18,987. Eighteen thousand. Nine hundred. Eighty-seven.
That’s not the cost of my first car, nor the amount of my first salary. 18,987 is the number of days I have lived. My father did not get as many.
I realize my Rain Man-like exactitude may seem like I have too much time on my hands. And, to be clear, I’m not writing my own version of the iconic Rent song, “Seasons of Love,” asking how to measure a year (or years, for that matter.)
For me, this number is symbolic because this month I’m approaching the 26th anniversary of my father’s death. It’s also my 52nd birthday — which means I will have lived longer without my father than with him. It also means I will surpass the age my father was when he died.
My self-made prophecies notwithstanding — and perhaps thanks to a combination of destiny, karma, and good old-fashioned luck — I made it past the dreaded Big 5-1, the age I was convinced I’d succumb to the same ill fate of my father. After all, I had inherited his green eyes and his love of dark chocolate, black-raspberry ice cream, and old movies — surely, I reasoned, I’d follow in his footsteps to a life cut short.
The proverbial clock ticked louder after each birthday. Each month, calendar pages turned, bringing me one step closer to the end of my days. Rationally, I knew my demise at age 51 was purely fabricated. But ask anyone who lost a parent when they were young: that immortal age suspending a parent in time is like a giant magnet with a force stronger than physics could explain. We live in the shadow of our own personal expiration date.
People are often eulogized as dying “in medias res,” in the middle of the story. I find that interesting. After all, aren’t we all still in the middle of our story? And so, as the memory of my father becomes larger than life — precisely because he’s been a memory longer than he was an actual part of my life — I wonder: How do I measure a life? Just what makes my story complete?
The director Jean-Luc Godard once said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” Must my story start at the beginning? Does every chapter count? Does “The End,” written on the last page really mean the story is over? How many times have I finished a book not wanting it to end? I often want just one more page, one more chapter, one more day. But would it make a difference? Good stories linger long after the book is finished. The memory of someone’s life, their legacy, lingers, too. Their story may be complete, but it is far from over.
After my father died, a colleague gave me “The Station,” by Robert Hastings, a poem about life being the journey, not the destination. A week later, I quit my high-powered advertising job. My tattered copy reminds me of the poem’s impact upon me, and the colleague who predicted my lifelong theme. How did he recognize me as an eager 26-year-old who was fixated on the destination, rather than the stops along the way? Since then, my former colleague’s insight inspired me to spend more quality time with my children and forge new career paths: synagogue director, lingerie shop owner and, finally, to follow my passion as a writer.
As this milestone of my father’s death approached, I think that, over the years, I learned to pay more attention to the ride instead of planning to get off the train at the same station my father did. Somehow, I learned to live like I was dying.
I grew up following my father’s lead, striving to be like him. Now that I’ve passed the age he was when he died, I have nothing left to compare myself to. My tour guide is gone, and I must find my own path. I will never know what my father would have looked like with grey hair. I don’t know what kind of grandfather he would have been. Would he still be playing golf? Would he have chosen a new profession in his 50s?
I don’t know what advice he would give me, but I do know this: His life was not measured in minutes, or cups of coffee, or the number of pages in his story. Self-fulfilling prophecies are crippling, creating the imaginary situations I fear most: headaches become brain tumors, sun spots become skin cancer, indigestion becomes heart attacks. At 52, I am learning to let this go. Of course, I should pay attention to my family history, but notions of fatalism ultimately cause more harm than good.
Instead, I will commemorate my father’s yahrzeit and celebrate my birthday with joy (and a giant sigh of relief). I will spend the day with my children and my loved ones, and I will treasure the knowledge that while my father may be forever young, his story — along with mine — continues to be written.