Movies at midday are one of the pleasures of aging; the theaters aren't crowded, the tickets are cheaper, and afterward you can fill up on happy hour hors d'oeuvres and skip dinner.
I was headed for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" on a balmy, blue sky day in June a few weeks after my first Social Security check arrived. Passing a flower market on the corner, I bent my head to the profusion of peonies clustered in tall tin buckets and breathed in their deep, rich scent. All at once I was literally set back on my heels by a thought that had never once occurred to me before, a thought so fully formed that it sounded like a voice in my head: This wouldn't be a bad day to die.
The censor that pushes the unthinkable back into the unconscious must have been otherwise occupied. Why this, why now? I wondered. Why, in the midst of feeling so fully alive -- healthy, content and untroubled -- was I suddenly struck by the notion of my own death?
Some people I've loved have died, but except for the stunning recognition at my surviving parent's grave that I was next in line, it's only lately that I've thought much about my own eventual demise. It's not a preoccupation or obsession -- not yet -- but it's increasingly taking up space in my head. Reflecting the demographics of my fellow baby boomers, it's also making a noticeable impact on the popular culture. If "The D Word" isn't a TV show yet, it's probably in development. "Death dinners" are a popular new past time among the entertaining elite, according to Bloomberg News, and Time Magazine recently posed a provocative question on its cover: "Can Google Solve Death?"
The friends with whom I shared what our parents called early bird supper after that geezer flick agreed that "By the time you're 65, if you don't think about death at least once a day -- which includes the mental math when you read the obituaries -- you're in denial."
That consciousness of our mortality happens in unexpected ways at ordinary moments. My death may not be imminent, at least not as far as I know, but it's not unthinkable, either. Some family, friends and lovers have already died, though I only experienced one, my mother's, up close, and it was as neat and tidy as she was. Others I know are in declining health, or facing a terminal illness.
My own death used to be a subject I could talk or think about for only a brief time before I was submerged in sadness, overcome with fear, or frozen in disbelief. Yet daring to confront it holds out the possibility of freeing one to fully engage in her or his own life until the last minute. That's the existential telegram I didn't see coming until that peony-scented moment, the real message from my unconscious: Life itself is a terminal diagnosis.
A gutsy, gallant friend who was facing a more immediate one wrote me "The one unexpected gift of living with such news is dying with it -- it's a chance to examine your life and make meaning of it, finish your unfinished business, express your regrets, make your amends, and renew your bonds with those you love."
Because we both live in states that have legislated compassionate choice, she had the right to decide when and how she died. If I have the courage and opportunity, I hope I will, too. Although only a small minority of those who can, do, having the right to die helps me feel a tiny bit more in control of the uncontrollable; unlike my friends in less enlightened states, I won't have to hoard opiates or plea with those I love to put me out of my misery. Right now I believe I want to have a "conscious" death, free from pain but not awareness. When the time comes, though, I might change my mind -- I thought I wanted an unmedicated childbirth, too.
Even the knowledge that, like a mature and responsible adult, I've taken care of the business of tidying up my ultimate end is no cure-all for coping with the eventual reality of not being, the terror at the end of the self. "Anxiety is the price we pay for self-awareness; staring into death renders life more poignant, more precious, more vital," writes psychoanalyst Irving Yalom: "Such an approach to death leads to instruction about life."
We may be too involved in the prosaic quality of our everyday lives to let that terror out of the place we've corralled it -- in our nightmares, dreams, the depths of the unconscious, or the assurances of faith that another, better existence awaits us in the kingdom of heaven. Or we may have stored it in the mental compartment where we put it back in the dorm when we first contemplated our ultimate end, analyzed and even reasoned with it, and wrestled it to the ground on which we then based our beliefs and values. But sometimes all it takes is an awakening experience, a message from the deepest part of the self that's always aware of the fact that we're mortal, and that in certain moments of completion, contentment and even joy that today wouldn't be a bad day to die.