i saw Death sitting on a barstool

words by Brian Thompson, photo by Jennifer Picard Photography.

i have a ghost story of sorts that i’d like to share.

three years ago i quit drinking.

the decision came shortly after i saw Death sitting on a barstool one sunny afternoon. i walked past the window of a bistro and there he was. he looked up from his drink and motioned for me to come over and join him. that’s odd, i thought, why would Death want to share a drink with me? sure, we’d brushed elbows a few times before, but we certainly weren’t friends. i wasn't sure how to best respond, so i just pretended i didn't notice him and walked on by.

a few days later, i saw Death once more, but this time it was through my very own bloodshot eyes. he was looking back at me in my morning mirror. he frowned and gave his head a solemn shake as if to say, “tsk tsk, you really disappoint me”. he shrugged his shoulders, offered me a somewhat sad yet sympathetic smile, and then faded out of view.

something was amiss; i feared my name might be rising quickly to the top of Death’s to-do list.

the next day i stumbled on my way home, after having drinks with the boys, and i tripped over my own two feet, hitting the ground hard and skinning my already bruised knees. as i struggled to stand i looked up to see Death standing across the street. he glanced at his watch and gave me a knowing nod, "tick-tock, tick-tock," he mocked, as he wagged his finger back and forth. he cracked a nightmare of a grin and slowly rubbed his boney hands together while i brushed myself off and clumsily continued on my way.

it was an unsettling feeling, to say the least, having Death watch over you like that.

Death knew that i’d been greedy and selfish with Life, but for some reason he was being overly generous with me. it felt as if he was giving me one final chance, even though i didn’t deserve one. i wonder, does Death give everyone a second chance? perhaps i was lucky because i noticed his frustrated shadow looming over me, waiting, anxiously tapping his fingers. Death was getting impatient, he wasn’t willing to wait much longer for me to pull my act together.

Death knew i’d taken Life for granted — but my ignorance was no excuse. Death probably thought that if i wasn’t going to do something better with the energy of Life that i’d been given, then perhaps someone else would. my life was his for the taking.

i sensed my expiry was coming soon, so i tried to be as careful as i could while Death continued to watch over me. "have another drink,” he’d whisper in my ear after appearing out of thin air, teasing me, testing me, waiting for me to mess up just one last time.

i couldn't bear his taunts any longer, his game was far too dangerous to play. one last reckless night was all it took. i awoke and made the decision of a lifetime — i would drink no more. after all, what did i have to lose?

i was already deathly close to having nothing left to give.

i realized that if i continued to drown my sorrows and pain i'd not only kill all of my potential and possibilities, but i’d also destroy my dreams. i vowed to not let that happen. i would be Death’s play-thing no more. no more wasted nights. no more dizzy, grumpy mornings. no more feeling like death. no more stupid mistakes. no more shame, embarrassment or regret. no more wasting my Life.

you see, when i saw Death sitting on the bar stool that day, it was actually an older gentleman i knew, a neighbourhood man who i considered a friend. his life had become quite sad after many years of only focussing on business and money, and he now spent most of his days sitting at the bar of a French bistro drinking bottles of expensive wine. despite all of his achievements and great wealth and success, he was lonely and depressed. you could see it in his eyes. in that moment however, as i saw him drinking all alone on that stool, all i could see was Death’s shadow. he had already given up. he was already dead inside and his physical self was now just slowly trying to catch up. the Life had already been sucked out of him.

what truly shocked me though, was that i also saw myself sitting on that stool — i saw who i might someday become — i saw the ghost of my future self.

i couldn’t unsee what i had seen. i couldn’t forget the foreshadowing of my very own future and the foretelling of my pending death. that very moment became the spark that awakened me from many years of use and abuse. shortly thereafter, i quit drinking for good.

i had been desperately lost in a thorny thicket of brambles for so many years, but thankfully i found my way out with relatively few wounds (many never get out alive). i realized it was time for me to view life through a lens i’d never before looked through — one with a clear and healthy body and mind, with a fresh and invigorated new perspective, energized by pure ideas and whole-hearted, passionate intent.

i promised myself i would fill the rest of my days with gratitude, love, understanding, compassion, and a quest to realize my deepest potential — i would abuse Life no more.

it’s unfortunate it took Death’s shadow to wake me from my stubborn stupor, but i suppose his presence was what i needed to knock sense into my delusional self. my ego didn’t want me to change, no matter how sad, desperate, or depressed i became. my ego didn’t like the idea of me venturing out on my own, standing alone and apart from the crowd with which i was known. instead, my ego just kept on trying to convince me that things would get better, that i should relax, let loose, have fun, and live a little. but in fact, things only got worse.

the pains of my problem had become too great, so while i still had a chance, i made every effort to transform my life. i simply awoke one day, slapped myself across the face and said, "that's it. i've had enough, no more” — and that’s all it took. the rest was easy, i simply made a commitment to change and promised to never turn back.

whatever goodness you're waiting to do for yourself, you already know what it is and you already know what you need to do. whether it’s quitting the abuse of something that’s hurting you, putting an end to some otherwise harmful habit or behaviour, or it’s pursuing a healthier new way of living, a spiritual quest of inner peace or personal development, a new passion, or a new career, or pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone — there is no other time than now.

follow your bliss — be a victim of your pain no more.

don’t give Death a reason to visit before your time is due. this precise moment is the only one you ever have. your time is now — if you wait, it might be too late. wipe away the fog that’s kept you muddled and bereft for so long. silence the voice inside your head that says it’s too hard — drop the fear, excuses, and worry — give yourself the gift of effort.

put your strength of will to the test and see what you’re made of, you’ll be amazed at what you find.

so, whatever happened to the gentlemen who sat on the barstool that day? sadly, he died last year from a fatal fall at the end of a night of drinking. he hit his head on the cement outside the front door of the very same French bistro where i saw Death that afternoon, along with the ghost of my future self. he never recovered. he was a friend and i mourn his passing, but his untimely demise will forever haunt me, knowing just how close i was to sharing a similar fate.

give your mind, body and soul the reverence and respect they deserve — replace your bad habits with better ones.

change your mind, change your life.

oh, and if you happen to see him, please send Death my warm regards — he did me a favour that day.