“What would you do if you had only one day left to live?”
It was a spring day in first grade and this was the question my teacher Ms. Blaureiter gave us to write about. One day left to live. That was a lot to think about, but I didn’t give it much thought. I wrote that I would lie on the couch with the dog and watch ZOOM, my favorite show at the time, and then I’d get up and go outside and play with my friends. And I’d hope it would happen on a Friday, because we always had fish on Friday.
Then I looked back on that answer and felt guilty. It seemed like a terrible waste. One day left to live and I’d use it doing what I did most days when I wasn’t in school. What did that say about me as a person? Maybe at seven I’d intuitively realized there were some things that I wanted to do that one day just wouldn’t leave time for. I wanted to try scuba diving in a tropical ocean, for instance, but that would mean at least a couple of days of training, and I didn’t have time for that. I could have done something like feed the homeless, or at least give a homeless person my spot on the couch so they could watch ZOOM, which would be a nice unselfish way to use my final hours, but would I be doing enough to leave the world a better place than I found it? Would one day even be enough for that?
Then I thought about it some more. One day left to live. What would you do? Think about the time restraints. I dream of someday being able to visit Easter Island, to stand in the presence of the moai and reflect on the long departed people who carved these astounding monuments. With just one day left to live, though, I don’t think I’d make it. Easter Island is eight thousand miles away. Even if all the travel arrangements were made it’s a really long trip. If I were lucky I’d probably die somewhere over Peru. Maybe I could skip over the International Date Line and get an extra day, but I don’t know if that would give me enough time. I am certain I’d splurge on first class, though.
What kind of question was this, anyway? I’d barely started to live and had no experience that would allow me to wrap my young head around something as big as death. I’d been lucky. I hadn’t really been confronted with anyone else’s mortality, let alone my own. My maternal grandmother had passed away, but my memories of her were so vague I couldn’t process the loss, and it would be another year before I’d lose my maternal grandfather.
What was my teacher thinking? Maybe she heard her own biological clock ticking and wanted to turn up the volume on ours. They were still being wound. We knew she wasn’t married because she told us about the dates she’d been on. She didn’t kiss and tell, really, but she did tell us the names of the guys she was going out with, and—this is absolutely true—she was dating a different guy every night of the week. On school nights. I don’t think any of us had any idea what adults did on dates. If we had we might have looked at her a lot differently, but that’s another story.
I realize we live in a complex world where seven year olds, and even those who are younger, are forced to face their own or others’ mortality, or are exposed to some of the most horrific things human beings can do to each other. I know how lucky I was that neither I nor any of my classmates, as far as I knew, had been exposed to any of that. So it was hard to contemplate death when I’d barely begun to live. If my life had flashed before my eyes it would have been over in about ten seconds. And this was decades before anyone coined the term “bucket list”—an expression I hate because it sounds too much like a checklist that reminds you with every tick that you’re getting closer to pushing up dandelions.
As I thought even more about the question it became even more disturbing. I realized there were only two circumstances under which someone would know they’d have twenty four hours left to live. The first would be a serious illness, although biology doesn’t always follow a strict timetable, so maybe it would be more than a day, or maybe it would be less. More predictable would be the knowledge of execution, assuming there’s no call from the governor. Years later I’d feel a pang of recognition when I read Samuel Johnson’s line “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The question my teacher put out there did concentrate my mind most wonderfully. I’d call 9-1-1.
“Hello, police? My teacher is planning to kill me tomorrow!”