Wednesday, May 7th, 2200 was a day that Harry had been dreading for most of his life. He would turn 95 years old today, but there would be no party in his honor. Nobody would be bringing any gifts for Harry this year. He awoke to see the bright, morning sunshine piercing through the curtains in the bedroom of his empty house and hoped that he would at least be able to gain some measure of enjoyment from such a beautiful spring morning.
As he pushed the covers back and sat up in bed, Harry looked over at the clock on the wall and reached for his pulse as he had done nearly every morning of his life. It was unusually fast on this occasion, but that was to be expected. He savored the feeling for a moment, since this was going to be the last time he would ever feel it. Indeed there were a lot of things he was going to be doing for the last time in the next few hours he realized, as he slipped his feet into his morning slippers and slowly began the march down the stairs to the kitchen.
As he entered the kitchen he instinctively reached for the dog food,
but then quickly realized that there would be no need for it today. He
had already handed over his dog to his neighbor down the street. He
regretted that decision now as it would have been nice to have some
kind of companionship on this day.
Harry opened the refrigerator and looked inside for a moment. There was exactly enough food for three meals. He had thrown out everything else the day before. But Harry couldn't quite find his appetite today, so he just poured himself a glass of milk and took it to the front porch.
As he sat there on the porch swing -- the same one that his wife had sat on the year before on her final day -- he slowly let it sink in that this day had finally arrived. It had been all he thought about for most of his life and now it was here. It seemed rude to him that the rest of the world continued on as normal. But he knew that it had to be so. He was determined to maintain his dignity in spite of it. He would not take the coward's way out like his old friend Charlie did, one day before the day. No, he would enjoy the day like any other, eating his meals and enjoying his time. He would not fear death. He would welcome it when it came, for it could only take all but his dignity.
. . . . .
Harry was one of the last people on earth to be inoculated with the miracle drug when he was born at the turn of the 22nd century. The drug to end all drugs, or so they said when it was first put on the market back in 2010. It would cure every disease and sickness known to man, and so it did for the first 95 years until there was discovered one major side affect. But how could anyone know that they had exchanged sickness and disease for certain death. A painless and merciful death perhaps. Or perhaps not, if you spoke to anyone born between 2010 and 2105.
The drug was banned from the market when it was discovered that its recipients would all expire on their 95th birthday. Doctors had become obsolete by then -- well, not totally obsolete, for there were still babies to be delivered and broken arms to be fixed -- but pretty much useless for anything else, and so Harry grew up watching all those around him get sick and die from the simplest ailments while he continued on in perfect health. He watched all three of his children die before reaching their 40th birthdays while he and his wife never experienced so much as a cold.
There were hopeful stories of survivors around the world. It turned out that about 0.01% of the world's population were immune to the side affect, but many had suspected that the reports were only a ploy to add a measure of hope to an otherwise hopeless world. Still, the stories abounded of occasional survivors in remote villages who went on to live five or even ten years after their 95th birthday before they died of natural causes. There was even a report of a woman in South America who lived to be 117. But for the most part, hopelessness prevailed and everybody carried on with their bleak, healthy lives until the day of their 95th birthday. And it was always at sunset, as if to add some metaphorical emphasis to the cosmic joke played on humanity. It didn't matter where you were, when the sun set on your 95th birthday your time was simply up. It was the surest thing in life, and so it would be for Harry as well.
One by one he watched his grandparents die, then his parents, then his aunts and uncles, and then finally his older siblings. Each in the same way. Each with that same depressing hopelessness as they neared the end. Harry didn't want to go out that way. Even if nobody was around to see it, he would not waste his final day in gloom and despair. He would enjoy each moment of this day as if it were any other. He would eat his breakfast and he would listen to the weather report and he would bask in the glorious sunrise as if there would be another one just like it tomorrow.
. . . . .
Harry finished off his glass of milk and went back into the house. As he entered the kitchen he immediately ripped the calendar off the wall and threw it in the trash. He took the two eggs that were left in the carton in the refrigerator and fried them up on the stove.
This is who I am. I eat eggs for breakfast and I drink coffee. I don't worry about death. I don't worry about things I can't control. I am a man and I have dignity. If she were here she would be eating eggs with me. But she's not and there's nothing I can do about it. It doesn't matter. I put pepper on my eggs and I use a fork and I wipe my chin with a napkin because I am a man. This is who I am.
When he was finished he placed his plate and fork gently in the sink and went into his study. He scanned the shelves looking for something to read. Then he just stood there for a moment, lost in thought.
Stop it! You can't change anything so just stop thinking about it! You're a 95-year old man in perfect health and you're going to die at sunset, not before. Until then, live!
He dropped to the floor and began doing push-ups. 20, 30, 40; he could go on and on, but the thought occurred to him that the over-acknowledging of dignity may be the same as the denial of it. So he went back to the bookshelf and picked out one of his favorite novels from his childhood. It was a classic from the great 21st century novelist Nesral Hacim. He sat in his favorite chair and began to read, trying to block out the swirling thoughts that dominated his mind on this day. Eventually he became lost in the book with each turning page. He read until his eyes became heavy. He put his head back and closed his eyes for a moment and began to sleep.
As he slept he began to dream. He dreamed that he was a young man in a hospital bed. He couldn't move and he wondered how he had gotten there. He called for someone to come in but there was no answer. He could hear voices outside his room but nobody seemed to notice his cries. Finally a nurse walked in.
