For the past week I’ve been convinced that I’m about to die as a result of a brain-eating amoeba with a 99% fatality rate.
See, if you contract this amoeba, you end up with meningitis, and there are only about three cases of people surviving this thing. Ever. The amoeba lives in warm water and gets into your brain through your nose. My sister and I did this epic two-day trek in New Zealand and at the top of the trek, there were these super hot geothermal pools. It felt incredible to soak in the water after a day of uphill hiking, and it felt like the natural waters were melting away the tension in my muscles. Soaking flat on our bellies in less then twelve inches of water, we rooted down in the silt to immerse our bodies in the shallow water. It was pitch black out and near freezing, and all we could see through the beam of the flashlight were the thick, wafting, spirit-like sheets of steam in the night sky. We closed our eyes and breathed it in.
Anyway, since then I’ve been about to die. The Department of Conservation warning sign outside of the pool said not to dunk your head under water to avoid contracting the amoebic meningitis. And I didn’t. But the next day I started feeling a sore throat, and a headache, and possibly a tingling in the top of my spine, and was that also a frontal lobe headache? I worried that I contracted it when I may have scratched my nose and that’s how I was going to die, from a nose scratch. Apparently the only way you can contract it is if the infected water is insufflated (good word) deep into your nasal passages where the amoeba can attach itself to your olfactory nerves in your brain, and start having dinner up there on your brain I guess and no more than eighteen days later, you’re dead, with doctors having less than a 1% chance of saving you.
I don’t know why I was being such a ridiculous hypochondriac about this. But that’s not the point. What I want to tell you about is how this (imaginary) brush with death affected me.
When I read the list of symptoms and identified with the majority of them, the realization that I could have this deadly disease hit me. I could die in less than eighteen days, I thought. I looked up from my Google search results.
“I cannot die. I’m not finished with my book.”
Just like that, in the face of death I found clarity. And it was that one thought that helped me realize that this book, You Might Die Tomorrow, is part of my life’s work. See, I believe that thinking about death, or the possibility of dying, or remembering that life is short or whatever you want to call it, strips away everything to reveal what is truly important in one’s life. There’s something about being faced with one’s own mortality which provides perspective like few other things can. In a life or death situation your brain quiets and your intuition screams out. Steve Jobs said, “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death.”
Last week when I was convinced I had only a few days left to live as a result of amoebic meningitis, every day that I woke up I was thrilled. I had made it another day. My coffee tasted more delicious. I worried less about money. I bought less stuff. I had another piece of chocolate. Traveling with my sister, I realized I would be content to die doing something so special and meaningful. But most importantly, I realized I’ve got to finish this book. Even in my imaginary near-death experience, my lessons were life-changing.
I’m still not in the clear from my hopefully imaginary disease. It can take up to fifteen days for the serious symptoms to present. I’ve realized I’m most likely just getting a cold, but I wouldn’t trade my imaginary brain-eating amoeba for anything. In the face of a fatal disease - imaginary or not - I found out what’s truly important to me.