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.