“Am I Going to Die?” by Marvin Shackelford

Am I Going to Die?

You’re not going to die. Calm down.
Well, you will die, eventually. The body can’t help breaking down, giving under the weight of damage you inflict or else, they say, the cells simply stop repairing, reproducing, replacing. You have a shelf life. You can’t help thinking of a jug of milk. Are you the Wal*Mart stuff that spoils quickly, or will you last a little longer, make it to your date?
You’ll die, but it won’t be for years, probably. Already you’ve survived chicken pox and strep that spread to your ears, countless tick and mosquito bites, the embarrassment of acne and braces, a string of apocalyptic high-school breakups, falling to your backup college and then failing out, going to community college, a canceled engagement and a failed marriage, two bouts of flu, and a 2004 case of food poisoning at the Maple City Family Restaurant that left you unable to face poultry for a year and a half or to eat any meal at all wedged into their shiny red-upholstered booths since. A shame. You really liked their food. Even that last bite of chicken had been delicious.
You’ll almost certainly live through this. You’ve buried three grandparents—the other was already dead, your namesake, heart attack when your father was seven, a whole other story—two in-laws, countless family pets, and a step-father who right up to the end called you Slick. You’ll bury your parents and a lot of your feelings. You’ll live through this but die before you have to bury a child. They’ll bury you, but that you can live with.
You google how to tell if a cough is dry and symptoms and prognosis and what does shortness of breath feel like. You hop website to website and time how long you can hold your breath. You begin tracking body temperature—usually 97.5, but does that make 98.6 a fever?—and buy a pulse oximeter. Your O2 butterflies in the safe range, pulse runs a little fast, but you’re unsure what to make of it. After an hour on the treadmill you step off sweaty and winded yet energized, but you have groceries delivered by a service. The doctor says over the phone to monitor your symptoms and try to isolate. Does it sound like something serious? How’s it compare to recent findings? Should you feel this way? Why do you get no better but seem no worse? He really can’t say. You boil down to searching the web, two or three times a day, typing in only am I going to die? The answer isn’t in the results, nothing’s clear, but you already know. It’s written all around, though not so much in words. You spend enough time alone in the dark that you can’t help but see it. You weren’t born knowing, maybe, but it’s one of the first lessons you learned. It’s transcribed in every religious tome, the moral of every great American novel, hiding at the heart of any good rock ’n’ roll or country-western song.
You’re going to die. It’s only a question of when.
You’re going to die, but you pull yourself together. You swallow vitamins and cough syrup, change the filter on the air return, and pull your family close. You take your father for a drive, pass Mennonite farms and the airport and new subdivisions and let him tell you who used to live on which old homestead. Your mother waves out the picture window of her long, beige house, tucked under the arm of husband number three, and you leave a basket of lotions and soaps on the porch. You play video games with the kids, catch up on your reading while they do homework, and your ex stops by for a long, late glass or two of wine.
You’re going to die. You drag everybody into the backyard to play frisbee, and you clear out a strip against the fence for a garden. You go to the park and still won’t touch the picnic tables or playground equipment, but you follow the trails and nod to the other hikers, stepping wide as they pass. Heading home you stop by the little market that always has fresher milk, and you walk inside to get it yourself.
You’re going to die, but you start cooking again, aim for healthy living, gather the family at the table. You hold out your hands and sit in a circle, waiting. You each take a turn naming for what you’re thankful, and then you say a prayer. You eat.
You’re going to die. You’re okay.

Marvin Shackelford is the author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a couple volumes of stories and flash forthcoming from Alternating Current and Red Bird Chapbooks. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee.

Twitter: @WorderFarmer