Eric rocked back on his heels, the wood floor of the attic creaking under his weight. The battered trunk lay open in front of him, his father’s collection of knickknacks, letters, and military stuff all neatly tucked inside. His father’s life boiled down to this box.
On top of all the things was a white envelope with his father’s distinctive scrawl across the front: Eric.
That he never knew about this letter, or even this box, floored Eric. With his mother’s passing, it was finally time to go through all the old junk and throw away what was valueless (most of it) and figure out what to do with the rest.
But here was this old trunk and it’s letter addressed to Eric.
Eric gingerly picked up the envelope and sat down, sending up a quiet puff of dust that made him sneeze. He carefully tore the envelope open, pulled out the neatly folded pages, and stared at the paper. The letter wasn’t addressed to anyone. It just started and, several pages later, ended. Maybe it wasn’t for Eric at all. But he read it anyway.
I want to tell you about a dream I had recently. It was about my son. And it has ruined my life:
There’s a park. It’s in the middle of a city somewhere and the outer edges are enclosed with stone arches about twenty feet high. At one of the arches is a coffee stand. Through the arches are tree-lined paths that run in straight lines. In the very middle of the park is a big reflecting pool, rectangular, probably about the size of a football field.
I feel like we’ve come here a lot, my wife, the boy, and I. Maybe for years. We’ve walked from the city to this place and we’ve enjoyed its solitude. I’ve had the coffee many, many times and I think it’s probably the best coffee I’ve ever had. We’ve strolled along the edges of the water, along the tree-lined paths. The weather is almost always perfect.
I know all this because it has happened. But today is different.
I buy a coffee and my wife takes my boy through the arch. For whatever reason I walk around to the left, to the next big arch and look through it. There are some other folks near me, but I don’t know them. I take a sip of my coffee and look through the archway. Through it I can now see my wife and son, maybe twenty yards away, in the middle distance. They’re walking along, chatting and pointing at things. They’re holding hands. Beyond them is a group of children my boy’s age. They’re being noisy and rowdy, as children sometimes are.
My son, my little boy, is about two or three years old. His hair is a dirty blond, long and a little wild. He’s in blue shorts and red canvas boat shoes and a white polo shirt and I think there’s an ice cream in his left hand, but then I don’t see it anymore. He and my wife are walking along and I think, “Man, aren’t they just beautiful?”
My boy stops. He turns to my wife and says something I cannot hear. She smiles and gives him a little kiss on the top of his head. He turns to head toward the other children, takes a couple of steps, and then turns around. He looks right at me. Quickly, with a bright smile on his face, he raises his right hand in the air and waves it at me a couple of times. I wave back. And then he turns and walks to the crowd of kids and disappears into them.
My wife has been watching him the whole time and finally she turns and slowly walks toward me. She’s looking my way, but not at me. She’s lost in thought. Wistful. And then it hits me.
This was the last time I was going to see my son.
This was good-bye. This was our final parting. It never crossed my mind that I was dead or alive. And it didn’t matter that he was a little boy. In that moment, I understood that what I was seeing was my son, grown, moving forward in time without me.
It didn’t matter that my wife was still with me. Though I love her deeply, the thought of never seeing my son again struck me so hard that I...
I lay in bed for a moment trying to capture all the details of the dream. I was wide awake. And I was filled with the greatest soul-crushing sorrow I had ever known. I sat up and dropped my legs over the side of the bed and I hunched over and my whole body shook as I started sobbing like a father. My wife woke up from the sound and motion of it. I tried to stop, tried to tell her it was all right, just a dream, go back to sleep. But I couldn’t stop.
I cried for twenty minutes before I could get myself under control enough to lie back down. And if I let my mind wander back to it, my sorrow would well up again until I pushed it back down, angry, scared, confused.
I cry every time I think about the dream. Which isn’t often, for obvious reasons. But every once in a while, when my son waves goodbye, maybe from the front window at preschool, I have to choke back my tears.
After thinking about the dream for some time, I realized that having children has been the saddest thing that’s ever happened to me. Partly because when you have people in your life that you truly love, you just don’t want to leave. Partly because it’s made me think more about my own death. And partly because it’s made me think more about what my purpose is.
You see, the meaning of life isn’t about what we accomplish or do with the time we have here. It isn’t about the business we built or the trips we took or the mountains we climbed. It’s about preparing our children for our eventual deaths. And I won’t put some softening description on death. At the bottom of it, we’re all animals. And we live in a brutal world. And no matter what labels we put on it or how much we cushion ourselves from that brutality with all the trappings of the modern consumerist lifestyle, our lives will end the same way our grandparents’ lives ended and the same way lives have ended for millions of years. In an instant and with totality.
And our children are left behind. For a little while, at least. Until they die.
And the truth is, as I’ve finally started thinking about death, I realize that while I’m no really scared of it, I absolutely hate it. Intellectually, I understand that immortal humans would have overpopulated this planet a long time ago. It’s not practical. But when I think about the joy and love and good times we have with our fellow humans, it makes me so angry that life is set up with birth at one end and death at the other.
I’ve wasted so much time focusing on things that don’t matter. On honing values that don’t fit with the true purpose of existence. I wasted nearly 40 years pursuing a lifestyle that was about appearances and prestige and accumulating junk and worrying about what other people think of me and fighting with my family and friends about things that don’t even matter and repressing my emotions and avoiding conflict. And only recently have I started trying to mold myself into something better and simpler than that. And I’m still failing so miserably and I’m so mad at myself all the time.
Quit buying stuff! Start eating better! Exercise! Don’t get angry about stupid shit! Speak up when you are justifiably mad! Wake the fuck up! Because death is fucking scary and there’s so much important shit to do and there’s so little time!
We’ve made up fairy tales about death so we’re not so scared of it. But it only puts a thin curtain over the truth. And we are preyed on daily by marketers who exploit our fear of death and encourage us to pray and hand over our money and dress our lives up with ornaments so we don’t think about death too often. I grew up in that environment. It’s a lie.
Because if we’re all honest, and if we all sit down once in a while—maybe in the middle of the night, alone, sober—and really think about it, then death is absolutely terrifying. If you think otherwise, you’re either an idiot or a fool.
So, how should we live our lives? Should we worry about what others think of us? Should we spend money we don’t have to buy shit we don’t need to impress people we don’t know or even care about? Should we fight about unimportant things? And really, it’s all unimportant, believe me. Should we pursue jobs and careers that crush our souls? Should we hold regret so deeply in our hearts that it gives us cancer and brings death a little early? Does any of it really matter?
What we should be doing is living our lives filled with joy every single day. We should be pursuing our passions and by doing so setting an example for our children (and anyone who can learn from you is your metaphorical child) so that they are prepared to live their lives without our guidance when we die. Because when it’s over, that’s it. Admit one. No second chances. Hope you enjoyed the ride.
So, stop fighting. Stop dreaming about shit you’re not going to do. Stop talking about things you’re not going to change. Stop thinking about how much money you have or need. Stop blaming other people for whatever state your life is in. Stop worrying about your legacy.
Get on with living.
Because the absolute, final, irreversible, obsidian end is in sight.
Eric had leaned over onto his side while reading. His eyes were wet with tears. It was hard to comprehend the person who wrote this letter. Eric knew his father as a stalwart, stoical man. His mind rejected what he read.
He needed time to process everything. But according to his father, he might not have it.