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Counting Numbers In The Death Game

04/10/2014 07:58 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

We all die, right? Some of us do it the long way, chipping away at life slowly until there is nothing left; others check out abruptly with a sudden heart attack or accident. Some of us do it when we are old and others do it when we are younger. It's them -- those younger people -- that get under my skin.

For the record, I don't walk around dwelling on my own eventual death. Although if science really wanted to tame civilization, it would discover a way to let us know in advance precisely when the hat girl will hand over our final Fedora. If you knew when you were going to die, there would be no "I love you's" left unspoken, no bullshit tolerated, and frankly, no uncertainty about whether you should answer your phone when you're on vacation with your family. You also wouldn't buy any green bananas, metaphorically or otherwise.

The truth is, if we had a firm check-out date, our priorities would crystalize, and indecision and procrastination would evaporate. But instead, even when we are handed a lousy medical diagnosis, we are also dispensed hope. And in most cases, it's the hope we hear and cling to, not the acceptance of the fact that we all must die.

I get it. I'm all for dying, just not yet. It's a conversation that an old friend and former colleague, Brett Levy, and I had this week. Levy, a technology wizard at Red Badge Consulting, is the unofficial archivist of information about the newspaper where we both worked for decades. This week he posted to the alumni group about two deaths in our midst. Ruth Ryon, who wrote the nationally syndicated Hot Property column that I took over at her retirement, was 69 and died from Parkinson's complications. And former sports writer/USC player Lonnie Smith died unexpectedly at 49. Levy also lost a friend last week, so he basically hit the Death Trifecta and was feeling low.

"Turning 50 a few months ago was pretty tough," Levy told me. "But the loss of three colleagues in as many days is a painful blow. Two of the deceased were just a year or two short of reaching 50." And therein lies the rub. When people we know die, we instantly do the math. If the deceased are close in age to us -- even worse if they are younger -- we start examining our own lives with a scrutiny last seen on the eve of our 30th birthday. It starts with a big gulp.

Levy asked the question we all ask when we play the death numbers game: "What if that was me?"

His worries echo my own: "Would my family be OK once I'm gone?" Levy's dad died when he was 9 and Levy's children are now 8 and 11. "I know that I have to hang in there as long as possible for their sake, if nothing else," he said, adding, "When friends and family my age die, it really drives that point home."

I always say that when a contemporary dies, I find inspiration to do an extra mile on the treadmill and have less trouble pushing away the pizza box for about a week. But what I also do is say a little prayer of thanks because, like Levy, I've got kids at home and a husband that needs me.

There is a second wave that follows the "what will happen to my family?" worry. That's the one where you ask yourself if this is all there is. If I'm not going to travel around the world or learn to fly a plane now, then when will I ever do it? The sand in the hour glass is running out and the question we all ask is "Is this how I want to be spending my days if they were my final ones?" Hint: Nobody loves their job that much.

Nope, we aren't invincible and nobody young ever plans to die. It's why teenagers drive too fast around curves and we reach for butter when no one is looking. It's why we think we are doing the right thing when we let the office interrupt our family dinners and why we tell ourselves that it's more important to finish the report for the boss than watch our kid's soccer game on Saturday. Nobody but nobody knows when the last day is near.

When I look into my crystal ball -- the one made of family genes and lifestyle choices -- I come out ahead, if you consider living a long time a good thing. Longevity runs in my family, which is both a blessing and a curse.

My Aunt Fay just celebrated her 100th birthday this week. She lives in a small assisted-care private home with a few other women, supervised by a young couple who own the home and run their care-giving business from it. Aunt Fay ate three pieces of her birthday cake surrounded by colorful balloons and, best anyone could determine, had no clue what any of it was for. I tell myself it doesn't matter because she loved the cake. Aunt Fay has had dementia for years and long ago lost the ability to recognize visitors -- an excuse I use to get myself off the hook for not visiting more often. The bulk of Aunt Fay's visitations are made by my Cousin The Saint, the relative who stepped up when the time came and moved Fay near her.

My Cousin The Saint and I often have the talk about how the longevity in our genes may sentence us to a fate similar to Fay's, whose mind may have failed her but her heart keeps on ticking. Somehow I know that my once-vibrant and always-busy aunt must be wondering where that hat check girl is and why she's taking so long to come around with that final Fedora.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Celeb Couples Aging Gracefully Together