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Pondering Death on a Monday Morning

My uncle has six months to live.

We've known for a few weeks that he has cancer and he's dying, but he was given a death sentence of sorts this weekend. Oh, I know; you know people who were told they had weeks or months to live and they survived for a long time. Uncle E's cancer has nested in three different places, including his brain, and is not responding to treatment. So hope is not a big commodity around here.

I think of life as infinite sometimes. I'm sure we all do. Oh, we know we're going to die at some point, but we don't think about it much. We makes plans for tomorrow, for the upcoming holidays. Sometimes we make plans for a vacation next year or a wedding in two years. We put money away towards retirement. We look forward as if life is always going to be ours.

So what does one do or think when they've been told their life is finite? Not just finite in a human nature way, but finite with a number, with a marked distance. Six months? You can see the goal posts from here.

It's easy to say enjoy what time you have left to the fullest; that's probably the first thing that pops into everyone's mind. But when you have cancer traveling through all ports in your body, it's hard to carpe diem. In fact, the diem should be carped way before you're handed your ticket out. It's almost cruel to think that some people are told beforehand that they're going to die and they're too sick to actually do something with the time they have left.

Do you sit there and wait, knowing that soon you will be consumed by pain, that you won't be able to breathe on your own or eat or even get up to go to the bathroom, that parts of your body, one by one, will stop working and there will come a point when your brain will be so overcome with cancer that you won't even know your own name, that at your last moments your wife or son or daughter will be putting ice on your lips to keep them wet and crying over your ravished body?

I'm sure you try to stave off the pain and the falling apart by thinking happy thoughts and looking on the bright side of life and all. That's what they say, anyhow. Think positive. If you think good, you'll feel good! Easy to say when it's not your body being eaten alive by sickness. But I'm guessing that no matter how much "living" a dying person does, that little black cloud of impending death is hard to shake off for long periods of time.

Moments before my dad called last night to tell me about my uncle's bad news, I read this:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.


We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night. I lighted the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad.

John was talking, then he wasn't.

It's a very powerful piece by author Joan Didion about the night her husband died - suddenly, without warning, during dinner. He was talking, and then he wasn't.

I started thinking hard about that, about losing someone you love so dearly so suddenly, without a chance to say good-bye, I love you, thank you, about second guessing every last moment, about the guilt of not having said the nice things enough and the bad things too much and no way to rectify that or make up for it. No warning shot, no time frame, just...gone, like that.

And then a phone call from my father and I was thinking in opposite terms; a chance to fill in with love the gaps that life's business left. A chance to say all the things and unsay some things and hold, kiss, cherish.

And now I think of these things not from the view of the dying, but from the view of those who will live on after death has its way with a loved one. While it can't be easy to walk around knowing that you are going to cease to exist in a short while, I wonder if it's not harder for spouses, children, grandchildren and others to face the days ahead of life without. Dinner with an empty space at the table. Holidays without that resounding laugh. His space behind the counter at the deli he owns, a void that will engulf the entire community, an emptiness where he used to be.

Yes, it's that way for everyone who experiences the death of someone they cherish, but imagine knowing this is coming, and you spend your days taking care of your husband or wife, making them comfortable, soothing them and holding their hand and trying your best to make the last days not so horrible for them and all the while you're thinking of what happens next, the planning of the funeral, the people gathered together, the life that begins for you after those people with their casseroles and sympathy leave. The emptiness. Knowing that's coming.

Would I rather have someone I love taken from me suddenly and without warning or would I like to have some time to spend, even if that time is spent at a bedside in a hospice? I don't know. It's not mine to choose anyhow, of course, but things - like the phone call about my uncle or the man I saw on Saturday, laying sprawled in the steet, his mangled motorcyle next to him, paramedics working fervently to save him, that get me thinking of enormous questions like this, the answers to which don't really matter at all and only serve to remind you that life, it sure is random.



I been down both roads.

A great friend and mentor dies of an aneurysm, bang. gone.

My father died over a 6 month period.

They both suck.

I'll take the aneurysm, personally. Thankfully, we don't have to (or get to) make those choices.

My mother died on short notice. In fact, I had to race back to the States from Japan so that I could see her one last time. She had advanced cancer and for numerous reasons, it had gone undetected until it was too late.

She died very quickly after the diagnosis. When I spoke with her she professed that she was glad it wasn't a prolonged ordeal. For her sake, I'm glad of that also. But, I still wish I had more time with her.

I have been through both several times and have come to the conclusion that death is hardest on the survivors.

Let your uncle play out his time as he chooses and afterwards remind yourself that the grief you are feeling is your loss not his.

I too have experienced it both ways. Neither is preferable. Both just serve to remind us to love each other each and every day because no matter how or when our lives are forever altered (and in a blinding moment they can be), if we don't live each day like we might not have tomorrow... we'll end up having so many regrets once they're gone. Even when it slow... you have regrets and wished you could have done or said things you didn't.

I've come at this from a completely opposite direction. I was the one who was dying. It was a longish, drawn-out process of dying by degrees. The only thing that stepped between me and a pre-ordained fate was a thirteen-year-old's liver, donated in a time of grief that I cannot even begin to know.

