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The Last Time

On February 16, 2022 I lit a cigarette before going in for some major dental work. For the hundredth time I told myself this would be my last one, but something was different on this occasion.

I'd tried to quit smoking several times, usually getting back to as few as two or three cigarettes a day for a few days before going back to my pack a day habit. I kept telling myself, "I'll quit when I want to", acting like I had more self control than I actually had. I knew smoking wasn't a good choice for my health, and I couldn't deny how crappy I felt every time I lit up, but I didn't really put a lot of thought or effort into quitting.

I finished that cigarette and left for the dentist's office, not knowing just how rough the next few days would be.

Withdrawal is one of the worst feelings in the world, and it hit me hard over the next few days. There were times I was so close to lighting up, but there was something on my mind that pushed me each time the urge hit (other than my wife telling me for years how she wished I'd quit).

At the time, I was 35 years old, a couple months shy of turning 36 and about 6 years away from turning 41. For most people, that number probably seems insignificant, and for most of humanity it more or less is. The reason it sticks out to me is because my mother passed away when she was 41 from complications related to kidney failure. Smoking wasn't what killed her, though she did smoke for a few years, but the idea of being nearly as old as she was when she died scares me. Her health condition was due mainly to factors beyond her control, though she made some choices along the way that didn't help matters any, and I don't want to wind up shuffling off this mortal coil that young if I can avoid it.

I was able to successfully quit, feeling better as time went on, and I've made some other changes and tried to get at least semi-healthy since then. I'm definitely not the kind of person to hit the gym, and my job involves way too much sitting in front of a computer, but I try to eat a little healthier than I used to and get some steps in each week in various ways. Even with all of that, I've been thinking more and more lately about the prospect of dying and what that means.

You could call it a "midlife" crisis, though I think that term is really overused. It's more about the thought of "last times", as in is this the last time I'll see or talk to someone or do some activity that I take for granted.

See, everyone is familiar with the concept of first times. A child's first steps, the first time you drove, the first kiss, first dance, first time. These milestones in life are markers that tell us where we are. But somewhere along the way there is a tipping point. You can only do something for the first time once, after that it becomes a memory or a mundane activity. What is there to look forward to when you don't have many first times left?

Some things, like the last time I smoked a cigarette, are good last times and mostly within our control. The truth of the matter though, is that last times aren't usually something we can foresee, and that is terrifying.

When I left my house on the evening of July 3, 2005, I had no idea it would be the last time I'd see my mom. She passed away overnight while I was at work. For me, it was unexpected, though she knew her time was short. Part of me wonders to this day if she thought, or rather considered, that she would never be able to talk to me again. Her health was failing and she had been told by her doctor that she had weeks left to live at best, so did the thought cross her mind? Even if it did, did she really know what dying meant?

A photo of my mother smiling at the camera
My mom, Kelle Hawk, passed away July 4, 2005.

We all go through life afraid to think about our own mortality. It's easier to imagine we're just going to live forever, either here on earth or in some afterlife where we can spend eternity hanging out with our loved ones. The hard truth is that none of us gets out alive and there is no reason to think there is some magical place we go to in the end. The only time we are guaranteed to have is this moment. Right now.

When's the last time you told your mom you loved her? Or your dad? Spouse? What about siblings, children, others you hold dear? More than that, something you can't know, when is the last time you will? When is the last time you'll take a breath, take a step, see a sunset?

"I have to work, we'll do that later honey."

"I can't make it to your game, maybe next time?"

Live each moment like you won't get another. Treat others with the love and respect they deserve, even when you don't think they deserve it. Make sure you tell those you love just how much they mean to you because you never know when you'll be telling them for the last time.

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