12.01am Today, the 29th of July, is my birthday. But it’s unlike any other birthday I’ve ever had. I have just received a message that I have only 24 hours left to live. I’m reading a book right now, a usual affair for that time of night. My time to wind down. I sigh, my inner smile spreading to the corners of my mouth. Crunch time. The end was always going to arrive. Now I have a deadline in the truest sense of the word. And 23 hours, 59 minutes to get sh*t done. The first thing I do is let the news sink in. I allow my mind to wander, first, briefly, into rooms of regret and reminiscence, before ascending some stairs to the loft of dreams and ideas. A mental list of what I want to enjoy on my birthday, my last day, begins to form.
12.45am The second thing I do is roll over and tell my fiancé (who is beside me, leafing through one of his favourite comic books), that I love him. Not because I only have less than 24 hours to live, but because we’re tired and it’s time for lights out. Then we kiss goodnight and drift into the land of Nod.
Like an excited child at Christmas time, I wake much earlier than normal. Grateful for getting the sleep for what’s set to be a very full day, I rise, stretch and head into the garden for something I don’t do often enough: watch the sunrise. There’s nothing like observing the birth of a new day to fill you with hope for what’s ahead. Early morning is my favourite time of the day because it’s like you’re the only person on Earth, and the world is charged with peaceful expectation. It’s when ideas and inspiration come to me the easiest, in this quiet, fertile time. I watch the sky fire up with lilac and gold before going back inside to make a pot of tea.
The sky is lighter. The birds are a chaotic symphony. I roll out my yoga mat and ease into my usual routine. For some reason, if I ever fail to do my morning yoga, I’m left feeling like I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. And there’s no way I’m spending my last day on Earth feeling grumpy.
Yoga complete. Body and mind awake. Time for a shower, with music playing so loud I can sing along (badly) without an ounce of self-consciousness. I opt for the Foo Fighters and wail tunelessly alongside Dave Grohl’s tremendous voice.
Hungry now. It’s time for breakfast, and I have no doubt whatsoever what my last is going to be: A huge vegetarian full-English fry-up, with grilled tomatoes, sliced and peppered avocado, mushrooms fried with garlic, melt-the-mouth hash browns, fried eggs (the yolks as yellow and runny as molten gold), baked beans in tomato sauce, slabs of toast and maybe even a veggie sausage or two. This is the works. I cook up the lot for Nate and me, because I find preparing it as satisfying as eating it. Then we sit out in the garden to devour it while the coffee brews. Yum.
Time to check in with my mail. I open my emails, read the important stuff (i.e., the ones from people who matter to me), then check for texts and messages. I send an invitation to all my close friends and family, asking if they’d like to join me for my birthday that evening. “I’ll be on the hill of Prince Albert Gardens in my favourite seaside town of Swanage. Be there at 8pm in time for the sunset. Bring food and drink and whoever you like.” In my last 24 hours on the planet, I want my loved ones to treat me like they would any other (birth)day. There’s no mention of my imminent demise. Besides, why poop the party?
Messages sent, I shut my laptop and turn off my smartphone, hiding both away from sight. There’s no way I’m letting a screen steal my time, today of all days.
Nate and I drive out to a nearby forest for a morning walk. We need it after filling our tums with so much breakfast. Walking in the woods always makes me feel alive. The smell of the ferns and loam; the green light in the trees. Whenever I’m there, it’s like I’ve come home. We talk about all the places we’ve been to, stuff we’ve seen, people we’ve met. Then something catches our eyes (a toadstool; a flower; the twitch of a squirrel’s tail) and we’re brought back to the now again. There’s nothing like wild spaces to alert you to the present moment.
We’ve been tramping in the forest for a few hours: following streams, discovering waterfalls, climbing trees and spying wildlife. We begin our amble back to the car, because it’s time for some refreshments. Number ten on my list of things to do before I die: simply chill out in a café. We head to one of our favourites and get comfy. Time to read, to draw in our sketchbooks, to savour a coffee with a generous wedge of cake. Outside our bubble of café-calm, the rest of the world seems to grow distant and dim. Simple bliss.
We get a surprise call (on my dumbphone) from a mutual friend. It’s a gorgeous day. Would we like to go paddle-boarding out in the bay with her? I’ve never done it before, and water usually makes me nervous. I unhesitatingly say “Yes!” (during my final hours, seizing the day is high on the agenda). We leave the café and meet her at the beach, paying for our boards and wetsuits and revelling in the spontaneity. The smell of the ocean, sight of little waves gilded in sunlight and sound of gently lapping water are a tonic to the senses. I fall off my board countless times, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
Now we’re hungry again. Salty and sun-kissed, we make our way to our friend’s house, via the market to pick up some ingredients. Having taken over her kitchen (this tends to happen most places we go), Nate and I rustle up a late lunch of fresh, crunchy greens, roasted beetroot and spiced quinoa, all drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Pots of olives, hummus and slaw are added to the spread and I make a Spanish omelette to go with the feast. A farl of sourdough warmed in the oven tops it off. This is our kind of lunch: simple, fresh and full of good sh*t.
We leave our friend’s house fed and watered, and though I want to spend as much time as I can with my fiancé before I croak, I know I also need a bit of time to myself to balance my mind. The next thing I do on the day I die is go down to the beach for a bit of solace. The sun is still high and the sea is calm. Gulls cry comically overhead. I lie on the warm sand, feeling the soft grains under my hands and feet. It’s warm and tranquil, and I easily begin to doze. Napping is one of those indulgences few have the time to experience day-to-day. Whereas some might see it as a lazy, wasteful way to spend time, I can’t think of anything more delicious than sneaking a nap into my day. I slumber under a cloudless sky for half an hour, with only the sound of the sea in my ears.
