Memento Mori

My son recently got a tattoo that runs the length of his thigh. It features a beautifully-rendered hour glass with a skull leaking from the top to the bottom. Along the top are inscribed the words: memento mori. This is the Latin phrase that means Remember you will die. Reputedly (according to Wikipedia), the phrase was coined in ancient Rome when victorious generals, worried about becoming too hubristic, used slaves to repeat those words during victory marches. Skull imagery referencing memento mori has, over the centuries, been a subject for numerous artists, and Christians have incorporated the phrase as a reminder of the importance of humility,

My son has been thinking about this phrase for a while, and he told me it helped him process my diagnosis. It makes me happy to think that his awareness of mortality may enrich his whole life. I like the phrase better than carpe diem, another oft-quoted Latin phrase that means Seize the day. That, too, a good reminder that our time on Earth is limited, but it lacks the humility associated with memento mori. As my son says, “Less action, more appreciation.”

Unlike my son, I have spent most of my life not believing I would die. I review my life, trying to pinpoint the time when I stopped feeling invincible and began to acknowledge that death really would arrive someday. When I was on the cusp of turning twenty-eight, I had a ruptured ovarian pregnancy that ended in an emergency operation, a loss of over a liter of blood, and a week in the hospital. Without medical intervention I would have bled to death, a fact I understood, but didn’t really believe. When I recovered I barreled forth with my life, relatively unchanged in terms of my relationship to mortality. In my early thirties, my father died, and three weeks later a friend died who was also in her early thirties. The convergence of these two deaths was shocking, and both of them felt “premature”; life had thrown a curve ball, but it still didn’t seem likely to be aimed at me. When I was in my forties another woman friend died. That death was particularly wrenching because she and I had come of age together, and I adored her. Still, after mourning her passing, I went blithely on without a sense of my own vulnerability, in good health but without humility. Looking back on these events it seems surprising to see how deftly I blindered myself.

In my late fifties I was asked to participate in a fundraising effort for a writers’ organization. A naked calendar. I was reluctant, as most people would be. Who needed to see my no-longer-youthful flesh? Of course I wouldn’t do it. But a notion came to me that changed my thinking: In my nineties, I thought, my fifty-something body would look lovely and youthful, wouldn’t it? I was sure I would live into my nineties as my mother and grandmother had. I said yes to the calendar, and I now occasionally look at the picture of me as “Ms. December” and feel amused and cheered. An awareness of mortality was beginning to creep into my outlook.

These days, after leading my life relatively cautiously and finally fully accepting the certainty of death, I’ve been saying yes to things that scare me, even inviting them into my life. After listening to Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, I’ve decided to do a guided psylocibin trip. I have never done any psychedelics before, afraid they might damage my brain, but now I welcome an altered consciousness and whatever insights it might bring. It no longer feels risky as it once did. I have much to gain and little to lose.

Despite being a very private person, I have said yes to a filmmaker who asked to make a documentary about me. My life and routines will be altered for a while; I will have to set my vanity aside if my daily life as a person with ALS is to be shown accurately, but why not? I think it will be an adventure that will open me up, possibly help others with ALS, and be something my family will appreciate after I’m gone. It’s something I would have vetoed until recently.

Another scary thing I’ve agreed to: in-person events when my books come out in September. What that means is that, in answering questions during readings or on panels I will be typing away in public on my text-to-voice device while everyone waits. What if I can only type with one hand when the time comes — won’t that be horribly slow and embarrassing? Even with two hands, it might be slow and embarrassing. Yes, but so what? No one will be there to judge me. The things we fear — humiliation, failure, exposure, etc. — loom so much larger in our own minds than in anyone else’s. Everyone else is worrying about their own possibilities for humiliation and failure and exposure. When I think about the things I might regret when I’m dying it has nothing to do with not having seen Machu Pichu or the Taj Mahal — though I would love to see both of them — instead the regret will come from the things I’ve shied away from due to fear.

One of the reasons I’m interested in the psylocibin trip is because of an article I read a few years ago that left a lasting impression. A psychologist who had reached a difficult juncture in his therapy practice took a guided trip and emerged with one simple maxim: Show up and be open. Those simple words relieved his depression and offered him a way forward. And they have affected me profoundly too, offering a way to face fear head on. I’ve recited them to myself before approaching difficult situations ever since.

I could not be more grateful to my son for bringing these things to my attention again. Remember you will die, but until then, show up and be open.

P.S. Expect to be hearing something about the results of my own psylocibin trip down the line!

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.