The following is the third and last part of a short fictional story about a man realizing for the first time his deep desire to avoid aging and death. We published the first and second parts of the story on the last two Fridays, so check them out if you missed them.
Right after you wake up, there is a brief moment when you don’t yet know how you feel. That Sunday morning, that moment was even shorter than usual. The same anxiety as the previous night assailed me even before I could get out of bed.
The clock on the shelf said it was 11:30. I had slept almost 12 hours straight, but I wasn’t rested at all. Tired and depressed, I got up with difficulty, with a constant feeling of imminent catastrophe. I cast a glance out the window, and I noticed that the sky was clear and bright again. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the streets too were perfectly dry, as if it hadn’t rained for days. Indeed, the sun seemed to be very hot.
Near the sink was dishware that I hadn’t noticed the night before; I must have left it there at least since Friday night. I hoped some coffee would help cheer me up at least a bit, and I took a mug from the cabinet without even looking.
I left the coffee maker grumbling on the stove and went to wash my face. I looked terrible, which was no surprise, since I had had a terrible night. My sleep had been studded with horrible nightmares, although I hadn’t woken up screaming; rather, I’d been tossing and turning all night, moaning in my sleep nearly incessantly. I recalled a labyrinthine indoor cemetery; people dying of old age all around me, claiming to be very happy about it while I desperately tried to make them understand it was wrong; me and the graveyard girl, together somewhere in my old high school, as if we were classmates; me assisting my mother on her deathbed, listening her accusing me to make excuses for something; and many others which I thankfully almost didn’t remember at all.
I went back to the kitchen to pour my coffee, noticing in passing that I was using the same mug as the previous night. Apparently, I had been so much in shock that I wasn’t even aware of washing it and putting it back in the cabinet.
I drank my coffee and managed to push down a few biscuits. Not only was I still anxious, I hadn’t changed my mind either. That unexpected and visceral desire to avoid old age and death, and the realization that no stale moralism would be enough to extinguish it anymore, were still there where I had left them the night before. At the same time, I had a second, equally strong desire that the former could somehow disappear and take my anxiety down with it, setting me free from that apparently insolvable dilemma.
For some reason, I had an urge to check something on the Internet. According to statistics I found after a few moments spent searching, about a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, of which about a hundred thousand die of old age. I realized that out there was an army of people who, just like me until the day before, didn’t think that the loss of those hundred thousand lives was a problem at all; rather, they probably thought that it was good that most people died of old age; otherwise, they would have died of something else and thus “prematurely”. This army of people was basically shrugging at two thirds of all deaths that happen every single day. Maybe there really was a constant holocaust to which no one was paying attention.
I backed away from my computer. I was blaming people for their indifference, but what else could they do? They were right: if you do not die of old age, it’s because you died of something else first. What was the better option? There didn’t seem to be a third one, and nearly everyone would choose to die later rather than sooner. The girl, I said to myself, would probably have said that this was a sign that the idea of dying is much more disturbing than people like to admit, and it upsets far more people than we think. Apparently, showing distress was acceptable only during a funeral; in any other circumstances, death is either ignored or justified, at least when it comes to death by aging.
The girl indeed.
I really didn’t think I would be able to talk about this with other people without coming across as a lunatic; I myself had thought that the girl had lost her mind. I was full of doubts and questions, and I wanted nothing more than to put an end to that oppressing anxiety. The previous night, I had screamed in her face that I didn’t want anything to do with her any more, but now I felt that, as crazy as she might be, the girl was the only person I could talk to about this. She might be able to answer at least some of the very questions that she made me ask myself.
The problem was that I had no way to find her. I had no idea who she actually was, what her name was, or where she lived. There was no way to trace her. The only thing I could think of was going back to the graveyard, hoping she was still there for some reason. I knew that this was a forlorn hope, and even if I did find her again strolling among the graves, I had no idea how she could actually be of help. I doubted she had any idea on how not to die of old age without dying of something else first. Regardless, I wanted to see her. It was worth a shot.
I left home, heading again to the graveyard. The day was even hotter than I had imagined, and as I had observed before, the flower beds were so dry that it really didn’t seem like it had rained at all during the night. On my way to the graveyard, I noticed that I looked at people differently, whether they were chatting with acquaintances, jogging, or just annoyed because they were late for the bus. It was a day like any other in the life of those people, and probably none of them spent much time thinking that sooner or later those days would be over or that health is in short supply. Equally probably, I thought, nearly all those people would agree that, from their perspective, none of those things was a problem. This thought made me feel as if I were the only sane person in a loony bin—which, paradoxically, led me to question my own sanity.
