The Last Time I Died (a short story)

I went to the woods to die alone. I had heard some time or other that it was common in hunter-gatherer societies for the very elderly to walk off from their community, sit down, and wait for death. It was really stupid and ridiculous for me to imitate this. It was perfect. I loved the whole idea.

I felt the time was right. Something in me had ripened, or perhaps withered. I was tired of listless days, scraping by on my pitiful, public pension. My parents were long dead. My only brother was dead. I had never been blessed with a family of my own. The few good friends I’d made in life were dead. I had been around the sun exactly 77 times. It was almost curious that I had waited this long, until my 77th birthday, to die. I got all bundled up, grabbed my cane, and headed to the state park, conveniently located near my home.

The air felt cold and fresh on my sagging cheeks as I walked the winding path, with crisp brown leaves and glittering frost crunching beneath my feet. Gentle wind tossed my few white strands of hair. “How delightful,” I marveled, laboriously hiking on my old man’s legs, step by step, deeper into the woods. 

I came to a sharp bend in the path, but the land ahead was sufficiently flat enough and clear, I reasoned, that if I kept going straight I could walk far enough (without stumbling and falling over) to a place where nobody would find me prematurely. 

Off the path I went, shuffling across the frozen and sleeping forest floor, between merry oaks and maples. “Marvelous. Just marvelous,” I delighted. I tried to savor the last walk of my life, but eventually I wearied of it. I found a grand, old tree with roots protruding from the ground like arms of a chair. “This will do,” I said to myself and began the difficult work of lowering my stiff, tired body, taking my dying seat against that tree.

Eventually I sat all the way down on the ground and rested my back on the mighty trunk. My huffing and puffing settled after a while, and I found myself in a stillness that opened all around, above and below. 

“You old fool!” I laughed, tickled by my ridiculous decision to come die here this morning. I loved it. It really was perfect. I smiled and gazed up at the sky.

A crow flew overhead and squawked as if to wish me good morning. I raised my hand to wave and return its greeting, but the crow continued its flight indifferently, and I realized it hadn’t been greeting me at all. I lowered my hand. How awkward. I suppose the crow was like most people I had known in life. They were only interested if you were something to eat or fornicate. I supposed the crow would return when my mind had left my body. Pity I wouldn’t be there to enjoy it.

My thoughts drifted along a usual course, through the profound and mundane, just as if I had chosen my habitual porch-sitting rather than coming here to die today.

Hours passed and cold began to set in, and then hunger. I didn’t really mind. My body was giving it’s usual survival signals, but a voice from the depths of my heart whispered, “Hush, hush, dear body. We are all done now. Please just rest.” The pains rebelled at this and grew more urgent for a while, but finally they gave up.

I always expected the bodily pains to be the worst part of dying, but my aged bag of bones was like a withered autumn leaf, ready to fall away in nature’s course. No, it was only after my stem was gently plucked from the branch of life that the terror and torture began.

My crisp view of the trees set against the darkening winter sky began to blur. The rustling of leaves in the breeze and the occasional chitter of a squirrel became muffled and indistinct. I could no longer find an object of perception to put any name to. I lived all my life knowing where my body began and ended, just at the surface of my skin, of course! Now this sense of my body’s outline began to dissolve. Sight, smell, touch, and thought, all of which I had taken for granted as a unity held together within a self, drifted apart like hands that could no longer find each other, feet that couldn’t find a ground.

As my familiar senses fell into disarray, something below them was revealed, something that immediately began fading. I was losing some fundamental sense of being, a sense I had never noticed until now, just as I felt it pull away slowly like a wave never to return to shore. 

I had lived a life of painful longing for love, some kind of success, some kind of spiritual connection. I had lived a life of hard work and discipline. The fact of my existence seemed a problem to be solved, a demand to achieve. And now I could see how every night I sat in despair and wished for true love or a message from the angels was misguided and self-inflicted suffering, an anxious distraction from the fragile flower of my beautiful life. The humble, miraculous, and simple feeling of life, always too close for me to behold it, only came into my view now, as it was leaving.

How foolish I was to never appreciate my being! So often I had thought I was cursed for having the thoroughly absurd misfortune of being born at all! But my being! Life! Beneath all the trivial layers of experience! Precious being! I had wasted it! Wasted it! You old fool! Wasted it!

There is nothing I can say to describe the fear and chaos of what followed. Nothing.

I’m going to stop writing now anyway, because I’m tired and recess starts in just a few minutes.

I’m telling you all of this, Ms. Flandry, because I hope you will not waste this life as I wasted my last one. Frankly, you should quit teaching. My kindergarten teacher in my last life really cared about us. Maybe you used to like kids and teaching, but we can all tell you don’t anymore. And it’s only the first week of school. You would be happier if you quit and took some time to be quiet and alone, so you can feel your precious life. Also, can we please get a snack other than graham crackers? Ok. See you after lunch.