I called my dad on his birthday recently.
I opened with, "Hey dad. Happy birthday!" to which he replied, "Who is this?"
He was being facetious (I'm his only daughter), needling me because I don't get in touch often enough. Momentarily, I felt guilty. He lives in Vancouver, and I'm in Toronto, and I know I should pick up the phone more, but even on his 71st birthday, I procrastinated until late into the evening. Within minutes, I remembered why.
My dad always wants to talk about dying.
He talks about it the same way other parents discuss politics, or their dogs, or the latest episode of Ellen. My dad likes chatting about all those things too, but he can hop from Donald Trump to where he wants to be buried without batting an eye. It's not something he does out of fear, either. It's more that, realistically, it's the biggest event he has left to look forward to, so he thinks about it a lot.
On this day, his birthday, he told me he wants to have his body cremated and his ashes scattered in a river in India, a place he scouted on his recent and first-ever trip there. At first, as I always do, I tried to brush the conversation aside with a few "mmhmms" and "yeah sures." But he wouldn't drop it. He started spelling out the names of the river and the temple that sits on it, and asked if I would be willing to take his remains there upon his demise.
"You'll love it," he promised, as, on my end, I grudgingly took notes about his plan in a Google doc titled "Dad's ashes."
Then, just as I was hoping we could switch topics, he informed me he'd paid off two grave plots in Vancouver. Since he now has his heart set on India as a final resting place, he offered me one of them.
"You can have it when you die," he said, totally matter-of-fact. (In the meantime, I'll rent it to some poor UBC students for like $1,200 a month, so they can pitch a tent on it rather than trying to find reasonably priced housing near the school.)
It was the first time he dragged my own mortality into one of these conversations, and it startled me. I don't remember how I responded, but in my head, I was thinking WTF? in a furious and agitated loop.
Truth is, I don't need to be dwelling on death anymore than I already do. Even though I'm in my 20s, I think about it all the time. Not so much the act of dying—though sometimes when I take a break from work to get coffee or lunch, I visualize getting hit by a car, and on occasion, when I light up a cigarette, I wonder when I'm going to get cancer, something I'm convinced is an inevitability. But more so, it's the idea of being dead—of ceasing to exist—that haunts me.
I guess everyone goes through a death phase, and I'm not sure when my fixation started. I remember asking my mom about dying when I was really little, and her telling me it wasn't something I'd have to worry about for a long time. My maternal grandma, whom I adored, died of cancer when I was 14. I was old enough to be sad, though I couldn't grasp the gravity or permanence of death.
My grandpa's death, in 2011, hit harder. A couple family members and I were with him when he took his final breaths in a hospice in Vancouver.
Though very sad, it was peaceful, and I thought the experience would make me more comfortable with death. Instead, and despite being exposed to many tragic deaths as a reporter, I've grown increasingly anxious.
When I contemplate the fact that we're all going to die, I start to question my life choices. Why am I not backpacking Europe right now, or trying heroin for fun, or having indiscriminate sex all the time? Or maybe I should be reproducing in order to leave some kind of legacy. Death makes all of our morals and values—great career, marriage, house, kids, accumulation of stuff—seem trite and pointless.
Long ago, I abandoned almost all of the Catholic beliefs on which I was raised, but the concept of an afterlife is one I've remained agnostic about. Perhaps, if I had grown up atheist, never expecting anything but nothingness to come after death, the concept might be easier to accept. Instead, I've stayed up late googling "near death experiences" and read books like Proof of Heaven, which follows a skeptical neurosurgeon's "journey into the afterlife," in an attempt to comfort myself into thinking such a thing might be real. But logic seems to get the best of me, and I go right back to fearing being erased from this planet without a trace, aside from some of my more highbrow work, which will certainly be passed around by cave-dwelling robots thousands of years after we nuke the planet.
My parents, however, no longer share any of these worries.
While my mom never talks about me dying, she often brings up her will, keeping me informed of every little tweak she makes. I hate it, mostly because I cannot handle the thought of her being gone. I mean, aren't wills supposed to be read after a person has died? Can't I just deal with it then?
Sometimes, my mom says she wonders if anything happens after death or what she'll miss out on, but she's certainly not scared. She claims she hasn't been since she was young.
And I guess that's where the irony lies. I'm at an age where I'm supposed to be "living my best life." Yet, if I let it, the fear of dying can preoccupy my brain for extended periods.
After my grandpa died, I told a therapist that I regretted not visiting him more in hospital, and the regret had left me riddled with guilt. She asked how I could make it up to him post mortem, a question I didn't understand. She then alluded to other decisions I was struggling with at the time—primarily whether or not to break up my boyfriend and move to Toronto, and hinted that I should bite the bullet and commit to both of them since I'd been leaning that way for so long. I didn't fully grasp the connection between those things and my grandpa's death, but I think she was essentially saying I shouldn't hold back on taking risks because that could lead to more regret later. And perhaps more than anything, I'm scared of finding myself at the end of my life dwelling on things I didn't do.
These days, I try not to sink too deep into the rabbit hole, limiting myself to a few minutes of brooding about death at a time. But my parents' tendency to rehash the topic forces me to confront both their mortality and my own. Maybe it's a good thing. There's not much I find comforting about death, but seeing as how it's inevitable, indifference like that of my parents might be the best I can hope for. Who knows, one day that grave plot might look a lot more appealing than an overpriced condo in Toronto. But even if that's not the case, I'll be dead, so at the very least I will no longer have to give a shit about any of this.
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