One thought, and then another

I guess I’m ready to start circling around to all of the issues that are raised by the loss of Randy. We are so used to dealing with very unimportant things, and telling ourselves that they are important – an argument we had, a concert we missed, some movie that disappointed us. Perhaps on some level this is all a way to avoid thinking about the things that actually matter to us – this life we are mysteriously living, and its fragility.

I remember exactly the moment I first realized that I was not immortal. I don’t mean intellectually, I mean emotionally, deep down in my gut. My dad was driving somewhere his car, I was sitting on the passenger side, and we were talking. He was telling me about the women he had dated before he met my mom. He told me there was one girl, when he was doing his military service, at an army camp down south. He really liked her, and they went on a few dates. But when he was discharged he went back home to New York, and they lost the connection, and eventually they lost touch.

I was completely fascinated, the way you’re always fascinated to discover some part of a parent’s life that you had never known about. As I sat there in my dad’s car, quietly mulling over the story of the girl before my mom, I experienced two thoughts in succession, separated by about a minute.

The first thought was the realization of how impossibly miraculous it was that I had ever been born. If my dad hadn’t broken up with that gal, he wouldn’t have started dating my mom. And then I realized that my birth was dependent on so many things, an infinity of little details that all needed to line up just right for that particular sperm to find that particular egg. If things had gone even ever so slightly differently, whoever showed up in this world wouldn’t have been me, and I simply would not exist.

I had this thought all at once, in a rush of understanding, and for the first time it occurred to me that the probability of my existence – before the fact – wasn’t just low. It was essentially zero. Whereas the probability of my existence after the fact was the opposite: identically one.

And that is when I came to realize, for the first time, what an astonishing gift it is to be alive. Amongst all the myriad of possible humans, potential lives so numerous that the mind cannot conceive of a number so vast, only we fortunate few, a mere six billion or so, have actually made it onto this earth. Every human on the planet is a uniquely miraculous event – we have each beaten impossible odds to be here.

And then, about a minute later, came the second thought: That this astonishing gift of life is not a gift at all, but merely a loan. For one day my life will come to an end, as all lives must. Infinite gain balanced by infinite loss.

And that was the moment I truly understood, for the first time, the meaning of mortality. From that day until this, I have looked at each day differently. Knowing that I have only so many days altogether in this life, I now see every one of those days as something infinitely precious, a cup to be savored, for it can never be refilled.

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