A twitter stream just made me cry. Not just a little sympathy moistness, but that slow, swollen, throat-searing kind of crying. The still-tearing-up-half-an-hour-later kind. The fuck-it-I-have-to-write kind.
It was really just a handful of so very modest messages.
Amanda (@TrappedAtMyDesk) died of brain cancer. She tweeted her diagnosis, quitting her job, the last trip she took, and then she tweeted the night before she entered the hospital for the last time.
Her last few tweets were of wonder… a kind of awed poetry:
. i left my iPhone on the kitchen table before I went to Cuba + Central America for two months. The people were spectacular— Amanda (@TrappedAtMyDesk) March 25, 2013
Went travelling, @spydergrrl
I did – went to Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, panama, @Cedgell
Started to get v sick, so I came home, @spydergrrl
It was amazing. Beaches, cages, ruins, forest, huge turtles, cheap booze, dancing, learning Spanish, meeting people…
From scary phone call through world exploration to her last hospital check-in, she wrote just 20 tweets. 289 words. 1640 characters. She didn’t even use up her full allotment of 2800 characters.
That’s what made me cry so hard. Not her diagnosis, not her loss itself, but that brevity. That gentle, straightforward awe.
It’s not that she was “brave.” I’m sure she cursed her luck, her body, her god. I’m sure she was scared, and I’m sure she was weak. We all are.
But she let it make her live.
She grabbed onto life as best she could and wrung out the last few drops before the lights fell forever at last.
I think… I think about death more than the average person.
I think about it because for a long, long time, I didn’t live. The chaos and the abuse I grew up with left me a little heart of stone. I couldn’t feel. I was afraid.
Then one day, the cracks opened up.
I sat with it.
“Sat.” That sounds so passive, but it was the hardest thing I’ve done. To, for once, not run, and hide, or strike out, screaming, but to sit there and break open and wash away.
To someone whose very survival had always depended on iron control, it was terrifying. I remember exactly where I was the first time, what I was doing, what it felt like. I can feel the hair on my face and the snot and my chest muscles clenching.
I couldn’t imagine a life beyond that moment. It felt like I was going to die.
Memento Mori. It means “a reminder of mortality.” I like the translation, “Remember you shall die.”
It’s the prospect of death that gives life its best flavor.
Contemplating your own mortality unmasks so many things of great importance — drama, politics, hatred, riches — for the dull shams that they are.
It shines a light on the seemingly unimportant little details — what you did today, how recently you’ve helped a friend — and they glitter.
That first time that I sat, and stayed, I found that I couldn’t hold up the lies any more. My idea of “who I was” was a carapace built to defend me, but instead it became a prison. That fortress of identity died on the operating table because I couldn’t both face it, and sustain it.
The walls broke down… and I found nothing inside.
I learned the meaning of “existential terror.”
It was a small death, but sometimes I think of this as my afterlife. The only one I’ll get to experience.
When I die, I know nothing will matter to me any more. I believe in absolutely nothing. I believe in total oblivion. I’m not afraid of “me” ceasing to exist because in a small way, I’ve already experienced it.
But I hope that people will say of me that I was kind, and giving, and thoughtful, that they could count on me. That I made them laugh. That I helped them feel valuable and capable. That I was there, when I could be. That I made their lives a little bit better by being in it. That I loved them, and they loved me. That I felt deeply, even if I didn’t show it. That even at my worst I was striving to be better.
Not because it’ll matter to me any more, but because it will mean I had mattered to myself, so I could matter to them.
Most people know me as easy-going, light-hearted, funny, dirty, glib. But it was the existential terror that freed me to be that way.
I wanted to make a point here about the meaninglessness of ambition. I’m crying right now and it seems crass to even try. But it’s important.
“Ambitious” and “successful” and “wealthy” and “enviable” have no place in that list.
Trying to capital-a Achieve, the scrabbling to tie down some measure of immortality, to give the inevitable the middle finger… bitterly, ironically, leads to neglecting, manipulating, and sullying the few valuable and untarnishable things in this life. And most of those untarnishable things are people.
People, feelings, and stuff. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.
And stuff comes in at a very distant third.
I don’t know what Amanda was like as a person, or what her last name is, or what she looked like. I think, from her tweets, that she had that breaking open moment… she let herself feel that existential terror and it freed her to embrace the world with the time she had left. I am both heartbroken for her, and delighted for her. But that is just speculation, really.
I do know that, even though her username was @TrappedAtMyDesk, in the end, she wasn’t.
She faced oblivion and danced with it until she couldn’t dance any more.
The people were amazing.
Get my next bootstrappy gettin-shit-done essay delivered straight to your inbox. (And be first in line for tickets & discounts.) Drop your name in the box!