Memento Mori by Drew Dotson


My mom picked me up from school early for a doctor’s appointment. Soon we were on the interstate, headed to Atlanta to see the pulmonologist who treated my cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease known for the havoc it wreaks on the lungs.

As a kid, I wasn’t trepidatious about these visits. Already a people pleaser at 10 years old, I relished the praise I got when my lungs sounded clear. I would go home satisfied, and life would revert to normal until it was time to return three months later. That was the routine—until today.

After the visit, while my mom scheduled my next appointment, I browsed a bulletin board in the lobby of the doctor’s office until a newspaper clipping caught my eye. It was an article about a 31-year-old man living with CF. I was curious to know what he’d done that was significant enough to land him in the newspaper. Then I got to the part about him surpassing the life expectancy of a CF patient. My eyes grew large, my heart heavy. I reread the line, hoping I’d misunderstood, but it said the same thing.

I was supposed to die young. Based on what I just read, I wouldn’t live past my twenties.

And, in that moment, everything changed. Mortality began to follow me everywhere I went; death was always only a thought away. 


It turns out life, in and of itself, is fatal. There is a 100% chance we will die. It’s the inevitable truth. 

Death hasn’t always had a bad rap, though. In ancient Rome, it was customary to hold a parade—a triumphus—to honor victorious generals when they returned from battle. The generals would ride through town in horse-drawn chariots as onlookers praised them. 

Behind them on the chariots stood servants assigned to repeat a series of phrases: 

Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori! 

Over the cheers of the crowds, the general was reminded:

Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!

Even at the height of triumph, Roman generals were on the receiving end of a reality check. But this reminder of death was a source of humility—not a threat. 


That day in the doctor’s office, death became my enemy. I wanted to consume all the death-related content I could find to better anticipate my opponent’s moves. I thought I could outsmart death if I understood what I was up against. My quest for knowledge didn’t assuage my worries—I just became more obsessed. I focused on all the things I’d never become. I dwelled on how much heartache my death would cause those who loved me. 

At 10 years old, I was experiencing my first midlife crisis. 


I began to tiptoe through life as though I wasn’t welcome. A rumor circulated in middle school that I would die young, and I couldn’t silence the hallway chatter. In high school, I learned that people referred to me as “the sick girl.” Not only was I scared, but I began to feel ashamed. I spent my adolescence juggling fear and embarrassment.

In the right circumstances, my pending death could have prompted me to live. Instead, I found myself waiting to die. 

But I didn’t. Years passed, and I kept living.

I believed death was coming though, and the severity of my disease became clearer during my college years. I hobbled into adulthood and grew accustomed to hospitalizations and sinus surgeries. But I was still alive.


While other girls dreamt about walking down the aisle on their wedding day, I envisioned my funeral. I didn’t feel entitled to the same fantasies as other kids my age. I felt different, damaged, unworthy of love. 

Then I met Ramón. 

After a lifetime of questioning my existence, everything clicked. Ramón made me realize I was worthy of love, disease included. Since childhood, my shortened life span made it seem reckless to allow someone to love me, but suddenly it seemed foolish not to. He knew what he was agreeing to, and we exchanged vows four years after the day we met. We committed to each other in sickness and in health, and we understood I would provide the sickness.


Ramón and I slipped into the routine of doing adult things. We had jobs and dogs and countdowns to the weekends. But this all changed on Ramón’s 40th birthday when he was diagnosed with leukemia. 

“Who’s the sick one now?” we joked. 

Ramón’s prognosis wasn’t good. Tears rolled down our cheeks while we held each other on his hospital bed, swallowing the fact that our terminal illness count had doubled. Despite our anguish, we remained true to our word, only slightly edited—to love each other in sickness and in health more sickness. 

Our roles reversed after Ramón’s diagnosis. I’d always been the one in the hospital, but now it was Ramón. I sat beside his bed doing respiratory treatments while he received chemotherapy. Hospital staff entered the room, confused about which one of us was the patient.  We embraced the absurdity of our situation, often trying to out-sick one another. 

“Really? You had to do this during CF awareness month?” I chided. “This was my time to shine.”

“I have cancer. Look at me! I’ve lost my hair.” Ramón had been shaving his head since high school.

Mortality was more real than ever before—more lucid than at any other point in my death-fearing life. Yet, somehow, I worried less. My fear dissipated as we focused on the mini moments that comprised each day.

I felt naïve for having believed statistics would dictate my future. My ticking-clock mentality had backfired. I’d unconsciously adopted the belief that I would see my death coming from miles away. Now, in a strange twist of fate, Ramón’s death seemed more imminent than mine. But even with such heightened awareness of our mortality, we were at peace.  

Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!


After several rounds of chemo, Ramón’s leukemia went into remission. 

“Please let this be the end of the cancer chapter,” we pleaded, eager to return to life at home instead of at the hospital. 

But soon, we were in the hospital again—me as the patient this time. After a lifetime of lung infections, I had become resistant to pill-form antibiotics. Intravenous antibiotics were the only weapon at my disposal, and I finished my last infusion as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. 

“I want to have a boring-ass year,” Ramón said, then clarified, “Alive.”

We cackled like two mere mortals.

But the cancer returned, and one year after his diagnosis Ramón died. I was 34 years old—young for a widow, old for a person with CF. Maybe I hadn’t been preparing for my own death after all. Perhaps I’d been training for this. 


Despite death’s inevitability, we often accuse it of having bad timing. “We lost a good man too soon,” people said about Ramón. I agree about the “good man” part, but I can’t say whether it was “too soon.” We label it “too soon” when someone dies young, yet we never claim a centenarian was alive “too long.” 

Have you ever heard a eulogy that insisted someone died at the right time? 

“We are gathered here today to remember our loving mother, who bit the dust exactly when she was supposed to.”

When we say the timing wasn’t right, we imply there would have been a better moment to lose a loved one, but there is no ideal time to mourn. 

What if we chose to believe that death occurs at the perfect time?

 I will always grieve Ramón. I wish we’d had more time together. Ultimately, I couldn’t anticipate death’s moves, but I understood what was inevitable. I eliminated thoughts that could have kept me imprisoned in grief. Thoughts like, “this shouldn’t have happened,” or “he was robbed.” And I accepted the irrefutable truth. Where there is life, there will always be death. It is as natural as the sky and as certain as the sun.

Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!

Drew Dotson is an Atlanta-based author and improv enthusiast. She writes with levity about her experience with cystic fibrosis, widowhood, and other life antics. Drew’s work has appeared in Across the Margin, the CF Community BlogGrief Digest, and Transformations. She’s known for her love of beagles, sports, and cheese. You can read more of her work at