He not busy being born is busy dying

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Jaime O’Neill teaches English at Butte Community College. He is a frequent contributor to the CN&R as well as other publications.

I’m dying.

At my current rate of decline, I’ll be lucky if I make it another 20 years. The last 20 years slipped by so damn fast I almost missed them, so if the next 20 years go by that fast, I’m almost as good as dead already.

This is discouraging news. It’s hard to imagine the world without me in it. Who, for instance, is going to nag my daughters and attempt to micromanage their lives?

And who is going to take over the task of worrying about everything? My mother used to call me a worry wart even when I was a little boy. I have this notion that the only thing that keeps the world from going to hell entirely is the existence of that small band of us worriers who take on the task of fretting about stuff like global warming and overpopulation and the negative effects of rap music.

It’s not like the worrying changes anything, but if the worrying wasn’t getting done by someone, things would really spiral out of control. I look around me, and it seems that far too few people are worrying, so when the world loses me, that weight of worry might tip the balance, and the results could be catastrophic.

Besides that, I’m too young to die. In many ways, I’m younger than I was 40 years ago. I appreciate life far more than I did in those days when I was consumed with worries to such a degree that I failed to see lots of the beautiful or just plain pleasant stuff all around me. I took too much for granted, and sometimes I wasn’t quite present at my own life.

Now I take my pleasures where I find them. When I go to the bookstore and buy a book that has been hugely reduced in price, I love that, even if I never read the book. I also love to peel off those little stickers that bear the original price and the reduced price. If I manage to peel those stickers off without leaving a sticky residue on the book cover, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something rather special and, for a few moments at least, I have a sense of well-being.

My life tends to swing from one little thing like that to another. If, say, I go from successfully peeling the sales price sticker off a book to building a fire in the woodstove without too much fuss, I enjoy watching the flames, along with the satisfaction of knowing how good I’ve gotten at getting fires started, and how good the heat of the fire feels, and how comforting the sight of it is.

That’s quite a bit of pleasure, and it doesn’t end there. Sometimes, while I’m doing this fire stuff, my wife is in the kitchen cooking something, and the aromas of that cooking begin to fill the house with the anticipation of the food the aromas are forecasting.

And while those aromas circulate, there is usually music playing, and that music takes me to places that resonate in sweet memories. And there are those books I’ve peeled the stickers from, waiting for me to dip into, and there’s the cat my daughter brought over from France for a brief visit and then forgot to take back home to Paris with her—little Billy, the international cat of mystery, a chat noir European ordinaire (or ordinary black European cat) who is anything but ordinary in his complete self-absorption. He likes to arrange his shiny black self on anything white—a towel, a blanket or a sheet—so that his inky magnificence is dramatically on display for all the world to see.

I watch Billy in repose while the aroma of cooking entertains my nose, and the swirl of music entertains my ears, and the memory of my mastery of fire and of stickers on bargain books all combine to make life seem pretty damn sweet.

So, the fact that I am dying is, in the words of my generation, a bummer, man. I’m going to miss the sight of dappled sunlight through the trees. I’m going to miss those first few moments after turning off the light at night when my head is finding just the right arrangement on the pillow and sleep beckons sweetly. I’m going to miss morning showers, and that first cup of coffee, all dark and rich, with the newspaper as an accompaniment. I’m going to miss the hummingbirds at the feeder, flashing their throats at the world, a teasing wink of beauty. I’m going to miss, really miss, the first blooms of spring, the daffodils and the tulips and, down on the flat, the almond orchards alive with color. I’m going to miss digging holes to plant stuff, and working up a sweat while doing that, and the smell of dirt on my shovel and under my fingernails.

I’m going to miss garage sales, and getting mail, and the fragrance of cedar as the saw bites into it. I’m going to miss seeing babies in shopping carts and foals nursing in meadows in the spring. I’m going to miss playing poker, seeing the cards turn up unexpectedly, always offering surprise. I’m going to miss new shirts and old Levis. I’m going to miss writing because writing is, finally, all about love no matter what else it’s about.

I’m going to miss all of these things and a million others—the way it feels to hug my grown daughters, the taste of See’s candy and looking at old photographs. I’m going to miss these things because I’m dying, and because death is what makes all those things so precious.

I’m dying. Damn.

But I’m still here. Hot damn.