I’m awake, rousing from my forty winks feeling better for the rest. I realise I still have my swim-shorts in my bag, which means I can add another activity to my list of what to do before I die: Take a cooling dip in the ocean.
After floating on my back in the gently swelling waters of Swanage Bay, I lay on the beach to dry off in the sunshine. In these autumn hours of the afternoon, I languidly bask like a cat, using my place and time to enjoy the rest of my book in peace. It dawns on me that I’ll never get to know the ending of the story but smile to myself at the metaphor this represents for my own numbered days. No worries – I’ve enjoyed the tale so far anyway.
Time to leave the oasis of the beach, feeling recharged after time to myself. I naughtily eat an ice cream on my way to the place where I’m meeting Nate. A scoop of pistachio, another of praline chocolate and a third of clotted cream. Every mouthful is a smooth, icy delight as I stroll along the seafront.
My fiancé is waiting at the spot where we first met. I haven’t told him that the next seven hours are our last together; I want him to remember them as a happy time, not be preoccupied with falling sands in my hourglass, or desperately attempting to make everything perfect for me. Despite his ignorance, he still kisses me like there’s no tomorrow and I effortlessly return the gesture. We take a walk along the promenade and reminisce about our first date, then animatedly dream aloud our plans of travelling abroad, climbing more mountains, exploring more forests, making more stories. With bittersweet feelings, I visualise him living these dreams without me.
No time to wallow in sadness, envy or regret though. I’ll have none of that. As the shadows lengthen, Nate guides me in the direction of a nearby pub. As luck would have it, he has just unintentionally ticked off another item from my bucket list: listening to a live band in a bar one last time. We enter the Ship Inn to be greeted by the rousing sounds of an Irish jig. A lilting fiddle and lively bass drum fill my ears and my heart is swept back to memories made in Galway. Feet tapping, head nodding, the ceilidh music is irresistible and I find myself joining the other enchanted dancers. As is ever the case when I take to the dancefloor, the clock hands treacherously turn faster. Like Rip Van Winkle away with the faeries, I dance my last dance in two hours that seem like only two minutes.
We leave the alluring atmosphere of the gig with that same reluctance of people who know they’ve made plans to be somewhere else but now almost wish they hadn’t. Up the hill we go, to the clifftops above Prince Albert Gardens, where we’re due to meet everyone for the party at sunset. Ever thoughtful, Nate has brought some bottles of ale and cider to drink at the top. And once at the top, I’m very glad I steadfastly showed up for my own party. My friends and family have made it, (and more follow); a happy summer gathering in the last rays of my last day. We sink ciders and picnic on the grassy hill as the sun sets over the rooftops of Swanage, turning the English Channel cerulean to sapphire in the fading light.
Like all good things, the party has to end, and one by one, group by group, my guests leave the clifftop. On the drive back home, I call my mum and dad to see how they are (they live too far away to have made it to my party), to wish them a good night and tell them how much I love them.
We arrive home, and I resist the urge to fall into bed (it has been a very full day). Instead I make a hot chocolate and sit with my pen and journal, to leave a final note to all my loved ones. Writing my message becomes the penultimate thing on my list of things to do before I die. It is hard not to apologise for keeping everyone in the dark on this day, but I do my best to assure them that I had good intentions in keeping my impending death a secret.
What would you do if you only had 24 hours left to live? How differently might you be treated if everyone knew they only had hours remaining to spend with you? Surely, it’s better to live till the end “business as usual”, with no drama, anguish, pain or sorrow?
I think back to my day of revelling in the natural world, eating good food and laughing with the ones who mean the most to me. It has been a day much like many in my life. There was no desire to see more famous places or hobnob with the stars or produce an incredible masterpiece. If I’d tried to cram in one last adventure overseas, a bungee-jump into a canyon or complete a bestselling novel, my final 24 hours would have only felt stressful and forced.
I write to everyone, reminding them that all of us will have to face the end eventually. I tell them to appreciate the present moment, to express gratitude for what they have and not to focus on what they lack. If they can spend their last 24 hours alive doing pretty much what they always love doing, then they’ve reached a very good place indeed.
I persuade Nate to come out into the garden with me, to stand side by side and look up at the stars. I’m not a believer in Heaven, but I do believe in spirit. And gazing up at a sky shimmering with distant burning spheres of gas somehow stirs the spirit in all of us. There’s the realisation that we’re still aflame with those stars, deep inside. It makes sense to feel like we'll somehow return to them. It’s a staggering, baffling, strangely soothing thought. Especially in the last minute of your life. “Happy birthday,” Nate whispers into my ear. And then I die.
This story/list/possible parable began as a response to a challenge: “What would you do with your time if you only had 24 hours left to live?” It had been set by writer/author/coach, Alexandra Franzen, whose regular email newsletters are a constant source of encouragement and inspiration for me. Alex hails from the States and writes for a living, with an impressive portfolio of clients under her belt. Head to her website http://www.alexandrafranzen.com if you’d like to learn more about her wonderful work.
Alex asked her audience to create a list in the spirit of her latest novel: So This Is The End: A Love Story – In the words of the author it’s “a fictional story about a woman named Nora. Nora dies unexpectedly—but then she gets the chance to experience one more day of life. Just 24 hours. A bonus round. Nora doesn't want to waste a single minute. She's determined to make every moment count. But then—much to her surprise—Nora ends up meeting an incredible man, the love of her life, on the very last day of her life. What happens next? Well, you'll need to read the book to find out.
So this is #MyFinal24 – I’ve tried to make it as honest and evocative as I could, hopefully without sounding too morbid. If nothing else, I hope it generates some interesting conversation! If you fancy sending me list of your own, add a comment below or drop Nate and me an email at our address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'd love to see what you come up with!
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In the meantime… Make it count, folks – this ain’t no rehearsal!