A Good Scare: The Value of Contemplating Death . . . For a Few Minutes

DeathMatt and I were supposed to meet at the gym at 5:30 p.m. I said to meet by the fountain. 5:45 rolled around, and he wasn’t there. I texted him: “I’m here by the fountain.” Then it was 6:00 p.m. I called twice. I texted again: “Just let me know that you’re OK.” Still no answer. Matt always keeps his phone on him, and he’s never late. Something was wrong.

At 6:15, with sweaty palms, I called my mom and asked what I should do. We talked about calling the police and seeing if there’d been any car accidents reported in the area. Then she said I should go home and see if he was there. “What if he had carbon monoxide poisoning?” she asked. “What if he fell, and he can’t get to his phone?”

I paced around the fountain, sick from the adrenaline. What were the last words we’d said to each other? I tried to remember. I’d texted that I loved him. He’d texted back that he loved me too. I hung up with my mom and headed towards the parking garage to go home. What would I find there? Twisted bones. Bloody handprints. Lips blue from lack of oxygen. Could I face this? When I got to my car, I saw Matt’s car parked next to mine. He was OK! Now that I knew he wasn’t dead, I was going to kill him.

I found him working out at the gym. “Where were you?” I said too loudly, in front of all the other gym-goers.

“Keep your voice down,” he said.

“I didn’t know where you were! Where’s your phone?”

“I left it in the car.”

I tried to shake it off. I ran sprints on the treadmill. I listened to the song “Happy.” At home later, I downed a shot of vodka, which had zero effect (for someone who rarely drinks, that’s saying something). Eventually, my body and mind returned to normal.

To survive without going mad, I think all of us need to be in denial: denial that we can lose the people we love at any time. In fact, unless we die before them, we certainly will lose the people we love most. Death is equal opportunity. None of us are going to escape it.

Despite the value of denial, it can be useful to contemplate death from time to time. In a way, I’m glad to have experienced the horror of imagining Matt hurt or worse. It reminded me not to take our time together—or my time in general—for granted.