In the waning hours of my 27th birthday, I learned that someone with whom I’d been briefly acquainted had died.
We had met exactly twice: at an old friend’s college graduation party, and then again at the same friend’s wedding a few years later. I don’t recall what, if anything, we spoke about on either occasion, but she seemed to be a pleasant enough person. A smoker, who spent a significant portion of the grad party burning through cigarettes while chatting with my parents. Best friends with the bride, who seemed on the brink of joyful tears the entire ceremony and reception.
She was someone who mattered a great deal to people who matter a great deal to me, and therefore the shock and pain they felt also resonated in my own heart and gut. The transitive property of grief.
I think about death often. Show me an artist, writer, or thinker who doesn’t.
Death was already on my mind on my 27th birthday. I’d spent at least part of the day thinking about Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, Winehouse, Morrison. I spent some time reading about the 27 Club and learned about Fredo Santana, who died in 2018—he was born the same year as my sister.
I don’t buy the superstition that 27 is a cursed number; lots of people die every day at ages other than 27. But as a person who thinks often of death, of course my own 27th birthday led me to that particular Wikipedia page. Of course I spent at least a few minutes of my 27th birthday wondering if any famous musicians my age are going to die this year. Of course I spent part of my 27th birthday wondering if I myself would.
I don’t know how my acquaintance died, nor would I disclose it here if I did, but I have learned a few things about how she lived.
She was a singer and actor who loved Broadway. She played Eliza in a community theatre production of My Fair Lady, and from what I understand in reading about the performance, she was magnificent. People in the New Jersey community theatre space mourned her on Facebook; the theatre at which she played Eliza donated to an animal welfare fund in her honor, as she was a passionate lover of pets.
I don’t mean to write a hagiography of someone I didn’t know. She was human, prone I am sure to pettiness, spite, and animosity. But that would describe any of us. Once our time comes, each of us will leave behind a legacy, big or small, of goodness and badness. There will be the people we loved, those we hurt, and those to whom we did both.
Ultimately, this person meant a lot to her community, including some people who mean a lot to me, and so she meant a lot to me too. The transitive property of love. An abject lesson in how easily we impact our little corners of the world.
As someone who often thinks about death, I often think about untimely death. I’m afraid of my own untimely death. Though I have mostly made peace with the fact that one day I will die, I want that day to be as far in the future as possible. Moreover, I want to know when it’s coming. I don’t want to die in the middle of things, with some incomplete projects or unresolved arguments hanging over my legacy. I want to know my deadline to wrap things up.
If you think that’s a ridiculous desire, it’s because it is a ridiculous desire. Still, I want it.
I think I’m like most people in my fear untimely death. Isn’t that what the 27 Club is all about? We speak of these artists as luminaries, too brilliant for this world, who died while they still had their whole lives ahead of them. Of course, they did not have their whole lives ahead of them, but instead behind them. Nevertheless, we mourn what might have been.
We are fascinated by these young deaths because we are haunted by them, knowing in our hearts that it could have been, could one day be any of one of us.
My acquaintance was 31 when she died.
Again, I don’t know what happened, but I do wonder if and how often she pondered her own mortality, whether the fact of its inevitability occurred to on the day she died. She was a creative person, engaged in an art that sometimes asks big question, so maybe she did and did often. Maybe she didn’t. I have no way of finding out.
I am 27 years old as of writing this. I’ve been 27 years old for about 48 hours.
I’ve thought about death every day for the better part of my adult life. Every pain in my side, every city bus that cuts a turn too close to the curb, every panic attack during which my heart races in my chest and my head becomes feathery, every cut that takes a little too long to stop bleeding, the specter of illness in a broken healthcare system, the impending wrath of the planet for generations of abuse, the omnipresent threat of nuclear warfare, the sinking feeling I get when I find myself in a subway car or elevator with large groups of the types of straight men who look askance at androgynous people like me.
I don’t know how to live without thinking about death, so it is possible, even very likely, that the day I die I will spend at least part of the day thinking about my own death.
The hardest truth to swallow is that death doesn’t care about your plans. Death didn’t care that Cobain was the leader of the biggest band in the world, nor that he had a young daughter to raise. Death didn’t care that Hendrix had spent the day before making career plans with his manager. Death didn’t care that Joplin had a session that day. Death didn’t care that Winehouse, Morrison, and Fredo Santana were just young people struggling with substance abuse.
Death did not care that my acquaintance had dream roles she hadn’t yet gotten to play, and death doesn’t care that I have this essay to write, nor that you aren’t done reading it. Death only cares about death, and enacting itself when and where and how it sees fit.
If that feels like a bleak place to leave things, consider this: the entirety of human experience is so diverse that no two people, no matter how alike, live exactly the same lives. Consequently, death is the only truly universal experience.
Every living thing—humans, animals, bugs, planets, stars, and the universe itself—dies.
It is the one thing we all have in common, thus it is nothing special.
Instead, let’s find special in our lives. Let’s find it in writing and reading, playing guitar, singing showtunes or rock ballads, caring for animals, cooking meals for our families (chosen or otherwise), loving people as much as we are able.
The point I’m getting at might seem sentimental. Probably is. Why, though? Is it sentimental because it is unrealistic, over-rife with optimism? Or is “sentiment” a code word for “discomfort”?
We call sentiments like “chase your bliss” and “live in the moment” cheesy, saccharine, overly-sincere, but only because the motivation behind them is the discomfiting fact of our mortality:
“Chase your bliss [because otherwise you’ll die unhappy.]”
“Live in the moment [because your moments are finite.]”
You or I could die right now, right this very second. Even if we don’t, we will one day, one second. All I want for myself, for you, and for everyone I’ve ever loved, like, or even despised, is as many nuggets of joy, warmth, and safety as one can cram into the one life they have.
If each of us strove to do that, I believe by the transitive property of life, the looming shadow of death would be much less scary.
D.R. Baker is the founder and editor of Tiny Essays. Their writing has appeared at Book Riot, Submittable, HowlRound, Memoir Mixtapes, and others. As a musician, they have played guitar and bass for various acts over the past decade. Raised in New Jersey, educated in Ohio, and with brief forays into Michigan and Nevada, Dan now lives in New York City with their partner.