December 4, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

Jia Huang is celebrating his fifth birthday today. Surrounded by family and friends, a delightful smile on his young face, he stands before the birthday cake, poised to blow out the candles. Guests are snapping photographs with their phones. Jia's proud parents stand behind him, their only child and most precious treasure in the entire world. I watch quietly. Jia's mother did extensive research before finding the perfect Montessori school for him. She has high hopes for her child, imagining that he will eventually attend a prestigious University and study law, or perhaps medicine. She would settle for engineering as well, but only if he really wanted to. Jia's father is proud that he has someone who will carry on his family legacy and name. Jia has made his parents very, very happy. He is a precocious child, very perceptive and intelligent. And he is mature for his age. Everyone seems to have such high hopes for him, but all he really wants to do is play the new video game with his friends. His parents will allow him, of course. Today is his birthday, after all. 7 weeks, 3 days, 12 hours, 4 minutes, 1 second.

Cathy Weston is out jogging. She is thirty-five years old, single, ambitious. A career woman. She is rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. At the rate she is going, she will soon join the ranks of executive management, a goal she has been coveting for several years. She knows how to push hard, and can be a tough negotiator. She also pays attention to other areas of her life, like her health and wellness. But she doesn't have much regard for personal relationships. She cannot envision a future where she settles down, gets married and has children. She shudders at the thought of having to perform household duties and the act of raising kids. No, the corporate world is a place she is suited for. It feels comfortable, familiar. She likes it. Every weekend she telephones her Mom and Dad in Houston to check in on them and see how they are doing. Once a quarter she flies out to visit them for a few days. They are always thrilled to see their daughter, who has become such an important person in the world.

She stops jogging to catch her breath, leaning down with her hands on her thighs. She doesn't notice me, even though I am close by. Her heart is beating fast, just a little faster than it should be. But she doesn't check her pulse rate. If she had checked it, she would have realized. Maybe. But I notice it. I always notice these sorts of things. 12 weeks, 1 day, 6 hours, 3 minutes, 12 seconds.

Harold Kepner is a fifty-five year old doctor. He works in the hospital, and his daily routine is filled with stress and anxiety. He is sleep-deprived and highly strung. He's a very handsome man, although you wouldn't know it by looking at him. Bags under his eyes. Wrinkles on his face. Graying hair. Hairline starting to recede. Signs of premature aging. It looks like he hasn't had a proper night's rest in years. Sometimes his eyes have this vacant stare, as if his brain has just tuned out. And then he'll suddenly snap back to reality and ask you to repeat what you were just saying. But he's a good man. He tries hard. He does lose some patients, usually it's those whose condition is beyond repair. But it still takes its toll on him. And you can tell. It seems like he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Some days, he wonders whether the white coat was worth it all. And those days are growing in frequency now. It seems like the constant stream of patients walking in those hospital doors is never-ending. And he can't do anything to stem the tide. He feels like he's being overwhelmed. Drowning. It can become too much, even for the most resilient and well-meaning doctor. Still, he wakes up every morning and goes to work, the nurse hands him the charts and he begins rounds. He has a grim determination and will not stop. For Harold, every life saved is worth it. Worth all the stress and struggle and drudgery. All of it. 4 days, 3 hours, 11 minutes, 6 seconds.

Michiko Kagotani is ninety-nine years old. By all accounts, she has lived a full life. She sits in her recliner, a small, unassuming woman, and smiles brightly. She is fortunate to have a large family, and all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren love her dearly and visit her often. She is cared for and loved by the entire family. She still walks on her own, although with the help of a cane. And slowly. Sometimes it takes ten minutes just to make it to the refrigerator. But she's healthy. And able to hold a conversation. Her small, twinkling eyes peer out from that wrinkled old body and reveal a sparkling soul. People from all walks of life are impressed and inspired by her. They fall in love with her vibrant personality. She has become somewhat of a local celebrity. Everyone loves her and her infectious, child-like smile. She is grateful for her long life, full of wonderful and memorable experiences. She does miss her husband, who passed away almost twenty years ago. But she has no regrets about her life. I visit her often, sitting by her side for hours on end. I always think this visit will be the last time I will see her, but somehow she is still here. 24 weeks, 4 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes, 4 seconds.

