JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Living.

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I scanned the above photograph onto my desktop this morning.

All of the people are dead.

I don’t know their names, save for my Grandma Marta (middle). I don’t know their stories, their histories, their relatives. Really, I know nothing except that they’re a bunch of German Jews who escaped to America, and that all six cease to exist.

This might sound strange, but there’s something empowering in seeing images of dead folks. It reminds me of the Kafka quote, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Which is so painfully true, I feel like typing it again. “The meaning of life is that it ends.” I hear people regularly speak of an afterlife; of floating with Uncle Jim and Sammy Baugh and Gerald Ford on a cloud. And, really, it seems to defeat the purpose of death.

When we realize we die, we realize life is fleeting. When we realize life is fleeting, we’re motivated to make the days count. When we make the day count, we do things. We put down our iPhones, get off our couches and take a hike. Attend a ball game. Hitchhike across the Dakotas. Taste crazy food, climb crazy things, love and laugh and dance and scream.

In case you missed this story, Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who moved to Oregon so she could die with decency, passed yesterday. She had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and she willed herself to spend her final months … weeks … days surged with enthusiasm and zest. So she traveled. She sought out her closed friends and relatives. She lived.

Then she died.

We all die. It’s tragic, I suppose, but not nearly as tragic as the way we too often live.

I look at the people in the photograph, and I wonder whether—were the option available—they’d take back most of their days. Instead of working. Instead of complaining. Would they take long walks? Would they go to the beach? Would they spend more hours with their children and grandchildren?

They don’t have those options.

We still do.