I thought of titling this article, “While I’m Talking about Death,” but I changed my mind. Aging is a difficult enough concept in our society, but death is almost an obscenity. Too many might turn away without reading. We all hope to age one day, even though we presume that day to be farther away than it probably is. Who hopes to die?
And yet, the older I grow, the larger death looms. Inevitably. A bout with cancer added to the three-quarters of a century I have been on this earth has brought death into my daily consciousness. Not necessarily in a bad way.
Death means limitation. Just that. And every artist of every discipline knows that limitation is power. Knowing that I will die, knowing it not only in an intellectual way without really believing it, but knowing it in my gut, changes the quality of my days. They have become precious, pearls strung on the most fragile of threads. I often pause and think Now. Now. This moment. Hold it. Treasure it. It will not come again.
I remember hearing in high school literature class about some old guy—was it John Donne?—who slept in his coffin. As an adolescent, all I could think was Weird! But now I understand, deeply, fully. He was reminding himself every time he entered the “little death” of sleep about the preciousness of his life. What could be more affirming?
My gratitude for my career as a writer in this late stage of life is boundless. I have work that calls me every day, work that I love to do, work that feeds me by connecting me with others. And yet I can do it at my own slower pace. I no longer take on deadlines. I no longer even create deadlines for myself.
My discipline is the discipline of doing each day what I most love to do, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a day spent with my daughter and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a Pilates session followed by lunch with a friend followed by grocery shopping and preparing another meal for myself and my partner. (I’m one of those who loves grocery shopping and food preparation. It’s only putting the groceries away that annoys.) Sometimes it’s doctor’s appointments, of course, or other unpleasant necessities, but whatever else I’m doing, each morning I rise knowing the writing waits. And I always turn to it with gratitude.
Recognizing the limitation of my days, however, has prompted me to reconsider the choices I make about what to write. I stood before my book shelf one day and counted the books that bear my name. It will be one hundred very soon. And I said to myself, it will be nice to keep writing. I hope to continue to publish. But it’s clear, whatever I write, that the world doesn’t need more Marion Dane Bauer books. And so, though I was fully engaged in Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I found challenging and fascinating and satisfying to struggle through, I put it aside for a different project . . . a memoir in verse.
This . . . this is what I most need to write. I need to write it for my daughter and my grandchildren if it reaches no one else. And I need to write it for myself. It’s a way of parsing my past, discovering its shape, finding its meaning. It’s a way—returning to the opening of this piece to create a writerly shape—of preparing for my death.
I think the memoir will be called Writing a Life, and it is another gift delivered to me by limitation. It would not have occurred to me to do this in middle age. I do it—and do it urgently—precisely because I know my time grows short. Maybe another twenty years short. Who knows? Maybe much less.
And what I could not have known when I was young and repelled by the idea of an old guy sleeping in his coffin, the urgency brought on by Death fills me with joy!