Jurgen Geuter is twenty-two years old and a sophomore in college. The life of the party. Handsome, well-spoken, and confident. And apparently intelligent too. He always seems to get an A in all his classes. Nobody can recall seeing him at the library, though. Or studying. He has many qualities that are the envy of his classmates and friends. He demonstrates a great deal of potential and promise. His teachers and mentors have placed high hopes on him and his success and eventual rise in his chosen field. He is displaying aptitude in the technical subjects, so he might gravitate towards engineering or perhaps the medical field. His parents couldn't be happier, or more proud. As first generation immigrants to the United States, they worked hard to build a future and a foundation upon which their children could succeed. Jurgen thrived in the new environment and excelled. He was the future of the Geuter name and legacy. He was the reward and the vindication that all their hard work and struggle had been worth it. I go out with him when he rides his motorcycle, and especially when he races. 9 weeks, 8 days, 3 hours, 17 minutes, 12 seconds.

I spend most of my time with Michiko and Jurgen. I have gotten to know them very well, much more than the others. I really like Michiko, she's a very sweet old lady. But what I like is immaterial. I have to perform my duties. I am watching, ever watching. And waiting. Patiently. The inevitable passage of time is my ally. The great equalizer, everyone being granted the same 86,400 seconds every day to use as they wish. Some people use the time wisely, others don't even remember what they did with their time. But it always runs out, like sand in an hourglass. And when it starts to thin out and get narrow, and finally when the last grain falls, and there's nothing left, they will find me standing there. Just as time ran out first for Harold Kepner. That was a surprise even for me. I always thought it would be Michiko first, or Jurgen perhaps. But when the summons arrives, I immediately act. In less than an instant I appear.

Four days have passed by like the blink of an eye, and Harold is where he always is, in the hospital. Only this time, it's he who needs medical attention. He lies on the floor, convulsing in pain. Medical staff rush to surround him, and begin emergency procedures to attempt to save his life. I stand over him, watching. I already know that it is of no use. They will not be able to save him. 1 hour, 4 minutes, 2 seconds. He loses consciousness. They lift him onto a gurney and rush him into an operating room. The neurosurgeon begins operating on him. It is a brain aneurysm. They will not be successful. 20 minutes and 5 seconds. The neurosurgeon is trying hard, she does not want to lose one of their own doctors. But I am standing right next to her. I am so close that I can feel her breath. She doesn't see me. She is so concerned about the life of Harold Kepner. It is occupying all her thoughts. But her name is on my list too. I will be visiting her as well. Soon. Sooner than she realizes.

2 minutes. The doctors are frantic. Harold's heart has stopped. He lies on the operating room table, his body cut open and his internal organs exposed, red blood everywhere. It's like a butchers shop in here.

1 minute. They are losing hope. Some of the nurses have already given up. But not the neurosurgeon. Not yet.

Thirty seconds. She is desperately trying. But she will not be able to save this patient. He is mine.

Ten seconds. I come close to Harold's body as the last glowing embers of life are fading away. Five seconds. I lean in, smiling. Ready. Counting.





The last grain drops.

The doctors solemnly pronounce time of death and one by one, sadly leave the room. Leaving me alone with my prey. He opens his eyes and sees me. I issue the unspoken command, and his soul rises. I turn and leave the room, and he follows.

They are falling like dominoes. Soon I am back with Jia Huang. It is through no fault of his own that his short life ends at five years of age. I am there to watch him fall, and I know what's coming next. The panic stricken parents. The emergency room. Last minute efforts to save him. And then the sorrow, the grief, the deep pain. The family upheaval and turmoil. I've seen it all before, countless times. As the appointed time comes, I get ready. When the measure of breaths is full, and life has left the body, the soul must arise and depart this physical realm. I didn't make these rules, I just follow them. His allotted time here is over, short as it was. As I silently leave the room with the weeping relatives and the traumatized parents, Jia Huang follows me. His time here is complete.

