On Mortality

January 27, 2020

It’s past 2 AM and I’m up thinking about mortality.

In a way, that’s nothing new. I’m no stranger to loss.

My first memory of losing someone is of my grandma. I was 12. She wasn’t that old. I remember the smell of her powder, her stabby bra when she hugged me, and the awkward knitted flamenco dancer dolls she kept on the back of her toilets. I remember her forgetting me. I’m not sure what I really understood about death back then.

But my mom died when I was 15, and that loss completely redefined my life. For a while I was numb. I remember my mother’s best friend telling me I should try smiling sometime. Apparently, I never smiled. When Mom died, I just… stopped. I didn’t feel there was a reason to smile. For those of you who know me now, that’s probably hard to believe.

Apparently, the staff at my high school gathered the class together and told them to be kind to me. It turned out that was a godsend. The bullies stopped bullying me. Maybe it’s because they’d been instructed. Or maybe it’s because I’d stopped smiling, maybe in a slightly scary way. Either way, thank god, because I don’t know what I would have done. My mother had always been the one to help me cope. Without her, it would have been too much.

The year I switched to my dream job as a prototyper at Apple, I lost my mother’s sister, my mother-in-law, my godfather, my step-grandmother, and my great aunt. All five within a matter of months. These relationships may sound distant, but in our family culture, they aren’t. It hurt. Two years later, my Dad died. This time, I wasn’t so lucky: the team had bullies on it who did not stop bullying. They were older and more experienced at disguising their bullying as sophistication. I learned a lot. I left.

For a while, all these losses made me feel acutely aware that I, or anyone, could die any day. I overanalyzed my goodbyes, trying to make them good enough to be the last. I felt like I had to wring life out for every last drop of experience. I had attachment problems. I had many of the issues that are listed under the “parentification” article in Wikipedia. I had a whole lot of baggage that I can only recognize now, in hindsight.

Today, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, alongside his daughter, Gianna and seven others. He was an icon of our generation: an incredible athlete, a picture of health, a kind face, a father to beautiful children. He was 41.

Why does this hit me so hard? I’m not much of a basketball fan. I’m not sure I can even claim being a Kobe fan. The most I can claim is having had distant respect for him for most of my adult life, and always appreciating his face when it appeared and lit up a page or a screen.

A few months ago, I took the biggest personal leap into the unknown I’ve ever chosen to take. I left my job, with no real plan of what to do next. Some savings, some blurry dreams, that’s it.

Until that point, I’d mostly had some relatively safe thing I’d planned to do or aim for next. This time, the future is far more uncertain. Not because I’m taking a break, but because I… I’m yearning for a more drastic change.

I’ve realized now that in always trying to wring out everything life had to offer, I’d burned myself out. These last few months, I’ve had to learn how to rest, to slow down, to achieve “less” by conventional standards, and to be okay with not doing a million things every day.

Kobe’s death is hitting me in a visceral way. I didn’t expect it to deepen my own sense of my mortality. It makes me tempted to throw myself back into wringing out every minute and every day, and I’m trying to fight that temptation. The way I was living was too frantic.

Now, I’m trying to play the long game. I figure I have so many interests, so much left to learn, so much more to try. I want to unblur my blurry dreams and see them through. I want to stay healthy and alive for as long as possible. I already know that everything I want to do won’t fit in the years I have left, no matter how many.

There are people who feel that the solution to all of this would be to get rid of death altogether. To just make it obsolete, like some old VCR.

I am too Eastern in my philosophy to align with that. I believe in the natural cycle of life and death. I believe that it’s essential for balance and harmony on this planet. Absolutely everything works in cycles at some level, from the solar system, to ecology, to our breathing. I don’t believe we should disrupt that. Death does, ultimately, make way for change, as painful as it can feel.

In the end, none of us know how long we have. Kobe lived an incredible 41 years.

My mother used to say: it’s okay, as long as you did your best. Have fun, she said… those were the last words I ever heard her say.

Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, I’ll all be able to look back, and know that I did have fun, Mom, and that I did the best I could.

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