I walked outside and instantly squealed. Two miniature ground squirrels, each less than two inches long, peeked their tiny heads out of the expansive den outside our front door. The next day, there were eight small creatures; the day after that, twelve. The three proud mamas–Squeak, Blossom and Sprawly–are doing their best to feed thier young while teaching them then ins and outs of survival. I can’t help but wonder: Do they know that their large family may gradually decline in numbers? January may be snatched up by a hawk and February by a snake, while March may succumb to starvation and April to heat stroke. Are animals prone to worry in the way that humans do, or do they simply go along living their life?
Next week, my best friend from college will be in town. While it will be the first time we’ve seen each other in over nine years, we’ve texted back and forth almost daily during that time. It will be a bittersweet reunion, as he’s in town for a series of surgeries–his second round of procedures since the start of the year. “I’ll update you when I arrive,” he’s insisted. There’s a huge elephant crammed into a tiny hospital room–he wouldn’t be traveling across the country for care until his condition was beyond the scope of his current medical team.
“If anything happens to me, I’ve made it clear to my parents that you get the house.” My boyfriend has been experiencing near-constant heart palpitations, alongside extremely low blood pressure and low heart rate, putting him at a high risk of stroke. Every night before I fall asleep, he offers me security: if anything happens to me, you’ll have a place to live, free and clear. Every night, I fall asleep crying. His is the most practical and least reassuring argument I’ve ever heard for facing the possibility of a partner’s death.
In December 2014, my cousin and my younger sister’s best friend both passed away from cancer within a few hours of each other. At ages 30 and 19, their lives were undeniably cut short. I still struggle to wrap my head around why they had to suffer, how they faced their mortality with such grace and what lesson I’m meant to take away from it. If I were given less then one year to live, what would I do differently? If someone close to me was given months to live, how would our relationship change?
My grandfather passed away when my mom was still a child, her brother a few years later, and then her brother-in-law a few weeks before I was born. I feel as if I was born with that burden of sorrow, the fear of loss. While I had came to terms with my own mortality by my early-twenties, I can’t bear to see others suffer–whether my boyfriend, the double-amputee holding a cup outside the grocery store or the improperly pruned tree on the patio.
I am painfully empathetic and my current hormonal imbalances only serve to exacerbate my innate sensitivity. Challenges and suffering are opportunities for enlightenment, I tell myself, as I struggle to accept the statement’s truth. We are all en route to the same destination, despite our different means of transportation and varying speeds. We will all, at some point, die. We will all, at some point, be faced with the loss of someone or something we care deeply about.
As I watch the ground squirrel family inevitably dwindle down to half its size, I plan to practice some level of acceptance. On particularly rough days, I alternate between sleeping and staring out the window, observing the family dynamic of desert critters with a painfully short lifespan. Over the last two years, I’ve become very attached my chattering, outdoor pets, who come running when they see me. While, it saddens me to consider the family of fifteen may shrink, I know how much more difficult the exercise will be when it comes to loved ones–to humans, with their unique personalities and complex emotions. Even if those close to me now are able to overcome their illnesses, alleviate suffering and go on to live a long, healthy life, the grim reaper will inevitably arrive once more, eager to remind us each of our own impending mortality and the importance of living–truly living–as our life’s timer continues its final countdown.