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The On Being Project

What I Did When I Thought I Had Two Hours To Live

What would you do if you had two hours to live?

This is a question that I had to ask of myself when I was 13 years old. It was not part of a thinking exercise; nor was it a question posed at a spiritual retreat. This existential query was posed to me by my father, as I laid down in a hospital emergency room on the doorsteps of death:

“Son, I have always told you the truth, and I will always tell you the truth. There is a possibility, and a strong possibility, that you may have two hours left to live. What would you like to do in these two hours?”

When I was 13, my father went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. He came back as a Pilgrim (Hajji), his face adorned with a beard, glowing with the grace of the journey. He was around 45 at the time, not too far from my age now. My mother had undertaken the same journey earlier, and that year it was his turn. To give thanks for his once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, my parents hosted a party at our home. Close family and friends came to congratulate my dad and share in the stories of his pilgrimage experience.

In the middle of the party, I started to feel a bit queasy. I went to the bathroom and threw up and then washed my face and rinsed my mouth. When I looked up at my face in the mirror, I noticed that there were — suddenly — some pimples appearing on my face. Surprised, I thought to myself: “That’s kind of weird.” I knew that teenagers sometimes get pimples, but I didn’t realize that they appeared all at once.

I came out of the bathroom and rejoined the party. My father and my mother were standing in the middle of the crowd. They were, and are, gracious, kind, and at ease — the ultimate hosts. My father was surveying the party, making sure everyone had food and drinks and that they were enjoying themselves. His glance came across my face. He smiled as he does each time he looks at me and kept moving past me to look at other guests. It was then that I saw something that I had never seen before, and have never seen since then: His neck whiplashed, and his eyes returned to mine. I saw every drop of blood leave my father’s face, his smile evaporating. With a purposeful stride, he walked toward me and stared closely at my face. He turned to my mom, and in a measured voice, said:

“Omid and I are going to go for a drive. Please carry on with the gathering.”

We got to the car, and my Baba started to drive toward the children’s hospital where he worked. My father is a pediatrician and served as the head of the pediatrics department in that hospital. In addition to working as a pediatrician, he had a rather strange fascination with rare and exotic diseases. As a hobby, he studied diseases that one in ten million people catch, diseases that only two people have ever survived, and so on. Years ago, he read about one such disease: a form of meningitis that, once transmitted, stayed dormant in victims’ nervous system for years. At some point it would become active and attack the spinal cord and the brain. The sign of its activation: a series of pimples appearing on a person’s face. From the time that the pimples appear, one has a few hours to pump the body full of serious antibiotics. If that does not happen, the overwhelming majority of patients die.

These were the same pimples my father saw on my face: the symptoms of a rare and lethal disease that he had read about in a book years before. He drove me to the hospital and sat by my bed in the emergency room. He held my hand and asked me that question: If you have two hours to live, what would you like to do?

The rest of that night is a feverish blur. I asked to talk to my mom; had a slice of chocolate cake; prayed. I remember waking up every few hours and seeing my mother praying by my bedside, then every nurse in the hospital, and then every cleaning staff member who loved my father for his kindness toward them throughout the years — all praying for me. I remember taking that question most seriously:

“If I have only two hours, what would I do? How would I spend it?”

The morning came, and I remember the first sensations that came to me: relief at not being dead, and then — joy. Overwhelming, total, heart-bursting joy. Joy for breathing, joy for being alive, joy for being alive. Joy for seeing the sun shine through the window. Joy for feeling the texture of the sheets around me. Joy for seeing the face of my father. Joy for feeling the breath enter my heart. Joy for feeling joy.

I marveled, too. What if my father were not a pediatrician? What if he had not had a fascination with rare diseases? What if he had not gone to Mecca, and we had not had a party for him? What if he had simply been at work that day and not gotten home until night? Any of those little moving pieces, and I have no doubt that I would not be here writing these words. It is the sheer synchronicity of the universe that humbles me now — one of those rare moments when I can see, with the full conviction of my heart, God’s design in its majesty and intricacy.

Over the years, I have reflected on that night and how it has changed me. I come back to how that night and the next morning have forever changed everything about what it means to live and to be alive.

I sometimes use this night as an occasion for spiritual reflection with my friends and students. I ask them to think about what they would do if they knew that they have two years to live. Most talk about travel and experiences. They would want to see Paris, Hawaii, New York City, Istanbul, and so on. They talk about thrill-seeking adventures, like going bungee-jumping, making love on a beach, walking in an ancient redwood forest.

I then ask them what they would do if they knew that they had two hours left to live, and the answers change radically. There’s no more Paris, no more Hawaii, no more bungee-jumping. There is usually a deep silence over the room, and one by one they say:

I’d love to see Momma. I’d want to say ‘I love you’ to her once more.

I’d love to go be with my dad, and say ‘I am sorry for that whole period from ages 12-18.’

I’d love to go back to my true love, and have one more moment to sit together, hold her hand, and see how her eyes look when she is giggling.

When we are told that we have two hours left to live, what we want is to be with the ones we love the most and to tell them that they are loved. Almost no one says, “If I had two hours left, I’d love to have a chance to take revenge.” This affirms my faith that what is most basic to our divine nature is love, intimacy, tenderness, and seeking forgiveness.

I wonder, friends, what it would be like to wake up each morning, pondering how we would live if we thought we only had two hours left. With whom would we choose to spend our time? For whom would we pick up the phone? What words would we use to speak with them?

So, friends, what would you do if you had two hours to live? And just as importantly, what are you going to do in these next two hours?

There will come a time in our lives when we will truly have only two hours to live. How lovely will it be to have lived a life in which we have told everyone how loved they are, asked for forgiveness for all that we have to atone, and forgiven all those around us who yearn for forgiveness. How lovely to greet that moment with no regrets, but with a sense of purpose, meaning, love, tenderness, and forgiveness.

Whatever you would do then, do it now. It is now as it shall be then.

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