"Is everything alright, sir?"
"No! I don't understand why I'm here. Can you please tell me what's happening to me?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"No, I don't. Why am I here? What's wrong with me?"
"Well, you're dying of course."
"Yes, you're dying."
"How long do I have left?"
"You have until sunset. Would you like to watch some TV?"
Harry woke up not knowing what time it was. He was struck with panic, as if he had slept through his own death. The clock on the wall said 12:07. Sunset was to be at 7:54. Less than eight hours to go. No time to waste. Eat your lunch with dignity and don't leave any trace of shame for the coroner to find. Drink your coffee like a man until you can drink it no more. Wash your dishes and put them away. Don't let them suspect anything is different.
Harry spent a long time eating his lunch. It was hard to work up an appetite, but he had to force himself to eat. One more bite. Chew it. Swallow it. Drink your coffee. Leave nothing.
Now what? He put his dishes back in the cupboard and sat down
again. This day that he had waited for his whole life was now here and
he didn't know what to do with it. All of his friends were dead, and
everyone else happily awaited his death, for it would signal the return
of normal life and unpredictable death. He was the last reminder of a
time that would be happily forgotten.
Harry hadn't left the house since his wife died. There was no reason to. He spent many nights on the front porch watching the sunset just as he had done with his wife a year ago. It was there on the porch swing that they sat together on that final day. They didn't talk. They just sat and waited for the sun to set. He wished he could have done something for her. He just sat there helpless, looking straight ahead as he suddenly felt the weight shift on the swing and heard her slump forward. He didn't look. He just kept staring straight ahead, wishing he didn't know what he knew.
If the sunset didn't kill him, the waiting would. He tried to stop checking the clock, but he couldn't. 3:00. 3:30. 4:00. Do something! Anything! Take a walk around the block. Listen to some music. But the fruitlessness of these things could not be ignored. He began to feel the same hopelessness creeping in that had been so evident in his own parents. But for him, there was no one there to express it to.
He went back to his study and picked up the book he had been reading and took it out to the front porch, even though there was not time to finish it. He just stared at the pages and wondered how his life would have been different if he had been born a week later. Sure he would have died many years ago, but it would almost certainly not have been such a wasted life. How can a man know what it is to be healthy if he has never been sick?
All he had left now was his dignity, or at least the appearance of dignity. He was determined not to waste it. He went back upstairs and into his bedroom and just stared at himself in the mirror for a moment. Then he opened the closet and got out his best suit and put it on. The clock was picking up speed and he accepted it. The sun was making its journey across the sky like a runaway freight train and there was no stopping it. There was time for one last meal. But first, a quick shave.
. . . . .
He finished his supper, wiped his mouth, and poured himself one last
cup of coffee. He took his dishes over to the sink and washed them for
the last time while reciting a childhood poem.
There once was a man from Calcutta
Who depended on no one for suppa,
So he fixed his own
Till he was sick and alone,
And then he died.
He laughed to himself and then stopped to admire himself for his ability to laugh. One hour left, and he had not lost his dignity. He would accept his fate without fear. He finished his coffee and made one last stop in the bathroom to get rid of it before going to meet his death.
I am alive. I am now urinating for the last time. I will do it with dignity. I flush the toilet and put the lid down. I wash my hands with soap and water and dry them with the towel by the sink. I am a man. This is what I do.
He walked out to the front porch and sat down again on the porch
swing facing west. The sun was low. He adjusted his tie and ran his
fingers through his hair and checked the buttons on his coat. He
looked down to make sure everything was in place. There sits a great
man of dignity and courage, the neighborhood kids must have thought as
they rode by on their bikes. The coroner would be sure to be extra
careful when they came to pick up his body in the morning.
Let's just sit here for a moment and ponder the greatness of this man, they will say. This man is different than the others. His face does not speak of hopelessness. He looks like a man who is at peace with himself; a man whose dignity could not be stolen by death. Let us take extra care with this one, and pray that we can all die as this man did.
The sun was low. It moved with lightning-quick speed. 95 years of waiting for this precise moment and it was now here.
Don't shed a tear. Don't tremble. Sit up straight like a man. Look death in the face and laugh.
The sun was barely visible now over the trees.
Any moment now. Just relax. Your life has only been preparation
for this moment, otherwise it would have been wasted. Hold your chin
up. Breathe normally.
The sun was now just a faint glimmer in the horizon. Brightness faded into dusk. Harry kept staring straight ahead and refused to blink. His heart beat rapidly. The sun was now out of sight. He didn't feel dead, but how does one know? A dog barked across the street to remind him that he was still alive. An hour passed. Two hours. Nothing. Cars came and went. It grew colder. He had to pee again.
He was sure that if he moved from the porch swing he would
immediately fall over and be found in some very undignified position
the next morning. But why was he still here? Why was he seeing the
moon again? He waited still another hour before his bladder could take
no more. As he waited it occurred to him that he may be one of the
0.01%. He had been carrying a winning lottery ticket for 95 years and
just didn't know it. He thought about how different his life could
have been if he had only known. It was too much to bear.
The neighborhood was quiet. Finally he rose from the porch swing, half expecting to fall over. And he did, but only because his left leg had fallen asleep. He staggered into the bathroom like a drunken man, sobbing as he went. The clock on the wall said 2:11. He relieved himself in the bowl and didn't bother to flush or wash his hands or turn out the light as he stumbled down the stairs and into the basement to look for a rope.