Only One Life

MY WIFE AND I were buying groceries one day, and I was on one side of the store and she was on the other, and over a shelf of breakfast cereal and cake mix I said, "Don't forget the cream," and she said, "All right, but don't you forget you're trying to lose weight," and I said, "Oh well, you only live once." And then it happened, this thing that broke for a moment through my deafness. The store was nearly empty so that the woman at the checkout counter had no trouble hearing us. It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and she had been working hard all day and looked flushed and hectic there behind her cash register and the racks of Life Savers and chewing gum and TV guides, and when I said, "Oh well, you only live once," she broke into the conversation, and what she said was, "Don't you think once is enough?" That was it.

It was a mild jest and I laughed mildly and so did the boy carrying up some empty cartons from the cellar, but it was also very much not a jest because I had a feeling that what by some rare chance I had happened to hear was a human being saying something like this: "People come and people go, most of them strangers. I'm sick of them, and I'm sick of myself too. One day's very much like another." What I thought I heard was a human being saying, "I'll live my life out to the last, and I expect to have good days as well as bad. But when the end comes, I won't complain. One life will do me very nicely." Then somebody plunked a bottle of something down on the counter and the cash register rang open and the check-out clerk with her hair damp on her forehead said, "Don't you think once is enough?" Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." It was life and death that she was talking about too, her own life and her own death, and by some fluke I happened to hear her despite that hardness of hearing that we all share. Even the Lord Jesus Christ somehow made himself heard that steamy August day among the detergents and floor waxes. "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." "Don't you think once is enough?" the woman said.

There are so many things to say, of course. One thing is that whether one life is enough or not enough, one life is all we get, at least only one life here, only one life in this gorgeous and hair-raising world, only one life with the range of possibilities for doing and being that are open to us now. William Hazlitt wrote that no young man believes that he will ever die, and the truth of the matter, I think, is that in some measure that is true of all men. Intellectually we all know that we will die, but we do not really know it in the sense that the knowledge becomes part of us. We do not really know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives would go on forever. We spend our lives like drunken sailors.

-Originally published in The Hungering Dark