I first heard it from my grandfather. It was his 80th birthday party (which would have made me five), and he said it with a raspy laugh full of phlegm, “That’s it, one year closer to death!” My mom yelled at him for scaring me. But strangely enough, I wasn’t frightened, at least not then. At the time I was intrigued, as if my grandfather had let me in on some secret that little kids weren’t allowed to know. It wasn’t until my tenth birthday, that I knew just what he meant.
It was warm, sunny day, complimented by a lovely breeze. I knew it was already June but it still felt like it could have been April or early May. I sat there, with my little conical hat, eager to blow out the ten candles on my Batman cake. I thought of my grandfather and wished that he could have been at my party, but he had passed away a year earlier. I closed my eyes, made a wish I honestly can’t remember.
As I opened my eyes and looked up, that was when I saw him for the first time. He stood about two houses down from ours in the backyard. That’s what seemed so strange. He just stood there, staring. At the time I assumed it was just a neighbor I didn’t know. He was a tall, bald man with wrinkles on his face, and a long dark coat. I remember thinking there might be something wrong with him. If I wasn’t distracted by the cake and everyone singing, I might have paid more attention to him. Based on what I would later learn, I know that at the very moment I blew out my candles, the man took a step forward.
The next thirteen birthdays seemed uneventful. In hindsight, I think this must have been because I hadn’t had an outdoor party since ten. In fact during my sixteenth birthday, I didn’t actually have a cake, but I don’t think it mattered. At some point on that day in June, he was there and he took one more step. It wasn’t until I turned twenty-five that I actually saw him again.
I was called into the conference room by my supervisor for what I assumed was another meeting. Upon entering the room, I was greeted by a cake and my coworkers yelling, “Surprise!” It was a kind gesture and meant a lot to me. This heartwarming feeling was immediately stricken however, when I saw him, or rather it. Lo and behold, there was the same old man with his long coat, deep wrinkles, and bald head, not a day older. On one side of the conference room was window from which I could see down the long hallway to the staircase. And there that same figure that I had chalked up to my imagination stood, maybe forty or fifty feet down this away.
Just as my coworkers finished singing, this man, this thing took a step. I barely slept that night, between staring at the ceiling in bed and questioning my own sanity. Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to convince myself that it was all in my head. And that explanation calmed my fear for exactly one year, until the next cake, candles and wish. The next three birthdays, I made sure were celebrated either outside or in a large indoor space. Part of me dreaded what I thought I might see, but I had to know. It’s like driving by a nasty car wreck, you know it’s going to be horrible but you simply have to look and see it, even if it makes you sick.
To my horror, as I rang in twenty-six, seven and eight, it was there taking its step. I think I had always known in the back of my mind just exactly what it was, even if I was afraid to say it out loud. During my late twenties, I treated it like some grim experiment. But as I saw it move on the twenty-eighth anniversary of my birth, I heard my grandfather’s voice so clearly, it was as if he was there, whispering in my ear, “One year closer to death!” Funny how he never mentioned death coming closer to me.
I thought long and hard about this annual visitor and came to a realization by the time I was thirty. It only moved one step a year and it was still a good distance from me. Perhaps this was some sort of guarantee that I actually wouldn’t die the next day, week or even year. Maybe it meant that there was no chance of me stepping in front of a speeding car or choking on a piece of steak or even becoming a murder victim as a vicious intruder burst his way into my home. As long as there was still some distance between it and me, it meant that I had more time.
My next ten years were spent ignoring my personal grim reaper. I got married, had a son, bought a house, got promoted twice at work. Each birthday, I knew it was taking a step closer, but I learned to ignore it, out of sight, out of mind. Yet, as I blew out the candles with a ‘4’ and a ‘0’ and finished listening to my five year old sing me “Happy Birthday”, I could have sworn I saw from the corner of my eye it took two steps instead of one.
The next year, this was confirmed as I watched intently, only now it took three steps. What the hell is this about? I kept thinking to myself. Why only now was it deciding to move at a faster pace. I still had time, I mean I still have time, right? Right?! The next few years I noticed it take one extra step. My wife always demanded to know why I would tense up so much in the days leading up to my birthday.
She’d always tell me how I shouldn’t worry about getting older, that there was a way to age with grace (which is a phrase I always thought was reserved for middle aged actresses). How I envied her blissful ignorance, and began to resent her for it. I certainly couldn’t tell her or else she’d have me committed. I was already feeling insane.
And now here I sit before a cake which reads, “Over the Hill” with two candles, now a ‘5’ and a ‘0’. My son is fifteen and more interested in his smartphone than in his father’s party, assuming you could call it that. It’s just him, me and my wife. God bless her, she’s trying her heart out to the make the day happy for me. Last week she stopped bothering to ask why I stressed so much on my birthdays and had just done her best to make me feel better during them. I do love her, despite being awful at showing it. I wish I had taken her to Paris. She always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower.
I wish that I had taught my son more about appreciating his family and the precious time he had with them. I wish that I hadn’t worked sixty hour weeks to get promoted just to make my work life even busier. Now it seems like none of that mattered. For now the only thing that does matter is my oldest companion; the one that has truly been with me since the beginning. I now wonder whether it took its first step when I was born or if it had the decency to at least wait until I turned one.
It now stands perhaps ten feet to my left. I have tried not to keep count these last few years, out of fear of really knowing, but I’m pretty sure it should be up to ten steps by now. Glancing over at my loving wife, I wish I could tell her or try to explain all this now. There would be no use. What’s going to happen is going to happen and there’s nothing I can do. It’s as if it’s been prepping me for this my entire life.
As I inhale and prepare to blow out the candles, the only wish that come to mind is, “I wish I had done more.” As the tiny flames extinguish, I cringe and wait while my wife claps and my son gives a weak nod and affirmative grunt. I look over and it’s gone. Am I free? Was this all just in my own head? Was I wrong all along? Suddenly, a rush of new wishes and promises come to mind. I wish I had taken my wife on that trip…I will next month. I wish I hadn’t worked so much…I’ll resign tomorrow and spend more time traveling. I wish I had lived a more fulfilling life…I can start that right now! I wish…I had gone to the doctor when I insisted I was fine believing I had more time!
I turn back to face forward and there is the man standing mere inches in front of me. I’m certain now that I’m the only one that can see him or even smell him. As he breathes on me, I get a whiff of a rotten stench that smells like a decomposed corpse that’s just been found in a dumpster on a hot summer day. He reaches his hand out to me and pokes me in the chest. Immediately, a sharp pain erupts, like I have been stabbed with a knife. I clutch my chest and fall out of my chair. I’m not sure what happens next. I hear my wife and son yelling. Next comes a bright light from a paramedic checking my eyes.
Now I’m in the back of an ambulance and can feel each sharp turn as the driver rushes his way to an Emergency Room, desperate the keep his patient alive. The tall man is back. He stands just above me, invisible to the paramedics. His blank expression gone, replaced with a bright smile that reveals yellow and rotting teeth. He reaches out his hand and pulls it back. I can feel myself being pulled up, as if his arm were a fishing road and I, the trout.
Slowly I rise until I’m certain I’m not even in the ambulance anymore. I can see the sky and I look down to see the ambulance turn so fast it almost tips over into the ER entrance. I see the doctors and nurses rush to open the doors and wheel me out, only that’s not me down there anymore. I rise farther and farther into a dark abyss. At this point I know for a fact, that’s no longer me down there on the stretcher. That’s a just a dead man with a soon to be grieving family. That’s just a fool who saw death come nearer each year, yet still wasted his life, thinking he had more time.