Author’s Note: When I wrote this piece, I had no idea that COVID19 was just beginning to make its way through the US. Indeed, the first death was only 5 days after I clicked ‘publish.’ I thought about taking the post down, but decided against it. Maybe it will get people thinking about their lives and how they really want to be living them after having so much time to reflect (or at least in the states with the mandatory stay at home orders). Maybe COVID19 is the wake up call we needed after watching so many people suffer through this pandemic. Maybe it will lead to greater focus on what’s truly important for billions of people. I don’t know. Maybe nothing will change but here’s hoping billions will get a chance to fill a 2021 calendar with hundreds of events.
“I’d like to buy a calendar,” she told the Barnes & Noble clerk on a very sunny day in mid-December.
The clerk started walking with purpose, expecting the woman to follow, “You can find calendars right over there. Would you like me to show you?” He asked the woman without waiting for her answer.
“Yes, thank you.”
In the next instant, she opened her mouth and dropped an unexpected bombshell into the dust speckled layers of sun streaming through the enormous store windows, “My doctor said I only have a year left to live,” she added breezily to the exchange with the clerk, as if she were talking about the weather or a movie she watched last night, “and I’d like a calendar to cross off the days.”
It was the week before Christmas and the older woman was in search of a calendar so that she could count down her final days of life.
I felt such compassion for the relatively young store clerk. How does one reply to that bit of shockingly intimate news given so freely by a stranger, especially during a time of year when most people are buying holiday gifts for friends and loved ones.
Calendars, when purchased for others as gifts, are thoughtfully wrapped with an expectation that the recipient will be around to tear off each sheet as the year passes.
When bought for oneself, calendars might be aimed at achieving goals like learning a new word each day or a foreign language.
There’s no calendar for marking off the last days of one’s life. I know, I looked.
This was one of those extraordinarily rare times in a 250,000 square foot bookstore with ten billion words, written in a multitude of languages, covering every topic on Earth, where there’s nothing appropriate or profound one can say to an older woman ticking off the last tocks of life.
My ears overheard the interaction between the Barnes & Noble salesperson and the older woman but I did not dare lift my eyes to see the two people engaged in the end-of-life calendar search. I know it was partly due to my fear of actually staring death in the face. I was too much of a coward to see what surrendering to the end of life looks like on another. And surrendering oneself with so much anticipation rather than dread.
I’ll admit I’ve rubbernecked car accidents as I’ve passed by (probably because I knew I couldn’t truly see the victim) but because the calendar woman was right in front of me, death was a little too close for comfort, and I couldn’t make myself look up. Every superstitious bone in my body was tingling.
I don’t know which calendar she eventually settled on— I didn’t want to know at the time but I must admit curiosity is making me wonder now.
The conversation got me thinking, though, as I walked away as quickly as possible from the dying-inside clerk and the actual dying woman: if 2020 was my last year on Earth, which calendar would I choose? Which calendar would you choose?