The apartment building was well-designed in that clean-architecture, urban-utilitarian kind of way. There were some anemic trees and bushes strategically placed in the periphery, presumably put there to add an organic touch to the unyielding geometry. And directly across the street, a graveyard, held back from the road only by a weak-looking chain link fence.
The first word that came to mind was definitely “graveyard.” Not cemetery. Cemeteries have personality. Some are showcases of the art of dying, piling on the style with cracking marble tombs, muscular, lush-leaved trees and heavy stone angels. Elegant death. The simpler ones, like Arlington Cemetery, exude a peaceful sense of dignity: uniform alabaster headstones contrasting sharply against the bright, manicured grass. Stoic death.
But this scrap of land across from my friend’s apartment was positively a graveyard. It didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was – a last-minute repository for unused bodies. This was it. No show, no ceremony. This is what death – expiration – looked like without its makeup on, blank and unimpressive and nowhere. This was the end of the line.
Living across the street from death, every day. Being reminded of your mortality, every single day. Going to work in morning, traveling coffee mug in hand, freshly-showered and ready to carpe diem. Returning at night, drunk or exhausted or accomplished or defeated. Wondering what it all means again. Looking out over the front yard and exploding with hiccupy laughter at the utter absurdity of it all.
Here I stand with my life in order, my careful plans, my ever-evolving sense of self. And this is where I’m headed. What the hell? Now what?
Technically, we’re all dying. Every minute we spend alive is one minute closer to death. But to see death right in front of you, at the beginning and end of each day…I can’t think of a better nudge to put your priorities in order.
We don’t think about what’s across the street while we’re in the apartment. We’re too busy reading the newspaper, doing laundry, making love, drinking wine. We’re too distracted. But the graveyard is there, vast and expressionless, like a fat businessman on the escalator you can’t brush past.
What would I do if I knew how long I had? Would I still want to spend six years in graduate school? Say yes to the proposal, even though I’m not sure? Keep putting my novel, my travels, my crazy stupid dreams on hold? Or not? What would anyone do?
Those tired stones on patchy grass, a tangible reminder of the culmination of our human efforts. A daily affirmation of the full extent to which we control our own destinies. And we do – we often feel like we don’t have a choice, but we do. Life is a clever practical joke that way.
We’re constantly pushed and pulled in different directions; it’s so easy to get trapped, so easy to lose your footing. The world has a thousand ideas about who we should be, how we should act, what we should believe in, where we should aim. But we don’t actually have to do anything. We’re freer agents than we think we are. If there’s anything anyone actually has to do, it’s die. We get a choice in everything else.
Make your choices. Make them for your own reasons. If all we get at the end of this freakshow is a faded clump of letters on a weathered rock, we quite literally have nothing to lose.