How Am I Going to Die?
Photo by Fey Marin / Unsplash

How Am I Going to Die?

When you're in your 20s death is a theory rather than a forgone conclusion. Now that I'm middle-aged, it's become an unhealthy obsession.

I started fantasizing about my death when I was a kid. My childhood finale fantasy included no cause, only hordes of mourners weeping in unison, practically raising the roof of the world with their collective wailing. Good grief. Great grief.

Every person who had ever done me wrong — fake friends, mean teachers, mocking siblings, and parents who wielded belts as disciplinary tools — would reconsider: Why weren’t they nicer to me when I was still one of the living. Once they cried out all their tears, they’d have to figure out how to carry on without me. It was like a scene straight out of what Dorothy Zbornak dubbed “Blanche: The Miniseries” in an episode of The Golden Girls where Blanche Devereaux told a possibly tall tale about the time she faked her death as petty payback to her entire hometown for “valuing my personality over my perfect body” and awarding her the Miss Congeniality runner-up prize in the Miss Magnolia Blossom contest.

When you’re twentysomething and below, it’s easier to romanticize death and/or regard it as an agent of revenge. Back then, it was still more theory than impending reality, so it didn’t feel morbid at all that I was working out my funeral playlist in my head before I even turned 30. Track one: “Time to Say Goodbye” by Sarah Brightman, without — I repeated, without — Andrea Bocelli on co-vocals.

My romance with the version of death soundtracked solo by Brightman began several years after I saw a dead body for the first time. That was during the summer of 1991 when I was a reporter intern for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. My editor had sent me to a lower-middle-class Charlotte neighborhood to report on a double homicide, and there it was, sprawled out on a front porch that didn’t look so much unlike the entry to my childhood home in Kissimmee, Florida. Oh, God, I remember thinking. Why did he have to be Black?

Even now, when I think of that lifeless body, I see a mental replay of the death scene I conjured in my head after the cops gave me all the details (which had something to do with a drug deal gone bad). In it, the dead man running is dashing up to that very spot where I saw him, before being hit by a bullet and falling in a heap to the ground, flat on his stomach. All these years later, the pre-death sequence I never actually saw is as vivid as my memory of the corpse.

It would take another decade, the passing of several friends, and September 11 to snap me out of my death fantasy for good. Once it was behind me, there was no going back. Nowadays, “Time to Say Goodbye” doesn’t have quite the same mythic ring that it did in 1997 (it’s been downgraded from haunting to haunted). I wouldn’t dream of death being an agent of revenge anymore. Revenge is now a dish best served alive on daytime soap operas.

The further I advance into middle age, the more the death of every famous person leaves me seeing visions of my own future. These days, my initial horror over the death of any celebrity under 50 has less to do with the loss of the celebrity, or the family they left behind, than it does with their relatively young age. Although I hate to admit it, I feel a wave of relief wash over me every time the cause of death is revealed not to have been natural, and I’m spared my heartbeat accelerating and an already-hypochondriacal mind being sent even more into overdrive. On the long list of things that could possibly lead to my dying young(ish), a drug overdose probably isn’t one of them.

How we react to death — that of others or the thought of our own — is one of the main differences between the young and the older and wiser. Once upon a time, it was all about the aftermath — not in the religious afterlife sense but in how life would go on for everyone else. Now it almost completely revolves around the cause and effect, what will go down in the home stretch (a development that’s reflected in how I now remember that corpse in Charlotte). In 20 years, maybe I’ll be more focused on what, if anything, comes next, only for me and not for everyone else.

Look what I stumbled upon in Lisbon last month — a pile of R.I.P. memorials. (Photo by author)

Among my current death concerns, sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. Not so much how it would feel — though I have a fairly high threshold for pain, I’m not about to start courting it — but how my emotions would lead me to react. Would I keep it to myself? Would I tell a few friends only? Would I shout it from the rooftop, albeit a virtual one, by posting it as my Facebook status update?

In perhaps a nod to my funeral-obsessed youth, I wonder how others would react. Would they “like” it or send me private emails of condolences and/or encouragement? Would lurkers who delude themselves into thinking we’re in touch because they read my status updates finally reach out to me via private message?

Most importantly, and reflective of where my head is at now, I think about what kind of illness would be killing me slowly, or quickly, and what my treatment options might be.

All that may be moot since I’ve pretty much convinced myself that I already know how I’ll die. Unfortunately, it’s not quietly and peacefully in my sleep. On the plus side, it’s not prolonged and painful either — despite the words of the palm reader who once told me to expect a long life with a lengthy period of illness at the end. If I know myself, I probably won’t even see death coming. The last thing I hear will likely be Vrooooom…!

But then, if I made it out of Cape Town alive after living there for one year, from 2013 to 2014, I can probably make it across any street still breathing. Considering the reckless driving that was rampant in Cape Town, where to be behind the wheel was apparently to regard pedestrians as people on a sidewalk might regard ants crawling between cracks in the pavement, there was probably more chance of it happening there than anywhere else.

I had several close calls, one of them during a cool-down walk home after a morning run. I’m pretty sure I was in the wrong — in Cape Town, apparently, the person on foot always was — but I wondered if it ever occurred to drivers there that if they had enough time to honk their horn, they probably had sufficient time to slow down to avoid hitting the clueless pedestrian too engrossed in the music blasting through his earbuds to look back and check for approaching cars turning left while crossing the entry to a convenience store’s parking lot.

When my life flashed before my eyes, in those final 30 frames a second, there were no flowers, no urn for my ashes, and no hysterical mourners. At the end, the only thing I saw was an angry driver stomping up and down, cursing the day I was born and the day I had died because my ambulatory incompetence had made him miss not only the green light, but his morning workout, too.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of Jeremy Heligar's work on Medium.