01 April 2008


Income taxes come due mid-April. I know this. Yet every year I act as if the deadline has been changed to the thirtieth of July, say, or September third, or the fifth of Never. I only fool myself, I know, but I can be pretty gullible, especially when I work at it. Problem is, my fool’s paradise is a fragile thing and one of my co-workers seems bent on shattering it to pieces. Not only does he file his taxes early, he advertises this fact. Again and again.

“Nope, didn’t watch the game last night. Got my taxes done instead.” A few minutes later, “See you got a haircut. Looks like they shaved you as close as the IRS did me this year. Found that out last night when I did my taxes.” Then, “My cousin called me last night and I told him about getting my taxes in by the end of January. . . .”

Sheesh. The groundhog hasn’t yet poked its nose out of its burrow. No way I’m going to take my head out of the sand. Or so I reason. I want to believe that my life flows easier, richer, fuller when I ignore all things taxing. That my days grow more footloose and fancy free. Never mind that little black cloud on the horizon, the one that grows darker and more threatening as April approaches. Never mind that I scramble at the last minute to put my financial house in order, find the papers I need, receipts, bills, check stubs. Never mind that last year when the IRS reviewed my return they found I’d overlooked some of the finer points of the law. They refunded me an extra 800 dollars. 

There’s a lesson here if only I would listen. My way of doing business exacts a high price, both in mental stress and material loss. Ignorance falls several hundred dollars short of bliss. The cost of living in a fool’s paradise keeps going up. 

So does the cost of dying there.

Death and taxes, they say, are the only two sureties. And I do a capital job of ignoring both. But as I lollygag my way through life, pretend I am immortal, I wind up paying a high price when death comes knocking on my door. Ignore the fact that I am going to die, and I lose out on experiences of life I don’t even know are mine. What’s the good of hiding my head in the sand when I have one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel? Staying aware of death’s approach may allow me to more fully experience the moments I have, 

Easy to say, hard to do. Monarchs of the Middle Ages had a servant whose task it was each day to remind their royal highnesses they would die someday. I can’t afford to hire someone for the job. Guess I’ll have to do it myself.

Life offers me little reminders, opportunities to practice dying. To say goodbye. To feel pain. To let go. 

A college professor friend teaches a class on death and dying. He passes out four slips of paper to his students, asks them to write on each something they value highly. Could be people, popularity, relationships, eyesight, physical or mental health, house, home, motorcycle, good grades, whatever. He then talks about the aging process, about having to let go of things that have been meaningful. He directs his students to select one piece of paper, pass it to him. “You’re left with only three now,” he says. “Imagine what your life is like.” They discuss these losses. He has them turn in yet another slip of paper. Students find it difficult to choose. They talk some more. Then he walks the aisles, himself takes one slip of paper from each student. Some grow angry. “That’s how it is,” he tells them. “You don’t have a choice in what you will have to give up.” Fact is, in the end, they will have to surrender everything. Life itself.

Hard words, these. Hard truths. Not pleasant to think about.

But they can motivate me to stay open, aware. To be thankful for what I have now. To know it will not last, that circumstances will change. To practice holding all things lightly, practice letting go. When I feel pain, to try opening to it rather than clenching tight around it. To see if I can get through it, to find out what, if anything, awaits on the other side.

My husband, bless his heart, all year long saves receipts, files papers, tracks tax deductible expenditures. As if he knows this preparation will pay off somehow in the end. As if he has some privileged information about a day of reckoning to come. Can it be?

This essay first appeared in The Letter, April 2008.

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