During the year I was dying, I had a lot of time to say good-bye to everything and everyone, and I discovered something during that time. If the relationship is good, there's nothing left to say but awkwardness. If the relationship is bad, there's still nothing left to say but awkwardness. Things don't get fixed by imminent death. There's no closure possible during life.

Given my choice, I would choose to die quickly, in a good moment, with lots of unfinished business. I'll take what life hands out, but a quick death is more humane for both the patient and for those who remain. And I figure that if I live past the point where I've got no unfinished business, then I lived too long anyhow.

For reasons I'm not sure I understand fully, McGraw's song started playing in my head...

He said I was in my early forties
with a lot of life before me
when a moment came that stopped me on a dime
and I spent most of the next days
looking at the x-rays
Talking bout the options
and talking bout sweet time
I asked him when it sank in
that this might really be the real end
how's it hit you when you get that kinda news
man what'd you do

and he said
I went sky diving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named FuManchu
and I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter
and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying
and he said someday I hope you get the chance
to live like you were dying.

He said I was finally the husband
that most the time I wasn't
and I became a friend a friend would like to have
and all the sudden going fishin
wasn't such an imposition
and I went three times that year I lost my dad
well I finally read the good book
and I took a good long hard look
at what I'd do if I could do it all again

and then
I went sky diving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named FuManchu
and I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter
and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying
and he said someday I hope you get the chance
to live like you were dying.

Like tomorrow was a gift and you got eternity to think about
what'd you do with it what did you do with it
what did I do with it
what would I do with it'

Sky diving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named FuManchu
and then I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter
and I watched an eagle as it was flying
and he said someday I hope you get the chance
to live like you were dying.
To live like you were dying
To live like you were dying
To live like you were dying
To live like you were dying


An offering for whatever it's worth to you, Michelle.

Lost my mom over a span of time and we spent the time, for the most part, having normal days, doing normal things. The week she died, she had gone to quilting with some friends, did a bit of exercising at Curves and knit several baby blankets that were to be donated to the NICU of the local hospital.

Even when it was obvious that she didn't have much time left, she wouldn't let us treat her like she was dying. (she was only 60)

If it's me, I'd want to go quickly after seeing how she suffered, but for those I love, give me time to say good bye. I'm selfish.

I lost my father to cancer. He'd obviously had it for some time, but it wasn't found until 3 days before he died. For me, it was bittersweet. I was glad because I didn't have to knowingly watch his health decline over several months, and I did get to spend a little time with him (even though he wasn't really "there") before he passed on. However, it's been 6+ years now, and because it was so quick and unexpected, sometimes I catch myself thinking he's here still. I still think I'd prefer quick over slow, if I had a choice, but I honestly couldn't say what any extra time would have been worth, knowing what condition he was in.

Michelle check out the blog on this website. www.trevorromain.com Trevor tends to hang around with kids who are terminally ill. The experiences he writes about are pretty amazing and inspiring.

Dad, liver cancer over about 4 months. Mom, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma over a couple of years.

As much as it tears at the soul to see it, be there for it, experience it - the best thing you can do, the only thing that will really be worth remembering well, will be to be there for them, and do what you can to help them live, and pass, as they want to. No big to do because it's what you think is right - that's effort that may make oneself feel good, like you're 'doing something, at least' but take your direction from your uncle. He'll let you know what he wants - maybe not directly, but he will, in his way.. And you'll probably see what it is - and though it sucks rocks, because of the circumstance...big time...you do it. For him. And even though it doesn't feel like it, there will be solace in that. I can't say how, or exactly what it will be...but it will be.

I do have to agree that sudden does have its attraction - both an uncle and a friend went that way - gone before they hit the floor. No less painful the loss, but a lot less pain in between the knowing and the going. More of the vacuum - things not said, things not done...the what ifs.

But then, those are only the burdens of those of us left around afterwards...and of no concern at all to those that went.

Death, a part of life. The cycle. Certainly no joy, or seemingly rhyme or reason in it. It just is.

Big hug.

Been living on borrowed time now for 27 years. At 20, I was a patient in an Oncology ward, with a poor prognosis.

If I had my druthers - I'd get just enough time to get my affairs in order, then go out before my intellect deteriorated and the pain got too bad. I know how to do that, anyone with a really painful form of The Big C should.

It's no comfort to know that it could be worse. But it could.

Please accept a Hug.

Oh, Michelle, I'm so sorry about your uncle. As far as which is easier to survive, I'd have to say the longer time. My father died of a massive heart attack. No time to say goodbye. My mother died of lung cancer. They gave her six months, she lasted just long enough to know her kids were gonna be all right. It was easier with Mom. We got to settle some issues we'd had for a long time. With Dad, I didn't hear about it until he was gone. My kids are still suffering for that one, because they were at his house when he had the heart attack. Spend as much time with your uncle as you can, so your kids can have a feel for the man he is, especially if you're close to him. Time is too short to do otherwise.