Joseph J. Salter
This is the Winner essay of our 2010 writing contest conducted in cooperation with Everest Productions. Participants were asked to write down to live out what truly mattered to them most assuming they were told they had only three days left in this life.
Time-our most precious commodity-may seem infinite, but it is also unrecoverable. Once a moment is spent, it is gone forever. This is because we are linear beings. We are born into this world at Point A-our Arrival-and then move forward from there, making some detours along the way. We wander-sometimes aimlessly-to Point B, taking a spouse, perhaps, or throwing ourselves into our careers. Later, we meander to Point C, which is trying to enjoy our lives on the way to old age. But ultimately we all arrive at the same destination, which is Point D-our Death. There are no exceptions to this rule, and it is not an arguable point. We cannot sue God to recoup the losses of our misspent youth, and the universe has one iron-clad policy regarding time: YOU WASTE IT, YOU'VE LOST IT. So, with this information firmly in mind, I ask myself: “What would I do if I had only 72 hours left to live?” It is an interesting question that is difficult to answer because I have spent the majority of my adult life in prison. Which, incidentally, is where I am now.
I am currently serving a 6-year sentence and have no way of knowing if I will ever see the streets again. I am forty-five years old and healthy, but as we all know-tomorrow is promised to no one. So this question of 72 hours intrigues me on several levels, the first of which is: “What would it be like to die alone in prison?” I rarely speak with my family, and while I do have a couple of good friends, they are not here. So here I would die, and alone it would be. The implications of that statement have shaken me in a way that until a few days ago I would have thought impossible. I can barely imagine lying here on my prison bunk, knowing that soon I would close my eyes, never to open them again. I have accomplished nothing of importance in my life, and with 72 hours to live there would be virtually no chance of me doing anything to benefit this world or anyone in it. Sure, I have written five novels, but much like me, they are lying dormant doing nothing to benefit anyone. The thought that they would never be published makes me want to cry. In fact, I can feel that thought wrenching my heart as I write this very sentence. Nevertheless, all of that is a very selfish way of thinking, but it is with that self-centered attitude that I am most comfortable. Due to my addiction and abuse of alcohol, I have led a very selfish life. I rarely gave more than a passing thought to the feelings or well-being of others. Now, however, I will admit this: I feel quite remorseful of the way I have treated others. I am not a heartless person; I just had to close my heart to combat the pain of addiction, and then the emptiness of long-term incarceration. I wasn’t always like that, of course. I was even in love once-a long, long time ago. I remember it like it was yesterday, but that is only because nothing of importance has happened to me since. It’s funny now, more than twenty years later, but I can still remember the way she kissed. I still miss her sometimes. If I had only 72 yours left to live, I would probably think a lot about her. It was the last time that I was truly happy.
But happy memories are self-indulgent, and with my life-clock ticking down, I believe that the time would have finally arrived for me to make peace with myself. I have never forgiven myself for wasting the talents and gifts that God has given me. I am not a stupid man: I know for a fact that I could have helped others. I could have made a difference. I could have shown people how to avoid walking down the same lonely roads that I have traveled. I could have shown them how important it is to be able to smile at yourself in the mirror, and how empowering it is to thank God every day for all that has occurred-good or bad. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent my life at the bottom of a vodka bottle, doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself. What a waste. What a complete and shameful waste.
So here, now, lying on a prison bunk contemplating the prospect of having 72 hours to live, sadly, I suppose, that for me it would all come down to regrets. The biggest of these would be that I never had children. Not because I don't like them-because I do-but because I grew up without a father, and I could never bring myself to inflict that kind of pain on my own child. And since I was unable to stop drinking, it was a certainty that I would always be in prison. Nevertheless, I have to say that just once in my life it would have been nice to get a big goodnight hug along with an, “I love you, Daddy.”
But in the end I suppose that I would use my last few hours searching for the meaning of life. Not in some universal sense, but in a very personal-and, as usual-selfish way. I would like to say that I would put aside my life-long obsession with gratifying my own immediate desires, but the truth is – I have no idea how to do that. Selfless acts seem a mystery to me, yet I don't know why. Even in the past when I've done the smallest of kindnesses, such as giving spare change to a homeless person, I am sure that somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Did you see that God? When you get a chance, could you jot that down on my scorecard?”
And-yes-I do believe in God. So in those last few hours I would be constantly calling Him on His cell phone, asking Him to forgive me for my past indiscretions. He would forgive me, being the loving and merciful God that He is, and maybe that is what my entire existence here on earth would boil down to those last few moments in which I realize that I have done nothing to be worthy of God's mercy and grace, but will receive it anyway.
So again-here, now-lying on this prison bunk, it’s difficult to find any one thing that I could do to make a difference. I am open to any revelations or epiphanies that God might like to place on my heart because after having caused so much pain on my brief journey through this world, I would dearly love to “shuffle off this mortal coil,” believing that I have left this place a little better than how I found it.
It's a lovely thought.
It is an interesting question.
Which is why I find it so disturbing that in an infinite universe full of limitless possibilities, I am still unable to offer a satisfactory answer.