3 Moments of Clarity Where I Felt My Mortality

First published in the Kindling III anthology.

Many people travel through life thinking they are invincible. Especially the young – they live fearlessly, with seemingly little comprehension of an ending. I was one of those people, as a child and into my early adulthood. But then I began to experience these… moments for lack of a better word, and I call them moments because they are fleeting. I would feel this fear cut through me, and the knowledge I wasn’t going to be around forever, that it could all change at any moment, would crash over me like a breaking wave.

The first moment was while reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was the weekend, and I had spent most of it sprawled across the couch, devouring page after glorious page. I reached the chapter where Harry, after witnessing past events in the Pensieve, realises he has to die in order to destroy the Horcrux within him.

As I read Harry’s reaction – his bounding heart, his heightened awareness of the workings of his mind and body – I began to feel some of those things too. Then the realisation hit me like a cracking whip, and I had to stop reading. One day, I was going to die.

This may seem obvious; all of us are going to die eventually. But right then I felt just how precious and delicate my life was, like a spider’s web spun between the leaves of two trees. I felt how precious the lives of my loved ones were, and how in a hundred years we would all be gone forever. I squirmed restlessly from one spot on the couch to another, unable to settle, as these thoughts churned about in my mind. After ten or so minutes they quietened, and I got back to the story, but I knew I had just been through something profound.

I would love to say that after that first moment my perspective on life changed – that I smiled at strangers in the street, told my family I loved them every day, opened my mouth to the sky when it rained – but I just went on as usual. There was the smallest difference though, something subtle and intangible; my firm belief in my invincibility, solid and rock-hard, which had always been there in the background, had faded away.

A few years later I was watching the stage musical Les Misérables. Éponine was dying. While I hadn’t seen the musical or movie before, I had read about the plot and knew this was going to happen. Yet something about the scene still struck me forcibly; perhaps it was the exaggeration of theatre, the music and the singing that affected me. Whatever it was, I felt myself drowning in the awareness of my own mortality. My consciousness seemed to expand and filled the whole theatre, and I was suddenly aware of all the people watching the stage, of the ushers by the doors, of the actors delivering the lines they must have tirelessly rehearsed; and the tears came quietly, not for Éponine, but for my future self.

This feeling stayed with me for the rest of the show; the feeling that I was somehow apart from myself, that time was moving forward while I hovered in this space of awareness. But then the curtain dropped down, the lights came on, and the audience broke into applause – and the spell was broken. I walked out of the theatre with a heavier heart, but I wouldn’t say I acted significantly different in the following days. To use a contextually relevant saying, the show went on.

That same year, I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the cinema. I am a big fan of Emma Stone, and enjoyed the vivaciousness and wit of her character Gwen Stacy. I hadn’t read the Marvel comics, so I had no idea that her character was going to die. When she lay in Peter Parker’s arms and the audience held its breath, I thought surely not, she has to survive.

I don’t think I’ve ever cried that much in a theatre – and this was a Spider-Man movie, not some serious drama. Again, I felt how fragile our lives are, and how they can be so easily lost.

Looking back, I’m still surprised that these moments occurred when a much-loved character was dying, as opposed to tragedies in the news or grandparents’ deaths. I consider myself lucky that in my twenty-four years I have known only two people to die, no more. Both were grandparents, both elderly. One was unexpected, heart failure while being cared for in hospital; the other I saw in their final hours, knowing they would be gone at any moment. I was 18 and 23 years old respectively. Their age didn’t make the grief any more bearable, but I saw it as something inevitable, the natural way of life. It didn’t shock me into an awareness of my own mortality – that, of course, was still far, far away.

Perhaps the death of these imaginary people affected me so much due to a childhood predominantly spent in the heads of the characters I read. The weekly library visit in primary school was never enough for me; I went in my own lunchtime and the librarian soon taught me how to check out and return my own books. I would stay up late reading Harry Potter into the night, and be exhausted at school the next day. When my parents hid my books in their room, I would crawl in after they were asleep to take them back (one memorable time mistaken by my parents for a burglar). I suppose that is the beauty of fiction: a story or fantasy or daydream can help comprehend reality. It made me confront death in a way life never had.

During these moments, when I felt this suffocating anxiety about my impending doom, I wondered how humans live like this. Knowing an accident or illness could take everything away, and that this could happen in the space of a breath. My way of dealing was to tell myself to forget it, to not worry, because there was nothing I could do about it. Just lose myself back into the day-to-day business of life.

And it worked. Within a few minutes of these moments, I had moved on, for what else could I possibly do? I don’t think people are meant to live timidly or cautiously in the hope that their odds of death will be reduced, or in fear, unable to enjoy their lives. We are meant to live energetically and adventurously, in spite of what is waiting for us at the end. We should use this knowledge as a reminder to appreciate every moment and every loved one. So when death does come, we can leave this world with our heads held high, peaceful in the knowledge that we lived our fullest lives.