Surprisingly, Jurgen Geuter doesn't die in a motorcycle crash. He catches a virus, or rather, the virus catches him. It is a virulent, dangerous infection. His body can't seem to fight it off. Nobody knows it yet, but there is an interaction between the medication he is taking for his asthma and the virus. The new drug showed promise and was rushed through clinical trials without the proper scrutiny. Jurgen is the first victim. I watch him in his hospital bed, lying in agony, sweating profusely. The doctors are stunned. They consult with each other in hushed voices just outside of earshot, while Jurgens parents sit at his bedside with a grim countenance. The time is approaching, and his breathing slows. I float closer to him, overshadowing everyone and everything. Tick. Tock. I wait. I am patient. Hovering over his body, I wait. All seems quiet and peaceful. And then.

Asystole. Flat line. Cardiac arrest.

Pandemonium. Nurses rushing in the crash cart. Someone ferries the terrified parents out of the room. Doctors are here. Defibrillator. Someone is shouting, "Stand clear, charging!" Flurry of activity. "Stand clear, shocking!" Jurgen's body jerks. 200 joule shock is useless. They do it again. Nothing. "Charge to 360!" Clear. Shock. Someone is doing CPR. I wait patiently. I know what's coming. Let the doctors try, but this prey is mine.

The time has come. I stretch out my arms as Jurgen opens his eyes. He beholds me in terror as I float above him, enveloping him. Now is the time to come with me. The last doctor stops CPR and morosely pronounces time of death. Jurgen's soul twists and turns. Sometimes they are like this. But I have absolute power. My claw reaches out and grabs him by his hair, and I drag him out of the hospital room. His shrieks of horror are not heard by anyone.

Cathy Weston didn't ever imagine that she would be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just a simple visit to the grocery store. It ends in bloodshed. She walks out carrying two full paper bags of groceries. Several members of rival gangs are in the parking lot in a standoff, and just as tensions escalate to breaking point, Cathy unknowingly steps out of the doors. The scene is chaotic. Bullets are flying and everyone is ducking and running for cover. Cathy realizes too late and a stray bullet strikes her in the neck. Seconds later, even as she is gasping to breathe and is drowning in the blood in her own throat, another bullet hits her in the head. Abruptly, everything stops. She is dead before her body hits the ground. Like Jurgen, she is not ready to leave. I throw the shackles around her neck, and lead her away, screaming.

Many months later, I am seated in the recliner next to Michiko. It's only a matter of minutes now. She has surprised me, by managing to live this long and still be so full of life. But, as with all things, there is a time. Everything born must die. These are the rules. I sit and watch as the grandchildren play and the various members of the family mingle and cook, talk, laugh and play. I will be visiting each of them also. Only a matter of time. But first, it is Michiko's turn.

I am patient. The process is inevitable. I sit and wait. When she has a quiet moment, she turns to face me. I see her twinkling eyes. She is looking right at me. Can she see me? I stop and look back. She smiles knowingly, and nods.

"I have been waiting," she says quietly. She has surprised me. It is very rare that anyone can sense my presence. This doesn't happen often.

"It's alright," she continues, "I am ready. I've had a happy life, as you can see. But, I don't want to traumatize the children. I'll go to the bedroom."

I nod in agreement.

She asks her daughter to help her up. "I'm tired," she says, "I will lie down for a while." And her daughter takes her arm and walks her to the bedroom.

Her son delivers her eulogy, heartfelt and beautiful: Michiko Kagotani passed away peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her loved ones. She was the epitome of love and caring, always had a smile on her face, and will be dearly missed.

I watch him as the clock ticks. There are still a few years left before I pay him a visit. But for many others in the audience, I will be seeing them in a few months. And for some, it will be a just few weeks. Two men sitting in the front row will see me only days from now. They haven't prepared, they are not ready. But I am ready, I'm always ready.

And you, dear reader, your preparations have not been enough either. Your name is on my list as well, and the time is appointed for us to meet. You don't see me, but I've been watching and waiting, and I do visit you very often. Like a hunter who constantly keeps his prey in the crosshairs. When the measure of breaths is full, I will be at your side in an instant, and you will have to arise and depart, taking nothing with you.

See you soon . . .