Death by embarrassment
Is this how it ends?
When I hear stories about people on their deathbed seeing their life flash before their eyes, it makes me question the mechanics of dying. What if, in the end, we actually go out recalling one of those humiliating, regretful, shameful moments that keep us awake at night? Our heart says, “Nope, I’m done. Can’t take another reminder of that time I peed my pants on the playground. Powering down.”
Grandpa lies on his deathbed and cries out, “Oh, God!” and takes his last breath. His family bows their heads and feels the gratifying reverence of grandpa meeting his maker. But actually, grandpa heaved a sigh remembering the time he got pantsed in front of the class and couldn’t bear to recall it anymore.
In the short story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, a man named Anders openly mocks a bank robber, and the robber shoots Anders in the head. As the bullet passes through Anders’s skull, his brain spends the final moments of activity recalling a specific memory: a funny sentence he overheard on a baseball field when he was young.
“Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. … Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.
The story ends with Anders’s final thought before the bullet exits his skull.
But for now Anders can still make time … time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
I hope I go out laughing. That would be nice. Seems unlikely, though. In the end I’ll probably think about the time I fell down a two-foot ramp at the skate park in front of everyone, shrieked from having the wind knocked out of me, and cried while my dad carried me out. It makes me want to hide under my mattress.
If not the skate park incident, maybe one of these gems will do me in:
“Hang on, I got this.” — I’m sixteen, on a canoe trip. We stop at a swimming hole fed by a small waterfall. I see a young couple in a canoe barreling towards the waterfall, and I heroically step in to redirect them. When I grab the canoe, it knocks me over into the water. My limp body acts as a fulcrum and spins their canoe 180 degrees. “You idiot!” says the man in the canoe as he and his girlfriend are swept down the waterfall backward.
“Rachel, shut your face!” — I’m twelve, working on a school group project. I’m jealous of the smart girl so this sure seems like an excellent way to establish my leadership among the team. Sorry, Rachel.
“Uh oh. Eric cheating?” — I’m fifteen. My friends are gossiping about how the youth minister ogled a lifeguard at summer camp. Eric’s wife approaches and asks what they’re talking about. I chime in with what I suppose is a funny joke but no one laughs.
“Don’t burn it this time.” — It’s my first day at my first job in the food industry. A customer comes to the counter and I take their order. “They burned my pizza last time,” the customer says. “Put in a note to not burn it again.” Minutes later, my boss comes to me, holding a piece of paper detailing the order and says, “Did you write this?”
Oh, jeepers. I’m going to hide under my mattress now.
Name changed to protect Daniel’s privacy.