As Bill Fuller walked down the sidewalk, he passed a woman with a face like a fist. She glanced at him quickly with an embarrassed look, as if to say she knew the damage she had done to herself over the years through bad lifestyle choices. She would be cursed with that bloated, creased, and tortured appearance to the day she died. Bill thought about how normal she could have looked had even just a few circumstances gone differently for her.
He also sensed that the woman was around his own age, which made her a walking testament to what bothered him. At 55, Bill felt increasingly isolated. People he had known for years were sick and dying all around him, whether from various cancers, heart conditions, strange or terrible accidents, suicide, drug overdoses, and so on. Some just drank themselves to death. Of those who weren’t gravely ill or morbidly unhealthy, many suffered from various psychological dysfunctions. Their unraveling minds careened from one delusion to the next, triggering all sorts of unpleasant behavior. Even the famous media figures Bill had followed for years, people he had respected as paragons of virtue, wisdom, and talent had become pathetic caricatures of who they once seemed to be.
He looked across the street and saw a group of mostly fat, uncoordinated, and obnoxious children playing in a waterworks area with a fountain and a slide. Bill didn’t blame them for who they were although he did consider them yet another clear indicator of why so many people had no business bringing children into the world. They were a reflection of their circumstances. Every organism was a product of its genetics and environment. Bill watched a piggish little boy chase a girl across the park. He imagined the boy sitting at home, wolfing down 1,500 calories of cheap, toxic fast food, and playing a mindless video game for hours on end. He figured the environmental factors shaping the country, as convenient as they were, had become more of an enemy than an ally.
But none of this was really all that new to American culture. Bill thought of his mother, who died of lung cancer at 61. He remembered sitting alone with her at 3 in the morning just a few days before her death, making sure the morphine drip was working properly. He asked, “Mom, have you been thinking about the afterlife and what might happen next?” She shook her head angrily from side to side and glared at him. She felt cheated, sure, but she had smoked heavily her whole adult life, and if the cigarettes hadn’t done her in, the alcohol would have. His father’s death had been much worse.
Bill didn’t want to go that way, and he was taking steps to prevent the possibility. He had finally chosen to live more sensibly in a number of ways. He studied the anatomy of America’s unhealthy cultural habits in detail and mapped out how to survive comfortably well into his ’90s through proper diet, exercise, and stress reduction. Prior to this, he thought he would be the one sibling in his family who would die first. Now that he was exercising regularly and, more importantly, carefully monitoring everything he ate, he began considering how to cope with solitude as close family, friends, and lovers passed away with sullen regularity.
This paradigm shift forced him to reconsider what he valued and how he related to others. He began building a new belief system that would allow him to cope with his own inevitable demise in a more rational manner, even if he did have another 40 or more years left. Most of the people he knew dwelled too much in the past and barely considered the future. Few of them wanted to discuss aging and death. Bill began focusing around 80% of his mental and physical activity on living in the present, with some success. Life didn’t seem so morbid when he spent most of it in the here and now. Similarly, he tried not to let the past define him or rule his emotions. It was there simply to inform him. He had never been possessed of great self-awareness, but he was working on getting there. Maybe someday he would even welcome death with open arms.
He walked alone several miles to a quite park hidden between a wealthy residential neighborhood and a broad, fast-flowing river. Most of the locals didn’t even know the park was there. Bill sat down on a bench and scanned the broad expanse of grass in front of him. He was glad he hadn’t brought his cellphone, and he was glad he was alone. He peeled an orange and enjoyed its cool tart taste under the shade of a leafy tree.