by JAMILA RIZVI
One of my dearest friends is facing the very real prospect of losing her father. And when I spoke to her on the phone yesterday I was – for one of the first times in 26 years – actually lost for words.
You see, I’m good with words. I’m an avid talker. I write for a living. I can bullshit my way through any meeting. I’m the first to give (often unwanted) advice to my friends. I’ve never lived alone because I’d go crazy and talk to the walls. I used to be a speechwriter – I mean, words are my most bankable talent.
But yesterday, I had nothing to say.
I don’t think about death very often.
I’m not religious. Partly because I’m too literal to believe in the unseen, partly because my parents didn’t raise me that way and partly because I’m lazy.
When you’re religious you’re forced to think about death on a regular basis. A firm and considered belief that there is something more after we die, requires an intellectual engagement with what that might be. Religion also tends to involve a whole lot of rituals and obligations that mean you’re regularly encouraged to revisit and reflect on what death means.
Atheism brings with it the luxury of not really having to think about it. But it also means that when death does come hurtling into your world – you can be caught unawares and left ill equipped to cope with what’s happening.
Right now – when someone I love is facing the scariest moment of her life – I feel like I have nothing to give and no way to support her. That’s because I rarely, if ever, take the time to actually think about the prospect of death. And I’m a lesser person for it.
Why? Because engaging with the idea of your life (or the life of those you love) coming to an end, forces you to think more deeply about what you want your life to be. It forces you to contemplate what actually matters rather than just relentlessly chasing another rung up on the ladder (guilty), or seeking out cheap thrill moments (guilty again), or taking the next step along the path you’ve got carefully planned out for yourself (oh so very guilty).
American artist Candy Chang, when faced with the death of a loved one, turned to her community to find out what was important to each of them.
With help from old and new friends, she turned the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” so anyone walking by can pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.
It was all an experiment. By the next day the wall was entirely filled out and it kept growing. Before I die I want to… sing for millions, see my daughter graduate, straddle the International Date Line, see the leaves change many times, be someone’s cavalry, live off the grid, build a school, hold her one more time, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself…
People’s hopes and dreams made her laugh out loud, tear up, and feel consolation during her own tough times. The wall transformed a neglected space into a constructive one where we can understand our neighbors in new and enlightening ways, restore perspective, and remember we are not alone.
The “Before I die I want to _______” chalkboard has become a phenomenon. Take a look:
The original Before I die wall in New Orleans.
The messages on those chalkboards are as varied as the people who inhabit this earth. Some hope to see their children graduate from university, some want to sing for millions, some want to lead a life of public service, some want to see the Amazon or the Himalayas and some simply want to find a place in the world where they belong.
What would I write if I were filling in my space on that chalkboard today?
Lots of things come to mind. But above all else I can’t help but think of my parents and the parents of my friend.
Almost a third of my generation grew up as the product of broken homes and that proportion will be even larger for the next generation. Most of my school friends and I did not. We were lucky enough to have amazing examples of stable and caring relationships modelled to us each and every day.
There is no substitute for the many positives that can flow from that kind of love; the kind of love that survives into old age and for those who believe it – even further.
Before I die I want to find love that is as strong my parents’ is.
What about you? What would you write?