A Life Stranger (and Better) Than Fiction
People often declare my life to be stranger than fiction. (It’s true, and it’s both a blessing and a curse.)
Usually, that observation is followed by an urging for me to write a memoir. I reply that I’ve tried, but simply don’t know how to end it. I can’t tie up my life story with a bow and a “happily ever after,” because it simply doesn’t feel right for me. I have too much left to do: more suffering, more joy, more life.
That dilemma is one of many reasons I love writing columns: They trickle throughout the course of one’s life, often ended perhaps only by an obituary the columnist doesn’t have the responsibility to write. I sometimes imagine what my obituary would look like. Would the narrator of my life’s final chapter remark that I learned to “call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth”? I hope, and for now, I strive.
Racing clocks vs. absorbing moments
Recently, I watched the 2006 film “Stranger Than Fiction.” If you haven’t seen it, check it out before reading on, unless you’re fine with spoilers.
In it, an author who specializes in writing tragedy is typing a story without realizing her main character is a real-life man named Harold Crick. Suddenly, he can hear the author’s narration as he goes about his day. He’s tossed into turmoil when he hears her note that his death is “imminent.”
His life is mundane: nothing more than precisely executed rituals. He brushes each tooth the same number of times each morning, takes the same number of steps to his bus, and uses a wristwatch to time every single daily task. Time dictates his life. Upon hearing his death is near, time becomes more enemy than guide.
Harold loosens up after a literature professor tells him to simply accept the inevitable by living out his last days achieving what he’s always yearned for, but feared pursuing. He falls in love, deepens a friendship, learns to play the guitar, jokes more. His wristwatch is now rarely mentioned. He stops racing the clock and learns to invest himself fully in each moment.
I felt the very same following a near-death experience in June 2016. I needed to rid myself of my tunnel vision, of constantly worrying about time, money, security, selfish ambition. Before 2016, those things mattered more than dreams and love. I wanted to make every moment count, and I tried my hardest — I really did — to help as many people as I could, knowing their stories would extend far beyond my own. They deserved to know the joy I hadn’t discovered until my dusk.
My wristwatch stopped mattering, but my breathing grew increasingly strained. A narrator might say my death was imminent.
When Harold realizes his death is hours away, he says, “I can’t die right now. It’s just really bad timing.” He’s learned death is a motivator to live vibrantly and boldly, but now he loves life so much that it hurts to imagine leaving it. But he doesn’t want to fight his mortality anymore because he’s learned that his story needs an ending, and that it can be a beautiful ending. His author has decided he’ll die while helping others.
I’d become intimate with death after mid-2016, but that’s not to say I wanted to die. No, now that I’d tasted what it was like to really live — ironically, while dying — I craved more chapters. I was passing from this world peacefully, but wishing I could have just one more life-altering discussion or chance to affirm a friend or more shared laughs and joyful tears.
Surprisingly, Harold ends up surviving his brush with death. His author of life had surprising plans: a plot twist.
My own plot twist came in the form of a double-lung transplant.
Now, I continue my journey in the spirit of a “Yes Man,” meaning I rarely ever turn down an adventure. I’m determined to get as much mileage from my donor’s lungs as possible. It’s been exhilarating. And between each exhilaration, I continue to try to help others because nothing fills me with more joy than love.
Four years after my transplant, I gratefully accept each day as a new plot twist: a reason to love, to learn, to laugh, to thrive. I can’t write my memoir because I will never be able to guess my beautiful ending — no narrator has revealed that bit of info to me. But that’s OK. I can leave far more impactful legacies than my writing.
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