On Fearing Death and Living Life

A friend laid her husband to rest yesterday. He’d been fighting metastatic colon cancer for more than a year, and when traditional treatments didn’t work, they tried an experimental therapy that ravaged his body, but never his spirit. If he grappled with fear, as he must have, he never let it eclipse his joy. He accepted that loss was part of loving, and death an inevitable consequence of living. Throughout his treatment, he continued to coach the baseball teams of his young sons (and mine)—always gently, always smiling. He had a pair of dimples that made him seem perpetually boyish. He was fifty when he died.

Not long ago, on a flight home from New York, I had a window seat next to a couple who were probably in their mid-twenties. They didn’t wear wedding rings, but by their intimacy, I assumed they were headed in that direction. The woman had a round and very freckled face, a cute, upturned nose. She spent three hours doing crossword puzzles in a paperback, simple ones that required answers such as den and baa and stare and elk. Periodically, she leaned into her boyfriend’s shoulder and said worried things in a high-pitched baby talk.

At one point, he sneezed, and she enthusiastically stopped her puzzle and reached into her purse and found a Ziploc bag, from which she pulled a new package of tissues and handed it to him. Then she took, also from the bag, a package of antiseptic wipes and cleaned the tray table and the latch, and when she leaned over and did the same to his tray and latch, he looked away. What do you say, she asked. Thanks, he said, but it didn’t sound like he meant it. This routine must go on between them frequently. She leaned into him again and, contentedly it seemed, resumed her puzzle. She penciled in the final answer: love.

I just don’t know how I’d handle it if anything happened to you, she told him, as she took out another wipe and went carefully over the surfaces of their phones, seat belt buckles, armrests.

This woman will have a child someday, I thought. And she will try in vain to wipe away all the germs that might come into contact with it. But she won’t be able to eradicate them all, and despite her desperate efforts, one day she or her boyfriend or her child will become sick, maybe from something that germs don’t cause, maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.

Don’t spend your life constantly worried about what might happen, I wish I could tell her. Something’s always going to happen to people. Yes, of course, we must do what we can to stay healthy, stay safe. But not at the expense of living. Better to put the fears back into the Ziploc bags and face each day—gently, smiling—with the kind of joyful expectations my friend’s husband did, for as long as we can.