NOTE—This piece is based on a writing assignment in the book 642 Things to Write About, published by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto:
“Only ten people will fit in the life raft. Convince the Captain that you should be one of them.”
MR SMITH? Hi!—sorry about the mister. I realize I should have said captain. I know it’s not the best time, with the boat sinking and all, but I’ve been meaning to say that’s a nice uniform. The contrast of black and gold is masculine, audacious even, and conveys authority—while also being stylish. So often these days dress is nothing but function. Or you have uniforms like on the Love Boat, which have no gravitas whatsoever. I mean, short-sleeves? Really? Captain Stubing was no Mr. Smith, if you ask me. Sure, he was pleasant, but is pleasant really what you want when the ship is going down? Which brings me to what I was hoping to discuss with you, and I know you’re a busy man. All I’m asking for is a minute of your time and that you’ll consider letting me on the life boat. This is my story.
Did you know the captain of the Titanic was named Mr. Smith? He was a brave man. It wasn’t his fault that they hit the iceberg. It happens.
Sorry, that’s obviously an aside, and just some context for what I want to say.
I’m guessing we’ve got to be at least a thousand miles from the nearest shore and—what? Two thousand? Jesus Murphy! So how cold roughly is the water this time of year? That cold? It’s a terrifying nameless color—almost a total absence of color. A sort of drab grey-green black, the very hue of lifelessness. I don’t mind telling you the look of it fills me with a sickening dread.
I jumped into a river one early April afternoon. That was in my prime. The electricity took me by surprise. I could move, but it was a struggle. My mind and my body were severed. My lungs felt like double-fisted sponges being wrung dry. Only a few feet back to the deck, I told myself, but my arms and legs weren’t listening. I made it out by the power of animal instinct and bodily terror.
My brother-in-law told me that a drowning man doesn’t suffer, that the endorphins or whatever it is quickly fill his body and he becomes euphoric. I don’t want to find out if that’s true. There are better ways to euphoria. A life boat ride comes to mind.
I know this is awkward. We’ve all done a head count—probably several head counts. The life boat holds at most ten, and there are more than ten of us here. So the question is, who should be let on? The women and children, naturally, and the old and infirm. That leaves the rest of us.
The fact is none of us likely deserve to live. It’s a ridiculous notion. What has deserving to do with the accidents of this world? That a universe even exists, that there’s an earth and a sun, that fifty-six years ago an egg collided with a sperm: who am I to take it all in and say “I deserve.” Do I deserve to die? I suppose that’s the better question.
The irony is that I’ve thought a lot about death, and imagined myself dead many times. I wasn’t on this boat only to arrive, I was on it to depart. I am throwing my old life over-board. A year ago I had given up on myself. I had looked into water not unlike this and contemplated tossing myself in. For years now, when I have gone to bed I’ve imagined that I am in my grave. It gives me indescribable comfort, like that rumoured euphoria of a drowning man. There, an hour and an eternity are no different. My failures and inadequacies and trivial worries mean nothing.
Back home I have a good life. It isn’t the case that I have suffered or known catastrophes. My health is decent. I have a wife and two sons. About ten years ago I started to feel that my life was without meaning and purpose. It sounds petty and selfish, I know, and so it is. These thoughts filled me with shame and self-hatred. It was enough, I told myself, to have a decent downtown apartment and a car and a job in the government. And a family, for christsake!
It made no difference. Deep down I knew I was a coward. If I hadn’t been, I would have killed myself already, or taken the risks that would have made me a better man. Mine was the story of a failure of nerve. Is the story. And it’s probably the story of every man on this boat, because in truth all but a few of us are on a voyage we somehow inherited, and not the voyage we created. Our course was set by chance, or by the useless momentum of genes, circumstance, and our slavish desire to please others and to keep things safe. People like us don’t deserve to die, but we haven’t exactly taken the gift of life by its testicles either. Life is wasted on us.
For decades I told myself it’s fine, I can always change in the future. Then a day arrived on which I realized it may well be too late. And even if it wasn’t, soon enough it would be.
I’ve never told any of this to anyone—not to my wife of twenty-eight years, Candice, or to my adult sons Blair and Andrew. All I said was, “I have to go on a trip.” I explained that there were things I wanted to do—that I had unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. I would be gone a couple months, I said: and when I get back, I’ll have written the book I’ve been wanting to write since I was in my early twenties.
Yes, a book. They looked at me in disbelief, at first, but then realizing that I was serious they supported my decision. I said nothing of the pervasive sense of failure and wasted years that hollowed me out and anæsthetized my pointless time on this planet. There was no context for them to make sense of my behavior. I had to say something, so I told them that it was simply a life-long dream of mine to be a writer (which they had known long ago, but may have forgotten by now) and that I must go to Europe to write my book. A week later, we walked together to the neighborhood agency where a Hungarian woman helped me arrange the trip.
“Are you certain you can’t write it here?” my wife asked. This was a difficult question for me to answer. Of course I could write the book in Chicago, but the point was transformation. Now that I had come to see how pointlessly I was living out my existence, I needed to do something bold. And as selfish as it appears, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to change was to be a better husband. I felt Candace, my wife, had been ripped off. I worried she thought so, too.
So I got on this boat resolved to do something for once in my life that required determination, discipline and courage. I see it as the first step on my journey of personal re-creation. Will I succeed? There’s no way I can answer such a question, but in any case it’s not the one I prefer to ask—which is “Will I regret doing this, or not doing this, for the rest of my life?”
I admit I’ve taken way more than a minute of your time, and still there’s so much remaining to say. I have been a man of many inconsequential, unremarkable deaths. I ought to have been more busy at the work of being born—and the truth is that for the first time in my life I am prepared to live. Or at least it feels for the first time like truth. What a thing to have realized, at my age, that I have largely squandered my talents and my time—and to have determined to do something about it. But there it is, and here I am, asking you is it better that I am welcomed on the voyage, or sent to my death?
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