I learned to appreciate mortality from Oregon Trail.
When I was in first grade, only my sister and I and one other kid were allowed to play Oregon Trail during computer lab because we destroyed those dumb phonics games and could read well enough to navigate the general store (and buy ridiculously disproportional amounts of supplies—hey, I could read, I never said I was good with numbers).
To a girl who loved history, this was the height of coolness. “Oh, what’re you doing over there? Picking out consonant sounds? I’m shooting buffalo and fording rivers. Yeah. That’s what I thought, kid.”
Of course, it was cool to go hunting and trade with the Indians and run your oxen into the ground trying to get to the fort because, sorry, the two rabbits you got three days ago aren’t enough to feed your whole calico-clad family. But the most fun part of all?
When people died.
Was this just me? Am I a terrible person? (Probably.)
Here’s how the game worked: at the beginning of your virtual trek across the Old West, you named your party members. Either celebrities or people you knew, usually. And there are few things funnier to a seven-year-old kid than reading the pop-up message, “Barney the Dinosaur has dysentery!” or “Erika drowned in the river” to the accompaniment of sad, tinny music. (Sorry, Erika. But seriously, though. You can’t tell me you didn’t do the same thing to me.)
Sometimes, though, my complete lack of common sense caught up with me (“Oh, we can totally start traveling in the winter.” “Lighten the wagon before crossing? What do they think I am, a wimp?”). And, in those moments displaying my stunning lack of brilliance, every single member of my party died. Including, well, me.
There it would be, flashed on the screen as a pixelated tombstone: my own death announced.
It wasn’t terribly sobering at the time, until after I read A Christmas Carol. (Okay, fine, until I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. But I was nine. Also, it’s a great adaptation.) The creepy scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future, when Scrooge sees his own name carved into the tombstone, made me wonder—what would go through my mind if I saw my own grave?
Nine-year-old Amy wasn’t sure. But it was something to think about.
Flash forward a decade to nineteen-year-old Amy. I went to a college in the middle of nowhere, where trips to Walmart were a social caravan event. On the way back to campus my freshman year, in a car full of upperclassmen I didn’t know very well, I saw a familiar sight and decided, for some reason, to comment on it.
“Hey, that’s my gravestone,” I said.
The driver’s eyes flicked back to me in the rearview mirror. “Wait…what?”
“That tombstone on the corner there. It says, ‘Green,’ but you can’t read the first name. So I pretend it says, ‘Amy Green.’ Whenever I pass it, it’s like this great reminder that I’m going to die someday.”
Silence. I got that cringing, ears-heating-up feeling that told me “this is not normal.” (I’ve become pretty familiar with that feeling over the years.)
But I forged on, much like the animated pioneers of old, and tried to defend myself. “It’s like in Ecclesiastes, which is not nearly as depressing as people think it is. Or that verse in the Psalms, that says, ‘Teach us to number our days.’ We—younger people, especially—don’t spend enough time thinking about the fact that we’re going to die. We take death and put it away from us, sanitize it, euphemize it, don’t talk about it. But we’re missing something, I think.”
At some point, I realized that A. I was rambling and B. I had just insulted my entire generation, including the people in the car, so I shut up and watched the cornfields pass outside the car windows. My fellow passengers kind of smiled and said, “That’s interesting,” which is an adjective invented for awkward situations when you don’t know what to say.
Maybe I can convince you, even if I didn’t make much sense then: I think it’s valuable to think about death. Not in a morbid way. (Seriously, I am about as far from a morbid person as you can conceivably get.) But in a way that changes the way you live.
What does it look like, to realize that you aren’t promised a peaceful death in your sleep at ninety years old? To love people like one or the other of you might be gone tomorrow…but not push away out of fear? To give all you have to every day, not because it might be your last day, but because it is a day, and we have a limited amount of them and they matter.
They have to matter, all of them. And really remembering that takes more than a slogan like “YOLO” (which I hate, in part because it’s a really dumb-sounding version of “carpe diem,” which is a thousand times classier and also reminds me of The Dead Poets Society).
I think it takes remembering Ecclesiastes, and the effect seeing the future had on Scrooge, and maybe even a gravestone with your name on it.* It takes mourning with those who mourn and getting fed up with the brokenness of this world and considering how you use the limited time you have.
Yes, “teach us to number our days.” And teach us what to do to make each of them worth living.
*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: In my mind, this is similar to the “stones of remembrance” that the Israelites were commanded to set up to remind them of what God had done in the past. Totally different kind of rock, same principle: sometimes we need physical reminders of abstract things—reminders that we can walk by and touch and that call something to mind we might not think about otherwise. Something we can point to and (try to) explain to others.