There's an old issue of Weird War Tales about a soldier who receives a talisman from some wizened gypsy that reveals the moth and year of his death. It's the middle of World War II, but this talisman says he won't die until sometime in the seventies. Which means...well, as far as this war goes, he's bullet-proof. He begins taking crazy chances, because he knows he won't die. Except the talisman only promises he'll still be alive by that date. It doesn't say his body will be in one piece...
Cheap irony, with a big twist you can see coming from a mile away, but it made a huge impression on eight-year-old me, and I find myself thinking about it a lot lately because...Well, partly because my brain pan is crowded and random memories float to the surface and refuse to leave. But mostly because reading that story provided the first time I'd ever considered mortality. There's no magic talisman, and you can't know the precise date and time, but there will come a day when you will die.
It's OK, really. I'm fine. As far as I know. That's the thing, though: As far as I know. But I turn forty-nine in a couple of months. My mom and dad both had colon cancer. Family history being what it is, I have a preview of what's going to happen. Sure, a safe could fall on me or my heart could explode, but barring that, I will get cancer and die. It's a certainty, an inevitability, like Charlie Sheen getting fired from another TV show.
(Incidentally, and because I love pointless parenthetical asides, I would observe here that almost twenty years ago--Lordy, I'm old--when I used to write for a kinda-sorta-alt weekly in Des Moines, I was known to use Charlie Sheen as a metaphor for terrible things happening so often that one of the editors rejected a column with a hand-written note: "Charlie Sheen AGAIN?")
Obviously, like most people, I'll ignore the warning signs, signs that will be in flashing neon because, again, I know they're coming, and soon it will be too late and...Why yes, funny you should ask, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. And I wish I could say I've been using all that time in a valuable way, taking stock of my life, making plans for the great inevitable, or maybe for crying out loud actually getting around to doing some work on that one idea I had for a novel that one time that really, swear to God, would have been great, I had a killer opening paragraph and everything but man it just kind of sat there and I was so terrified by the notion that it wouldn't be interesting for more than twenty, thirty pages max that I just kind of let it die.
But, uh, I've done none of those things. Things get in the way. Good things, mostly, and bad ones, too. I mean, my life is good, relatively speaking. I try to live in the here-and-now, but the reality of now changes as you go through life. You acquire knowledge along the way, and you can rage against it, or try to ignore it, or even accept it, but that knowledge rules your existence.
So sometimes I escape into the past: I'm sprawled out on the couch in the living room, all excited because when Mom came home from town today, she brought me the latest issue of Weird War Tales, always one of my favorites. I open the cover with anticipation, not knowing that will be the last moment of my life untouched by a feeling of creeping dread.