Nick had Hepatitis D, a relatively rare form of Hepatitis that is always fatal and quick. “There’s no point in taking medication,” he told me. “Its all experimental anyway and I have no insurance. Eventually my liver will fail and a few weeks after that I’ll be dead.” He was a good looking guy in this 30s and always seemed healthy to me. He glowed with the terrible secret he had been given to keep.
We’d usually meet at Steinway Billiards in Astoria and play backgammon all night. He taught me the three ways of backgammon that they play in Greece. One was the regular backgammon that we play in the US, one was a kind where you could land on top of your opponent’s pieces and prevent them from moving, and another kind was just a pure race, with no capturing. You’d rotate playing all three games. Not being Greek, I lost almost all the time. We’d start off the evenings by drinking super strong coffee and then play games until we were tired by about 2 or 3am. Then we’d take a walk through the streets watching the kids line up outside of clubs on Steinway Avenue. I always wanted to know what was happening in these clubs. Was everyone having sex inside? The lines were so long and never seemed to move. There must be some reason everyone wanted to get inside these clubs.
Nick didn’t have a girlfriend. “What would be the point,” he said. “I wouldn’t want her to get emotionally involved and then have to take care of me in my final weeks.”
The truth was, I was jealous of Nick. He was so close to dealing with questions I had never even encountered before. Why had he been given such a gift and I could only attempt to vicariously understand the gift through him. I had a whole life ahead of me to worry about. He just had to wait. To watch a sunset and really appreciate it because who knew how many more he’d watch. To really enjoy a game of backgammon. To feel pleasure from walking up and down busy streets, watching the people spinning around in a dream while he was pressed up against the wall of his fate.
I wanted to have this secret, like Nick. Where I’d walk around, incognito. The counter girls at the coffee shop having no idea of the secret I was trying to keep from them. Maybe only weeks left. Maybe days. Even today, we all know we’re going to die.. But we have no idea when. What would I do?
– Phone. I certainly wouldn’t return any phone calls to people I don’t want to talk to. That’s over. Nor would I visit anyone I didn’t want to visit or have any meetings I didn’t need to go to, etc. I wouldn’t do a single thing that I normally would not want to do.
– Kids. Sometimes my kids try to tell me a story and it’s hard to pay attention to what they are really saying. They pace back and forth, and the story is half in their minds, half in their words spewing out of them. Its hard to pay attention to them. My dad once told me, “I can’t really follow anything you’re saying” when I tried to tell him the plot to Star Wars. But I would try to put together pieces of the puzzles my kids were creating. I’d figure it all out this one time.
– Surf. I wouldn’t surf the web. I already know way too much about Kim Kardashian.
– Breath. When I try and picture what it would be like if I knew I was going to die today I imagine myself breathing very deeply throughout the day. Pay attention to how you breathe today. Most of the time we take very short breaths. Its like a mini version of huffing and puffing after a run, except we do it all day long. If I knew today was “the day” I think I’d take lots of deep breaths although I don’t know why this seems important to me.
– Empty. I’d empty all of my pockets for the entire day. I have a ton of stuff in my pockets right now. And these things never leave me. When I change a pair of pants I just move all this junk from one pair of pants to the other. I’m pulling a business card out of my left pocket right now. Its got only Chinese characters on it. Why do I even hold this from day to day? How many months have I been carrying this. I have no idea. I want to have empty pockets the day I die.
– Kindness. I think I would be kind to people. I don’t think I would feel the urge to tell anyone off who has wronged me in the past. Most of these people already know how I feel about them anyway. And what was the point of all of those arguments. Those perceived wrongs. The hurt we all felt. It doesn’t really matter anymore. I’d want to make sure that I was kind to enough people so that after I was gone people would remember forever that last moment of kindness. They would think to themselves, “he liked me and he was about to die and this is what he did for me.” It would be a memory forever since everyone takes a mental snapshot of the last moment they saw someone.
– Email. I’d probably want to at least write emails to everyone I wanted to say goodbye to. But I wouldn’t say “goodbye”. That’s too sad. Instead I’d write people a list of all the reasons I liked them. It would be somewhat embarrassing but why should I care?
– Clean. I’d want to be clean for the day, and happy with how I looked. I mean, what’s going to change now?
– Love. I’d spend as much of the day as possible with my wife. I selfishly would want her to feel sad after I died so I’d need to leave her with some good memories.
Every now and then I try and tell myself, “live this day as if its your last.” No returned phone calls or irrelevant meetings. No mindless websurfing. Stop worrying about all the usual worries. Send emails to all the people you like, listing their favorable attributes. Or at least some of them. Appreciate this single unique moment. Every day I could do all the things on the above list. It’s a good thought. But its hard to do in practice while we are living the dream.
I moved out of Astoria when I started making more money. I was never good at goodbyes so I just packed up and left without talking to any of the people I had become friends with in the eight months I lived there. To this day I’ve never stepped foot in Astoria again. A few years later I ran into Nick on the street in Manhattan. We exchanged small talk. He looked about the same. I’m ashamed to admit I was kind of disappointed he wasn’t dead yet. Like maybe he had lied to me. Maybe he was thinking the same thing about me.