On death and study breaks (or keeping perspective through the grind)

I want to die deep in the woods. Alone, naked, and calm.

I recently journeyed into the wilderness with some second year medical students— our destination: a hidden spring. I joined them for the promise of a much needed study break; away from molecular biology lectures and flashcard review, away from powerpoints and notebooks. We ventured about an hour north of campus to a nature reserve and we bushwhacked for another half hour through some knee-deep wetland, getting a bit lost along the way, in order to find Buford Spring.

At first sight, the spring didn’t look like much: a pond about seventy-five feet across, a bit of water that I would’ve likely passed by under other circumstances. But, at Buford’s center, a crack in the bedrock opens up the underworld to the intrepid adventurer, allowing one to dive a hundred feet into cool, clear spring water.

I want to die far away from civilization, where you would never hear a car horn or the low drone of an airplane. Where the plants, bacteria, and fungi never had to experience man-made poisons or chemicals. Where the animals are unafraid of humans, so they will eat and recycle my body, along with countless insects and birds. Civilization raised and fostered me, but like an ungrateful child, I will not return to it when I am done.

In the practice of free-diving, you go underwater with just the air in your lungs and the oxygen already in your blood. A beautifully simple activity: hold your breath, venture through the depths, and come back up. An experienced free-diver can stay submerged for three or four minutes on a single breath. While this sounds like a superhuman feat, the magic lies in the preparation— before diving in, you ready your body with anywhere between twenty to forty deep, strong and rapid breaths and this provides a buffer for your underwater adventures.

On my first dive, I ventured about fifteen feet down, just to the level of the crack in the earth so that I was surrounded by rock. Looking up, I saw the world lit beautifully by the sun, ringed by the green of trees. Looking down, I glimpsed the shadowy depths. “Mesmerizing” falls very short of describing the sensation.

On my second dive, I went as deep as the sunlight. I saw a rock on the bottom and aimed for it— as I went straight down, time became fluid and I lost my sense of depth. With my eye trained on that flat, well-lit stone, I couldn’t be sure if I was thirty or a hundred feet underwater. When I arrived at the stone, it felt like dropping into a dream— tough to recall exactly how I got there, but everything felt very… normal. I couldn’t tell you my name; I couldn’t tell you what material I crammed the night before. I looked around me, at the beautiful stones and the bits of kicked-up debris. I gazed upwards, and it felt like looking at a starry night with a full moon. The surface seemed so bright and distant. Everything felt right.

Like an old dog circling their favorite cushion, I’ll find myself a place to die. Somewhere quiet, shady, and with a good breeze. Probably at the base of a strong-limbed oak tree. Or maybe in a grove of sumac— the beautiful way they grow together has always called to me.

I recall a simple thought, “What a lovely place to die.” A single inhale separated me from drowning and a slow drip of panic began. Like a dreamer gently gaining lucidity and control over his actions, I shook off the hypnosis of the deep waters and began to make my way back up to reality. When I surfaced, my friend told me that I seemed relaxed down there. His comment unsettled me. How could I seem so calm while so near death?

I’ll crawl into the warm earth and pull a layer of soil on top of me. Ritualization of death separates the higher mammals from the rest of the animal kingdom— it implies an understanding of final passage. Burial both physically and spiritually separates the living from the dead, and often observed in elephants and humans. 

Why did I feel so uncomfortable with that compliment? It reminded me of a suicidal Eugene. In a past life, I was a young man looking for a way to die. So awkward in my own skin, I felt that only death could solve my dis-ease. Looking back, I did die. I killed myself and was reborn as someone with a vision of the future, with a mission that needed completion before I could leave.

In the years since that rebirth, I stopped obsessing over my death. Life took on such vigor that I barely stopped to look back, much less look forward. If I discovered an incurable disease within myself or suffered a lethal accident, I would have to scramble to find my death ritual.

My death ritual will be mine, and mine alone. I want to honor the life I’ve lived with quiet reflection and earnest appreciation before I pass. Rituals bookend the wild fuzziness of life—grace or thanks before a meal and excusing yourself to leave the table, college commencement and graduation ceremonies. Quiet or loud, together or alone, rituals mark beginnings and endings throughout our lives.

With my attention trained on the MCAT, the applications, the waitlist, the white coat ceremony, and passing the next exam, I found myself getting swept up in the momentum of life— falling under the illusion that it will last forever. This much-needed study break reminded me to keep my perspective and to remember that the next goalpost does not equal the end. The end is the end.

Every lovely evening must come to a close, like every dance and every song. Focusing on the middle and ignoring the ending does not mean that it will continue forever— it simply ensures that we are unprepared to fill the impending void with the following chapter.

I want to die deep in the woods.

8 thoughts on “On death and study breaks (or keeping perspective through the grind)

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