Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night, like you’re running out of time?Lin-Manuel Miranda
Earlier this week, I was training one of our new hires with another of the senior programmers in a virtual meeting. We were looking at the way the application deals with Holidays, which is to list them all out in a database so they can be tied to pages by an ID. It’s a limited, inefficient approach, but that’s not important right now. The holidays are metadata for this system we were working on, and it was our job to update the metadata in a separate system so that it stretched out to 2036.
One of the people on the phone said to the young trainee, “In the 30’s, it’ll be your job to update this.”
He responded, “You don’t think you’ll still be here?”
The person on the phone said, “We’ll be retired by then. Millionaires. Buhl will be a Best Seller.”
Trainee, “Then I’ll just call you up.”
I said, without thinking, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be dead by then.”
The person on the phone laughed. The trainee said, “What? That’s just a few years from now.”
I laughed and played it off and we kept on with the training. For a moment, I let something slip. It would have been a really awkward conversation at work, but maybe I can unpack it a little bit here.
For some reason, I’m casually convinced I’m not going to live all the way through my 50s. It sounds morbid and depressing, but it’s something I just accept as a given. Tomorrow, the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. My family will still love me. Social media will still be one of our Big Mistakes. And sometime in the next 6 to 8 years, I’ll stop being alive.
What convinced me of this? It’s not one particular piece of evidence, but more like a collection of ideas that collectively feel like a dark prognostication.
Let’s start with genetics. I don’t have any information on the biological, paternal side, but I have some on my maternal side. My Mom, my biological grandmother, died when she was 68. Not super young, granted, but she was sick for years before that. She spent most of her last few years in and out of hospitals, getting treated mostly for heart issues. She held on to 68 out of sheer stubbornness.
Leslie, my Mom’s 4th/5th (it’s complicated) daughter and my biological mother, died in 2010, I think. I found out well after it happened. She lived in Israel at the time, and we weren’t particularly close. That means she died when she was between 53 and 55. I don’t remember exactly what killed her. I remember she had a tumor on her liver. I think she also had a tumor in her brain. I really don’t have many details about her death, and I’m not sure who I would ask to find out more.
Monica, my youngest biological half-sister, died around 20 years ago. I don’t remember the exact year or date, or even how old she was. Young, though. She had an inoperable brain tumor that lead to multiple strokes. She powered through those and recovered. For some reason, the doctors had to operate and remove the tumor. She was fine for a time after, but then died from complications related to the surgery. Those are as many details as I can remember.
Based on that patchy family history… it’s not a death sentence, but none of that is good news. Still, the source of half my genes is a mystery. That alone shouldn’t convince me I have a short mortal thread. What else is it?
The other reasons are less scientific and more poetic. My Dad died when I was young. His death was one of those moments that forced me to grow up and be my own person. When I look at my kids, I feel like I’m doing them a disservice by lingering. It’s like I’m holding back from them some key experience they need.
I just wrote that, and I know it’s bullshit. My kids would much rather have me around and alive, just as I wound have preferred to have more years with my father. But maybe in 5 or 6 years, when they’re getting closer to 30?
The other ideas that make me think I’m going to die in my 50s are even flimsier than the last. I’ve said for a long time that I’m never going to retire. That I’m going to keep working, right up to my last day. That feels like a true statement, every time I say it. It doesn’t mean I have to die in my 50s, but coupled with the other things I’ve talked about, it makes sense.
Laying it all out like this sounds depressing, and that’s not what I’m going for. The genetics may or may not mean anything. Not having any sort of retirement is just something my whole generation has to look forward to. And the idea that I might be doing my kids a favor by dying… that’s just weird.
When I was joking with my coworkers about not living into the 2030s, I wasn’t being melancholic. It’s just some idea I’ve grown to live with and accept.
Aside from being a source of morbid humor, it alters the way I think about some things. I think about how I was born a very sick baby, and how every year I’ve spent in this world has been a gift and an opportunity to do or say something. The clock is running out, so I need to make the most out of what time is left.
Neither of my kids seem interested in being parents, so what else can I do to leave something permanent behind? That sounds like hubris, like why should I be so special as to make a mark on the world when so many people are forgotten, but it’s not. I’m the result of an unwanted teenage pregnancy in the early 70s. I fell into the lap of a couple in their later years. My arrival in this world disrupted lives. If I don’t do or say something, then how can my life be considered anything other than a huge, cosmic mistake?
I write like I’m running out of time. Maybe I can conjure a story that will say something that outlives me. Maybe I can write something that will make up for all of the harm I’ve caused just by being born. If I’m going to do it, I’ve got to hurry. Because some part of me is certain I don’t have much time left.