Robert awoke in the middle of the night with a burning fever. The bed was soaked in sweat, and he was burning up from an intense fever. He crawled out of bed and staggered a few steps toward the bathroom for some water, but he was so weak and disoriented, he fell to the floor. Just before he passed out, he realized that if he was going to die, he would do so alone.
He came to in the early morning, still in pain and shaken, but slightly recovered. He remained bedridden for a week and lost ten pounds. During this time, he took a leave of absence from his administrative position in a nonprofit company and convalesced alone in his house, away from everyone. He avoided the doctor, seeing the situation as a chance to assess his life in solitude and make some changes on his own terms.
For the first few days, the fear of being alone, especially into older age, remained at the forefront of his thoughts. In his weakest moments, he even considered pursuing a relationship once he got well, maybe with a stable, mature woman around his age who was safely ensconced in some respectable profession. But as the days passed, Robert dismissed the notion. He was alone for a reason. His lonely moments were rare compared to the liberating, selfish joy of doing as he chose in his spare time without any distracting intrusions.
Robert’s illness revealed an inner desire for solitude. He thought about his past relationships, some long, others short, some warm reminders of what could have been, others dark, nightmarish visions of desperation and despair. While they had all shaped his identity, they were just memories, none of which were worth keeping as controlling forces in his life.
Robert’s attitude toward work changed, too. He used to think he was an indispensable employee, a pivotal player, helping to actualize a vital mission that should have mattered to everyone. He was hyper-competitive and distrustful of others in his department. He wasted hour upon hour outside of the workplace worrying about his reputation and position. He even spent time denigrating others behind their backs as if this would make him feel better about himself. This gossip did damage to his imagined enemies, and worst of all, it damage to him.
Illness forced Robert to rethink everything. He finally realized that everyone was replaceable, and he wasn’t particularly exceptional or important. His unwarranted sense of self-importance had amounted to nothing over the years. Once he returned to work, he committed to never talking negatively about anyone around him while framing conversations in positive and rational terms. For the most part, he managed this without too much trouble. Life had worn him down to a certain degree, no doubt, but he knew that many people his age grew more toxic over time. He wanted nothing to do with that.
In time, Robert’s job became more manageable, his health improved, and he began exercising regularly. At first, he set aside a few hours every day for long walks. As a result, he started befriending friendly people in his neighborhood who had always lived or worked nearby but had been strangers to that point. This helped him understand that he could choose friendships as he saw fit instead of pretending to be a victim of his relationships.
He began living in the moment, enjoying quiet little interludes that left him with memories worth keeping. Along similar lines, Robert chose not to let impatience and anger control his behavior. He took to reading anything and everything that might interest him, and he grew especially fond of Dickens, Twain, and Camus. He also discovered Kawabata’s short stories, which were like little prose poems that he could hold in the palm of his hand and puzzle over for hours.
Then, Robert began writing a memoir, starting from childhood. Every weekend, he would drive into the mountains, camp at a spot by his favorite lake, and write for hours. He wasn’t sure where it would lead, but he knew he had to tell the truth, regardless of how he felt about his past and current thoughts. Everything else would be a waste of time. And so the project mattered to him, and in this way, the memoir might never be finished, even to his last breath, but it would always be complete.