Then again, if those people had realized what I realized, wouldn’t they just end up like me and become prisoners of their own anxiety and of the thought of being stuck in a horrible situation with no way out? Wasn’t it better to lie to yourself for the sake of serenely living out the time you have left? As the girl had tried to make me understand, maybe this is why most people refuse to take this step: once you do, there is no turning back, and you must accept the consequences.
Lost in my own thoughts as I was, I didn’t realize that I had already made it to the entrance of the cemetery. Distraction wasn’t the only reason, though. The cemetery was hardly recognizable, as it was surrounded by scaffolding, crush barriers, and signs warning away trespassers. By the looks of it, the construction site must have been there for quite some time already; it certainly hadn’t been hastily pieced together that morning. I looked around for a while, confused and stupefied. There was no doubt that I was in the right place; I recognized the very same gate through which I had literally fled the night before, but it was closed and locked, and it bore a sign stating that it had been under renovation since two weeks ago. Dumbfounded, I explored the entire perimeter of the cemetery, but the sign was clearly correct. There was even a notice on the church saying that functions wouldn’t take place for a few weeks, and they had been suspended for a while already.
I was sure then that there had been no funeral the day before. Nor had I actually met that girl, apparently. I couldn’t have even set foot in that cemetery in the previous two weeks.
I stood there where I was, looking at the cemetery speechless, almost dazed, wondering if I had gone mad. After a few moments, I began walking away, heading home again, trying to no avail to find an explanation for the events of the previous day—assuming they had even happened.
Once I was home again, the dishes near the sink caught my attention once more. I thought again about the mug that I didn’t remember washing. Maybe I hadn’t washed it; maybe I didn’t drink that chocolate Saturday night, and maybe I dined at home, neglecting to do dishes. Maybe there had been no cloudburst. If that were the case, then the whole encounter and the rest of the events of that night had all been dreams.
All the neighbors I spoke with confirmed that not a single drop of water had rained the day before; however, I wasn’t brave enough to ask my acquaintances whether they remembered spending the day with me. For days, I kept wondering what had actually happened until I gave up and accepted that the entire experience must have existed only in my mind. Probably, I reasoned, unconscious thoughts had been bubbling up for a while and had finally burst out, making that surreal experience come to life as some kind of a dream. I cannot tell for certain whether I had this dream Saturday night or I had had some sort of hallucination; I can’t explain the extreme realism of the experience, and the only way to explain the amnesia would involve me sleeping through all of Saturday. I spoke to a psychotherapist some weeks later, and although I didn’t tell him everything about my experience, he said that I was sound of mind. I hope that’s true.
Despite my conviction that the girl was a dream or a hallucination, for months, I kept hoping to bump into her again, though in vain. More than once, I was sure that I had spotted her among the crowd, or recognized her as a passerby, barely avoiding making a fool of myself nearly every time.
It’s been months now. I have given up and accepted that the girl doesn’t really exist and that I will never see her again. Maybe I will dream about her, but I haven’t been so lucky thus far. In any case, that girl has profoundly changed me. Now that death herself has come and spoken to me to her own detriment, I won’t be able to look at her as I used to anymore—or rather, as I thought I did. Luckily, my anxiety has been mitigated somewhat, mostly turning into a desire to find a way out of this vicious circle that has cost and still costs millions of people their lives. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t even know if this is at all plausible.
The girl will hardly be able to give me any of the answers I need, so I will have to look for them elsewhere. I am afraid that many people would think my point of view on death is presumptuous at best and that they would hardly take me seriously.
However, somewhere in the world, there might be someone else to whom she has spoken like she did to me.
Now a life extension advocate at the beginning of his journey, he finds himself in a tough spot. We don’t know if, in his fictional world, science has begun realizing as it did in ours that aging is amenable to medical intervention, nor do we know if versions of LEAF and similar advocacy organizations exist there as well. Luckily for us, in our world, the situation is much clearer and it’s looking good; our understanding of aging is deep enough to envision interventions against it, and a very supportive community already exists. If you wish to join it, find out how here.