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To learn more, visit LifespanBook. Matthew LaPlante is an associate professor of journalistic writing at Utah State University, where he teaches news reporting and feature writing. A former US Navy intelligence specialist and Middle East war correspondent, he is the author of Superlative: The Biology of Extremes and the cowriter of multiple other books on the intersection of science and society. To learn more, visit MDLaPlante. In figurative terms, my backyard was a hundred-acre wood. In literal terms, it was much bigger than that.

It went on as far as my young eyes could see, and I never grew tired of exploring it. I would hike and hike, stopping to study the birds, the insects, the reptiles. I pulled things apart. I rubbed the dirt between my fingers. I listened to the sounds of the wild and tried to connect them to their sources. And I played. I made swords from sticks and forts from rocks. I imagined myself as an astronaut on a distant planet. I pretended to be a hunter on safari. I lifted my voice for the animals as though they were an audience at the opera house.

There were lots of kids in the northern suburbs of Sydney who shared my love of adventure and exploration and imagination. We expect this of children. We want them to play this way. Then we want them to go to school. Then we want them to go to work. To find a partner. To save up. To buy a house.

Because, you know, the clock is ticking.

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She had grown up in Hungary, where she spent Bohemian summers swimming in the cool waters of Lake Balaton and hiking in the mountains of its northern shore at a holiday resort that catered to actors, painters, and poets. When her mother tried to cross illegally into Austria, she was caught, arrested, and sentenced to two years in jail and died shortly after. During the Hungarian Uprising in , my grandmother wrote and distributed anti-Communist newsletters in the streets of Budapest. After the revolution was crushed, the Soviets began arresting tens of thousands of dissidents, and she fled to Australia with her son, my father, reasoning that it was the furthest they could get from Europe.

She never set foot in Europe again, but she brought every bit of Bohemia with her. She was, I have been told, one of the first women to sport a bikini in Australia and got chased off Bondi Beach because of it. She spent years living in New Guinea—which even today is one of the most intensely rugged places on our planet—all by herself.

Though her bloodline was Ashkenazi Jew and she had been raised a Lutheran, my grandmother was a very secular person. She read that poem to my brother and me again and again. Six, she told us, was the very best age, and she did her damnedest to live life with the spirit and awe of a child of that age. She told me to enjoy my youth, to savor the feeling of being young. Adults, she said, always ruined things. Never grow up. By her mids, Vera was a shell of her former self, and the final decade of her life was hard to watch. She was frail and sick. Toward the end, she gave up hope.

She died at the age of But the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to believe that the person she truly was had been dead many years at that point. Growing old may seem a distant event, but every one of us will experience the end of life.

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After we draw our last breath, our cells will scream for oxygen, toxins will accumulate, chemical energy will be exhausted, and cellular structures will disintegrate. A few minutes later, all of the education, wisdom, and memories that we cherished, and all of our future potential, will be irreversibly erased.


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I learned this firsthand when my mother, Diana, passed away. My father, my brother, and I were there. It was a quick death, thankfully, caused by a buildup of liquid in her remaining lung. I leaned in and whispered into her ear that she was the best mom I could have wished for. Within a few minutes, her neurons were dying, erasing not just the memory of my final words to her but all of her memories.

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I know some people die peacefully. In those moments she was transformed from the person who had raised me into a twitching, choking mass of cells, all fighting over the last residues of energy being created at the atomic level of her being. And his assessment—indeed, his warning—is chilling.

By the age of four or five, they know that death occurs and is irreversible. The end of her life was hard to watch. But the person she truly was had been dead many years at that point. Between 5 and 7, however, all children come to understand the universality of death. Every family member will die.

Every pet. Every plant. Everything they love. Themselves, too. I can remember first learning this.

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I can also very well remember our oldest child, Alex, learning it. Alex cried on and off for a few days, then stopped, and never asked me about it again. If asked what they do think about it, they say it is not a concern because it will occur only in the remote future, when they get old. Death is simply too sad and paralyzing to dwell on each day.

Often, we realize it too late. When it comes knocking, and we are not prepared, it can be devastating. It takes even more courage to deeply ponder your own. It was the comedian and actor Robin Williams who first demanded this courage from me through his portrayal of John Keating, the teacher and hero in the film Dead Poets Society, who challenges his teenage students to stare into the faces of the long-dead boys in a fading photo. Their eyes are full of hope.

But you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys.

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Make your lives extraordinary. At the age of 20, I had finally heard someone else say what my grandmother had taught me at an early age: Do your part to make humanity be the best it can be. Embrace your youth; hold on to it for as long as you can. Fight for it. Never stop fighting for it. But instead of fighting for youth, we fight for life. Or, more specifically, we fight against death.


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