I find it puzzling how few of us acknowledge our temporary existence. Most of us will hardly live a century. When you consider that the first chunk of our lives we are young and dependent, and in the final years we are old and dependent, we don’t actually have a whole lot of time here.
What are most of us doing during that in-between?
An overwhelming majority of those born in a developed place spend it cemented. Stuck. For many, the peak period of energy, health, and lack of ties is spent where else but working, with snippet holidays in between. We do this, for decades.
Though I myself was born in a developed country with opportunities to work, travel, or study abroad, I didn’t. I thought you needed money to do any of those exotic things (turns out, you hardly need any). Being young and plagued by the pressure to study and pursue a career STAT (why?), I joined the zombie-like madness that is choosing a university program so I could promptly kiss my youth goodbye.
Cautiously, my 17-year-old self contemplated. Our graduating class was given an abundance of resources to help us choose what we should do until we die. That final semester of high school was filled with excited everyday braggings as each student learnt what universities they’d been accepted into, and decided the amazing things they’d study for four years.
A decade later, creeping through the blatant life showcase that is Facebook, I laugh at how insignificant any of this was.
I declined my acceptance into a degree in writing. Instead, I pursued the more logical but equally compelling path: nursing. My aunt, whom I lived with in high school, had inspired me immensely in both these avenues. At a crossroads, I chose the seemingly more liveable option.
Four years of all-nighters, stress, crying, honour rolls, scholarships, and more crying later, I graduated with distinction and was ready to embrace the professional working world.
Amidst all that, a peer from high school died in a car accident. It was abrupt and unexpected, as many deaths are. Though she was not a close friend, I attended the funeral. I watched her family sputter words and tears into a microphone, revisiting cherished moments of her life.
There I had a brief but confronting epiphany: such an unanticipated event could happen to me, my family, or anyone I loved. It was a haunting thought, but just as easy to let go of as I was vortexed back into “life”.
Shortly after graduating, I began my dream job at a hospital. But not just any hospital, it was the children’s hospital I’d dreamt of working at for years. To date, this was the most fulfilling yet challenging work I’ve done. A sentence like that alone could never summarise the touching experiences I was a part of, but those are stories for another day.
Slowly, an unravelling of sorts occurred. As I continually entered that hospital several times a week for two and a half years, something began to happen. My own mortality, which I’d been absentmindedly ignoring, started confronting me on a regular basis.
A children’s hospital is a bright and happy place, but throughout it, snippets of tragedy can be found. Some days, it felt as though death was snaking up and down the halls – and yes it’s true, it occurs in threes (nearly any nurse will agree). Sometimes death teased, making looming threats via blaring machines as we frantically revived, stabilised, and monitored critically ill patients.
For some, the process of dying was, well, a process. It could take days, months, even years in many of the chronic but palliative patients we saw. For others who would roll into the trauma room, it was too short, too scary, and too unexpected. Those were the hardest to forget.
Cold as it sounds, I think death is often shelved away as something that will happen, eventually – just not now. As a nurse, you perceive death more like a symptom or condition, something patients encounter, not you. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to avoid existential freak outs every 12 hour shift.
What began to really make death relatable for me was the aspect of it I could connect with most: family. Parents crying hysterically in my arms over the inevitable fate of their child, or seeing the brokenness of a father who couldn’t accept his deceased child before him, whose last words were, “I don’t wanna die!”.
Gradually such moments nagged at me. I had my health, but what was I doing with it besides being employed and spending my money? A sense of urgency brewed inside me. I could no longer ignore that I too would die someday. What would I have to look back on?
This instilled a disheartening shift in the feng shui of my life. I was part of an amazing team at a world-renowned hospital, one that was and still is extremely competitive to get into. Whenever people asked me the typical get-to-know-you question, “so where do you work” (that query reveals hardly a thing about a person, by the way), I proudly told them. The prestige of my job combined with its overwhelming fulfilment made me all the more guilty to leave.
Thankfully, when I shared my thoughts of quitting, I was greeted with encouragement by patients’ parents. Eagerly they told me, “Go now, before you have kids!” and “You never know what can happen, trust me. Go!”. I am eternally grateful for their words during that fork in the road of my life.
Evidently, dropping everything to travel was the best thing I ever did. It’s been 3 years since we left “home”, but being removed from an environment that deals with death has not made me forget the fragility of life. If anything, more than ever do I embrace my mortality. For if I didn’t, I’d still be back at that job, ignoring the urge to see this world more than 14 days a year for the rest of my life.
Most recently amidst a 13-hour flight, I was again reminded of the realness of human mortality. A passenger died in our plane after the frantic but futile attempts by myself and a flight attendant, tens of thousands of feet over the Pacific Ocean. Life and its hum drums are to be expected. Death, often is not.
It amazes me still that even though we know or have an inkling of the most common regrets when we die, many shrug off that such remorse could become our own. Why do we ignore this? Why?
I’ll tell you why. For the same reasons I did. Travel was intriguing, but difficult. Just the idea of it was an inconvenience. Travel challenged everything I felt pressured to do, which was your usual platter of work, getting a house, and filling it with shiny things. I’m forever grateful that we undid all of that.
Often my thoughts teeter into thinking perhaps I am too morbid or self-involved for pondering my own mortality. Ultimately though, I believe most people don’t reflect on death enough. False assurances that “it won’t happen to me” only suppress us from asking what we want to be doing, but aren’t.
In my own experiences, I have come to realise that life is merely a rug of consciousness that can be yanked from our feet at any moment. If it were, what would the reel of your life look like? Would it leave you with one last smile, or would you take a final breath wishing you’d done more?
Want More Inspiration?
- For the most inspiring yet tragic story I’ve ever read on “why we travel”, check out Hecktic travels. Pete & Dalene’s story of back-to-back tragic events that inspired them to overcome immense grief and see the world.
- Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-Term Travel by Rolf Potts is the book that convinced Ted & I to drop it all and travel. Beware: it will probably make you do the same.
- The Soul That Didn’t Land – the short but true story of a mid-flight resuscitation I was involved with, and why such events continue to inspire me to travel and live.