. But then life kicked in and I more or less went back to being the person I was before the crash.
I was reminded of this experience recently when reading Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”. The book chronicles Didion’s grief after the death of her husband, John Dunne, in December 2003. Didion and Dunne had been to visit their daughter, Quintana, who was seriously ill and comatose at a hospital in New York. They got back to their apartment and sat down to dinner when Dunne had a heart attack, fell from his chair and died.
In thinking back on their time together and the magnitude of her loss, Didion recalls Quintana’s wedding day. As he was about to walk her down the aisle, Dunne leaned in and whispered in her ear, “More than one more day.” He often used these words with her. He whispered the same words in her ear when he visited her in the ICU unit before he died. When she recovered, Quintana repeated the words as Dunne’s ashes were committed. About a year later, she succumbed to the illness that held her in its grip.
My dad, who passed away during lockdown in 2020, used similar words with my sisters and me. When we were children, he would randomly call out, “If tomorrow never comes.” The incompleteness of the sentence bothered me. I would demand to know, “Then what? What will happen?” I was a child who needed the intricacy of detail.
When my dad collapsed in April 2020, I rushed him to hospital. After going through the triage, I was told that due to Covid-19 regulations I was not allowed to accompany him to the emergency unit. After about 20 minutes of hanging around in the waiting room, a nurse hurriedly came to tell me that they had changed their minds, and that my “assistance” was required.
Dropping her voice and in a diplomatic tone, she said, “We’re having problems keeping him in the bed and getting him to do as he is told.” I rolled my eyes. This was not news. I remember getting to the cubicle that my dad was supposed to be in. The bed was empty. Pulling out my cell phone, I took a picture and sent it to my sisters, before going off to find him. He was inspecting the area near the reception desk.
“I think there’s room for improvement in the health and hygiene standards here. It’s a bit worrying,” he said. I responded: “I think there’s room for improvement in understanding that you are not a health inspector.”
Dealing with my dad was hard work that day. He needed X-rays and the rules were that they had to wheel him there in a bed and that he had to be covered by a blanket. First, we had to deal with the fact that he would not get into the bed. He argued that he had two feet and could take himself there. Then there was the matter of the blanket. The nurse said he had to be covered up. My dad said it was bad enough that he was wearing a recycled hospital gown that showed his ass, and that he certainly was not going to use a blanket which many nameless people had used. On a HOT day, to crown it all.
In these situations, there was nothing to do but our usual dance of who could be bossier. I threw the blanket on top of him and he threw it back at me. I remember thinking, “Why can’t you just be like all the normal dads doing normal dad things?”
By the end of that day, when the doctor gave us his diagnosis, the tears rolled down my cheeks, despite my attempts to be my best brave self. My dad was at his most resigned and well-behaved. He did not cry. He did not do anything theatrical. Instead, he took my hand and said, “We always knew this day would come.”
A study on the terminally ill found that those who face imminent death mostly want three things: truth, touch and time. Those who know they are about to die talk about their relationships with the people they love and who love them, what life means to them, how they might be remembered, and the reality of death.
They want family, friends and physicians to be truthful with them in all respects, whether discussing their illness, treatment options or personal relationships. They want truth, but not at the expense of reassurance and hope. They also want touch, both physical and emotional, to remind them that they are still alive. They want time to stretch itself out as they make the most of spending time with loved ones. They want time to deal with unresolved issues as well as their remaining hopes.
Daniel Olexa, a coach at Transcendent Living, says we need to ask the question, if we died today, what would be our legacy? Would it be that we were dedicated to the wrong things? Ultimately, in the routine of ‘busyness’, the focus should not be on doing more, but rather on moments when we come to a stop.
We need to break free from the things we think are important, but in the bigger scheme of things, are really not.
Olexa says, “It’s important to give yourself space to stand in the maelstrom and ask the question, ‘What if tomorrow never comes?’” When you’re in this space, it becomes possible to use the energy that comes with it to focus on what truly matters.
After my dad’s death, I realised that his intermittent yelling of the words, “If tomorrow never comes”, was never meant to be a complete sentence. That it was for me to complete, to figure out what to do if I faced the prospect of no tomorrows. DM/ML
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