Saturday, July 13, 2024

How I learned to live by understanding death

I’ve been encircled by death since I was five years old. That’s the age I was when my father killed himself and I learned, before I could read or write, that people die for the most unexpected of reasons.

He and my mother had divorced three years prior, so there hadn’t been any fairy tale stories of how one grows up, gets happily married and has kids, then departs this world for an ever better place. We were alone. Brian’s Song, which I watched uncomfortably, a few years later in elementary school, added another threat to existence—cancer—and Old Yeller made me realize that even the animals could disappear at any moment. 

God didn’t exist in my atheist household, so I held no fancified theories of rhyme or reason in the universe, just forever blackness on a whim. We had pets at our house, lots of them, and I watched a beloved rabbit have a seizure and die in Mom’s arms one colorful summer afternoon. If I’d asked my mother, who looked as upset as I was, she no doubt would have said that the lesson of the day was to enjoy each minute we’re alive, but I was too consumed fear to find reason to rejoice. 

After my early youth I went through a lot of struggles with the idea of death, paralyzed by the very concept of what “it” was, something I was only able to shed after a long period of reading and contemplation and searching for some kind of peace. By the time I hit my college years, in 1983, I thought I’d left death’s grip behind. 

As anyone who lived through the AIDS pandemic knows, that was just the beginning.

While, today, my own feelings about death and dying and the meaning of it all have changed into more of an inquiry than a blank slate, my appreciation for living in the moment has increased exponentially. Being gay hasn’t always been a piece of gluten-free cake, but it has given me a stronger resilience to the perils of breathing as well as a deep belief that wasting time is the deadliest sin alive. Those of us who survive an apocalypse come out of it with armored skin.

After being given a front-seat view of my 89-year-old mother’s slow deterioration from dementia (guess who’s next in line?); after watching another pandemic fill the news with telethon-like rising numbers and, mostly, after watching two wonderful friends succumb to cancer, both gay men, both in the past three years, both who drove through the AIDS years unscathed only to find irony at the end of the road, I made a promise to myself that I’d make meaning of death from my own, un-scriptured devices. For everyone else and for both of them, I vowed to live.

I’m not one of those people who runs around pretending to be happy all the time—I think that’s the work of charlatans and the self-delusional—but every time I find myself nagged by career setbacks, a jilted love, or something as ludicrous as those extra five pounds I can’t shake, I think of my friends and how hard they fought to experience just such struggles.

It’s a breath of fresh air. They didn’t go through chemo and transplants and months in hospitals just so they could enjoy a nice cold beer; they fought to live so they could experience all that life throws at you, the whole snow globe of thrills. Sorrow’s part of the palette. 

While both of my late friends were vastly different on the surface, in income, in their surroundings and backgrounds—one European born and raised, with homes all over the world, the other New York Jewish for generations, from the Bronx—and while they never met, they both shared an insatiable love of the everyday and of starting each morning as an adventure. Neither of them lost that youthful spirit essential to a curious existence, and their outlooks on life rubbed off like a garden hose cleaning the dirt off my shoes. I’m not better for their loss, I’m better from what they lost. When I think of their last moments on earth, I imagine them looking up at me and saying “breathe.”

I’m also learning, day by day, that running away from death isn’t the answer, and that running away from life will kill your spirit. 

My mother, when I visit her in Los Angeles, sparkles with joy at the littlest of things; my dog on her lap, a photo of that cute guy I dated (she still loves gay men), or, recently, while spending the day at my sister’s house, watching Queen’s now-iconic “Live Aid” performance, the gift of music. 

“You know what I’d like you to buy me?” she asked on the way back to assisted living.


“Every Queen record ever made.”

Freddie Mercury’s own death in 1991 served as one of my earliest reminders that, while you’re here, approach each day as the master of ceremonies. 

When I told my mother that I had all of Queen’s albums on my smartphone, she became a kid again. With so much noise in the social media world, we forget all the thrilling advancements technology offers. Every time I FaceTime my mother that gift is not lost on either one of us. Thing is, we often forget the good (it’s always “things were so much better back when…”), more than likely because it’s our easiest, and safest, default position. 

Mom knows that at her advanced age and with her health, joy comes in the smallest of (often taken for granted) pleasures, and she’s not wasting time worrying about war in  Ukraine or what mean people are saying on Twitter. Both need our attention, in different degrees, but at some point, hopefully not by the time you’ve reached your 90th trip around the sun, you need to let go of what’s out of your control and smell those damn flowers people have been telling you about since you were just a kid. 

Ironically, the more death you see the more life you crave. And while the former is inevitable, the latter is often a matter of choice. Since I know that anything can kill me at any moment, I’m going to seize the day that my mother has trouble grasping and my late friends weren’t allowed to. What better way to honor those I’ve lost than to take as much of the cake as I can stuff in my mouth. As for getting older, yeah, some of it sucks, but it’s going to suck a lot more when and if I live to be 89. I’m going to ask that supposedly unattainable guy out, I’m going to pursue goals I’m “too old to try,” hell, I might even take my clothes off and snap a photo. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll die of embarrassment? 

Alternatively, and this is another advantage of being an older gay man, I’ve also learned that so much of the stuff we’re certain is going to wipe us off the planet never bothers to pay us notice. AIDS, nuclear war, that monster under my bed, so far I’ve survived them all, and all of them hovered over my younger days like a rain cloud. I don’t underestimate the threats we face every day, whether it’s Russian bombs or climate change disasters, but I find it practically pointless now to fret over the uncontrollable. Whenever I see one of those “In three words, what would you tell your 16-year-old self?” my answer is always the same: “You’re gonna live.” 

It’s because of death that I feel alive today, and, looked at another way, it’s because of death that I’m alive. This is my time to thrive.

This past February, on one of those ridiculously cold winter nights, I was walking down the street with a good friend, both of us shivering underneath our jackets.

“I’m so tired of this weather,” my friend said, a not uncommon New York winter complaint, and one that I’ve said more times than I could ever count. 

I felt the cold on my face, saw the moon resting above silk clouds, and listened to the hum of an eternally busy city.

“I kind of like it,” I answered, before making my way home to my imperfectly perfect life. 

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David Toussaint

David Toussaint is the writer of five screenplays (with six film festival awards between them) and four best-selling non-fiction books. A professional journalist since the age of 15, he’s written for such publications as Huffington Post, Queerty, and Conde Nast Traveler. Toussaint is also a professional playwright and actor.

David Toussaint has 24 posts and counting. See all posts by David Toussaint

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