For a long time now, I’ve been preparing to die. Buying your own plot in a cemetery and burying your husband at 33 years old on one side of it — after they ask you at the cemetery office, “Did he sleep on the right side or the left? People often do it that way.” — will do that to you.
Having to navigate the years after my husband’s sudden, out-of-order death made me feel a sense of urgency about preparing my own life in case something sudden should happen to me ― especially since I was now the sole parent of our 1-year-old daughter, who I knew would have no memory of her father.
First, there were what I called “memorial projects,” and they were of the utmost importance in those early days of loss. They involved gathering letters from his friends about him and putting them in an album for her to read one day and printing out a blog he’d kept about her after she was born so she could know a little bit of his voice and how he spoke about her: “Isn’t she awesome?”
But after the safety of the cocoon of grief, of “the worst has already happened,” was over, a new anxiety about something as sudden happening to me took hold. The thought of leaving my daughter an orphan led to the first panic attacks I’d ever experienced in my life. If I died too, who would tell her about my stories, or let her know how I spoke about her, or remind her of memories we shared once childhood amnesia stole them from her?
So, there were more to-do lists for me — purchase life insurance, make a will, choose guardians wisely — all important things. Exercise, take my vitamins, never miss a mammogram. And every year, I wrote her a long letter about all of the special things we’d done that year, but I also wrote about the simpler things, like the imaginary games she enjoyed at the time I was writing and the particular vernacular we used at that moment. These were the kinds of words and inside jokes that would be forgotten in a year or so if they weren’t recorded.
While everyone was KonMari’ing their homes, I was reading “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” I was minimizing and labeling so that in case of an emergency, people would be able to step in and find information that I, even as a spouse, had had to search for when my husband died.
As a writer and collector of quotes, I even started marking an “f” for “funeral” next to quotes I read that I wanted at my own memorial. Burying your spouse on the left side (he slept on the left side of our bed) is the closest thing to attending your own funeral because it’s also your family and friends in attendance, your photos on display, your shared memories.
It turns out it takes a lot of time and energy to practically prepare for your death. For me, it’s taken 11 years. My daughter has officially become a teenager in that time. She asks me one day about my dreams for the future because she is always trying to narrow down her own vision for herself. “I’ll be a classical pianist, have an Etsy shop with my art, and write YA novels,” she says. “I’ll live on a farm with an art studio in the barn,” she continues. It’s then I realize that I’ve put a lot of thought and preparation into the “What if I’m not here?” and very little into the “What if I am?”
“It turns out it takes a lot of time and energy to practically prepare for your death.”
I’m stunned in some ways after all of the years of survival to find I’m 45 (is that beyond middle-aged?) and in four years, she’ll be in college.
Maybe in some ways it was easier to plan for my death than my life. Funeral homes are neat and sterile. Birthing rooms are messy. Preparing for death is limited in its tasks. Life opens up in every direction. Death, eventually, is certain. Facing an uncertain future where catastrophic things can happen, hearts can break, and life can change in a moment takes courage.
So, this past New Year’s Eve I contemplated a vision board, but I wasn’t sure it was up to the task. In the end, it wasn’t New Year’s with its Champagne, confetti and resolutions, but the more somber season of Lent that surprisingly showed me the way forward.
On Ash Wednesday, the priest puts ashes on our foreheads and says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Latin phrase “memento mori” — “remember that you must die” — is commonly heard the first week of Lent.
The ancient Roman generals are said to have had a servant nearby whispering, “Memento mori,” to keep them humble after victories. Today, life coaches often recommend writing your own eulogy in order to prioritize life goals. There has even been a trend in some Asian countries to spend time in a coffin as a way of getting a new lease on life. I had the real thing: a gravestone waiting to have my name chiseled on the right side of it. It’s felt like wisdom to me all of these years to remember this — memento mori — to know how close I was to death at any moment. Instead of giving me motivation, it was pretty debilitating.
What I learned this year during Lent was that memento mori has a corresponding, balancing Latin phrase that accompanies it: “memento vivere” — “remember that you must live.”
Memento mori served me well immediately following my husband’s death. It helped me get important things done like my will and choosing guardians for my daughter. But I needed to let go. Yes, loss helps us measure the value of things, but maybe life isn’t meaningful only because it’s inherently fleeting, but because it’s beautiful to be alive.
“We sanctify life, not death,” wrote Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and professor, in a memoir contemplating his mortality during emergency heart surgery. He continued: “Death is not meant to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.”
“Yes, loss helps us measure the value of things, but maybe life isn’t meaningful only because it’s inherently fleeting, but because it’s beautiful to be alive.”
Letting life guide me means letting go of my diligent archiving for a future I’m not in, and instead being here now. It means I might forget certain phrases I laughed at with my daughter a year ago, and that’s OK. Life is ephemeral and cannot be harnessed in words. This year I didn’t get to my yearly letter, but my daughter and I enjoy an outing together every Saturday, and every night at dinner she “debriefs” about the latest middle school drama — what happened at lunch, who broke up with whom, the latest weird sub. Sometimes we laugh so hard we cry.
Someone once told me that planning is a form of hope, so maybe living means making plans despite how vulnerable those plans ultimately are. To quote “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of my late husband’s favorite movies, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
When you’ve been blindsided once, it’s scary to imagine the future at all. But I’ve started to humbly imagine I might have a whole other chapter in a new city, fall in love again, and maybe one day years from now, I might even hold my grandchild.
The writer Walker Percy offers a thought exercise where he suggests that just realizing you have the very real option of not being here, but choose to be here, can set you free. “Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.”
At the other end of Lent’s 40 days, Easter waits. I still don’t have an answer for my daughter about what I want to do exactly with the years ahead of me, but I’m starting to think about them for the first time. I’m starting to make plans. I’m remembering to live. Memento vivere. The sun is shining.
Julia Cho is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among others. She writes on themes of loss, parenting and technology. She is currently working on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @studiesinhope and on Instagram at @studiesinhope.juliacho.