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Opinion: What a 91-year-old taught me about appreciating death

People are always telling us to live each day as if it’s our last, but few of us actually do this, for two good reasons. The first is that if you really thought today was your last day, you wouldn’t pay the utility bill or save for retirement, and pretty soon you’re in the dark eating canned beans over an open flame. And the second reason is that we don’t like to think about death or dying, except as something that happens to other people.

A few years ago I met a man named John Sorensen, who taught me how to think about death, and it changed my life. He was 91 and he missed his partner of 60 years, and every time I visited him he said he wanted to die. He wasn’t depressed or even sad – in fact, talking about dying always got him in a good mood. Wanting to die was the best reason to live.

What I mean is this. John loved opera and he loved old movie musicals. Wanting to die meant noting that this might be the last time he heard Jonas Kaufmann sing Wagner or watched Gene Kelly singing in the rain. And this meant that he never took them for granted. They became more worthy of his attention. The same went for visits from friends. It’s a classic economy of scarcity. His days weren’t fleeting, they were supersaturated with chosen pleasures.

In our culture we’ve come to think of death as a kind of failure, whether of medicine or survival instinct, rather than seeing mortality as built into all of our days, the first as much as the last. Viewing death as unrelated to life, or antithetical to it, does a disservice to the days we have, because we don’t know how to value them. We enjoy a movie more knowing it’s going to end in a couple hours. So we don’t run out for popcorn in the middle, because we don’t want to miss anything. That ski run in the Swiss Alps? It’s only fun because you know there’s a bottom. The end of the run gives each curve meaning, even when you’re still near the top of the mountain.

I’ve heard this acceptance of death from most of the older people I’ve spent time with. But we don’t have to wait until we’re 91 to enjoy it.

We should rethink what it means to live every day as if it’s your last. The way I learned it from John, it means embracing that part of the end that exists in this moment, and then in the next. You don’t have to quit your job or stop paying your utility bill. There’s enough to live for in the things you’re already doing. You can feast fully on each brush with a stranger, each moment with friends, each kiss or caress. There’s a little bit of mortality in all of them. And that, I learned, is reason to be happy.