What do an empty hospital walkway and a canal in an open field have in common? Nothing, except that I was there on each occasion to take the picture, and at both times mortality was on my mind.
Last Christmas eve, as I traversed the deserted corridors of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the few sentences cycling through my mind struck me as rather poetic. “In the end, there’s very little that matters a lot,” was one of them. The other: “In order not to die, one must live.”
But several months prior, before my mother was hospitalized for spinal surgery, I had already been thinking about mortality.
While on a morning walk in a field behind where I live, I had stared into the depths of an open canal and tried to calculate the height at which a person could fall in without dying. Though I wasn’t actually contemplating the act, I also knew this sudden fascination with the physics of falling from a height ran deeper than morbid curiosity.
The thing about red flags is sometimes we just don’t want to see them. And when they do appear we either ignore them, make excuses, or believe we are the exception to the rule. Well when I say we, I really mean me. Why was the thought of falling into a canal to avoid having to deal with a person I dreaded more appealing than the simple act of taking one step in a new direction?
In case I haven’t been obvious enough, what I’m trying to say is: change is scary for me. This can explain my initial reluctance to remove myself from a toxic person and the environment we shared. Even while recognizing there was no feasible way to excise this person from my life without also giving up the territory that came with it, I expended considerable energy trying to find some middle ground. Spoiler alert: I never found it. That’s days, weeks, months and years I could’ve spent taking better care of myself instead of agonizing over a foregone conclusion.
That same year, I spent a somewhat depressing Christmas in hospital with my family. Everyone else appeared to be out celebrating or attending a religious service, but we were instead contending with several complications resulting from my mother’s slow and painful recovery. And in those sobering few weeks, when the only thing I could think about was mortality, I levelled my gaze at the red flags of my own life and heard what they were trying to tell me all along: get off this dead-end road.
All the things that used to terrify me—switching gears, changing courses, making a detour, taking another turn, discarding an existing map, getting a new one, or just being comfortable travelling without a map for awhile—I did it, in just one tiny step. Sure it was scary (it still is), but I had to keep on keeping on.
After all, as someone once came to realize one Christmas eve in an empty hospital hallway: “In order not to die, one must live.”