During a recent car trip up and down the East Coast of the United States, I found myself sitting in frequent bumper-to-bumper traffic. Much of it seemed to be caused by nervous drivers who no longer trusted their own reflexes, and who kept one foot on the brake at all times. Often accompanying these hours of glacial progress were the taunting lyrics to a song that advised you to “dance like it’s the last night of your life.” This was a long journey, and radio stations were coming and going with great frequency, so I got to hear the song — I’m estimating here — about fifteen thousand times. I’d somehow tuned out the endless car dealership commercials and the many heartfelt wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, but those relentless words managed to work their way to the surface of my conscious mind.
“The last night of my life?” I thought. “Dance?”
I don’t know about you, but if it were the last night of my life, I don’t imagine I’d feel much like dancing. I’d probably prefer to spend the time doing something more constructive, like howling in despair or repeatedly hitting something with a crowbar. Besides, how would I know it was the last night of my life? I’d have to be extremely sick to be hovering that close to death. Would I be up to hovering and dancing? The two seem mutually exclusive. And if I wasn’t sick, that would mean I was going to die by getting run over by a train, or being hit by lightning, or finding myself in the crossfire of a gang war. There would be no time to dance, and if there were, I’m not sure how it would help or if it would even occur to me. Running might be more beneficial.
Still, this notion of being aware that you’re at the end of your life has always intrigued me. In Catholic school we were taught that God had a book, and in this book were inscribed our names and the exact dates of our death. Or something like that. I never got the whole story about anything when I was a kid, which always left me trying to piece together answers to big questions with just a few raggedy strands of information. There was a book, that much I was sure of. There may have been two books: one for those going to Heaven, and the other for the rest of us. Long before Judgment Day, apparently, our fate had already been recorded, which was somewhat disturbing. But it was the word inscribed that both confused and scared the daylights out of me. I remember wondering why God would need books. Was it an indication of an overworked all-powerful being? Did it mean there was some possibility for a clerical error? Could something be erased from one book and inscribed in the other? I had this actual thought: “Maybe God writes in pencil.” And most important, where were these books, anyway?
We would never see the books, and therefore had no way of discovering what they contained or where we were headed. Which now makes me think of the person waiting on death row, that rare individual who knows when he will die, maybe down to the precise minute. And that idea of the final dance reminds me of the condemned man’s last meal, served just hours before his execution. Again, would I feel like eating if I knew that I’d soon be strapped into the electric chair or given a lethal injection? I tend to lose my appetite if a bug hits my windshield. I imagine the warden standing over me, demanding that I stop playing with my food, the way my third-grade nun insisted that we eat those hideous green beans because there were children starving in some far-off place. She was stationed at the spot in the cafeteria where we emptied our trays, which gave her a chance to effectively scrutinize any leftovers on our plates. We devised counter-strategies, of course. These included secretly passing food under the lunch table to Marvin Pierce (who would eat anything), and when he wasn’t available, stuffing beef stew into an empty milk carton and learning to toss it with minimal splash.
But there’s slightly less privacy in prison. What must it be like to know that what you’re eating, hearing, and looking at will be the last experiences of your life? And if you had the choice — beyond the final meal — what would those experiences be? I’ve heard of people who, dying of a rare disease, worked like crazy to complete their law school degrees. Others take their dream vacation or finish writing a novel or start trombone lessons. But really, how do you relish any accomplishment when you know it’s your last? How does that thought not seep into, and contaminate, every moment of potential joy?
I understand that the song isn’t necessarily talking about dancing in the literal sense. It’s saying we should live each day as though it might be our last, that whatever we’re doing, we should do it with passion and enthusiasm. I just don’t think that attitude works for me. I need something to look forward to. Also, I’ve been around passionate people and they tend to talk loud, which after about an hour makes my skull vibrate. When I’m the one being enthusiastic, I usually start moving too quickly for my own brain and I end up with some self-inflicted injury, like when I pull hard to unplug an electric cord and punch myself in the mouth.
I’ve behaved impulsively many times in my life, and it rarely works out. It’s better if I slow down. In fact, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is the safest place for me. It gives me time to think things through, to make decisions with no possibility of acting on them, and then more time to think again.
But sooner or later I’ll realize that my days are numbered. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to driving when I’m very old. I have no intention of being like the other elderly motorists I see on the road, inching out of parking spaces, resting their foot on the brake pedal, and plodding along at twenty miles under the speed limit. I’m going to plaster a big sign on the side of my car that says, “My reflexes are totally gone. Watch out.” And then I’m going to drive to Florida and back as fast as I can, with the radio blasting and dancing behind the wheel like it’s the last night of my life. And if that causes my name to be inscribed in some book somewhere, well, it sure beats hovering. Or getting run over by a train.