Thursday, December 29, 2016

In the midst of life

"Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why."

There's no good way to die.

The closest thing would be to go to sleep one night (in your very old age of course) feeling fine, and just not wake up in the morning.

That's hard on the next of kin though.

Like the time my Uncle Howard (cousin once removed really, but I called him Uncle) at the age of 88 keeled over on 3rd Avenue and expired. He was on his way to a Saturday matinee with his wife, my 84-year-old Aunt Helen. He'd never retired, he'd worked as a CPA right up through the day before that calamitous Saturday.

I said to my aunt later, it was fortunate that he didn't suffer. My aunt said, it may have been fortunate for him but not so much for me.

There is something to be said for having time to process an upcoming loss, to line up your ducks, to say any things that need to be said. To make peace with the universe for the dying and for the left-behind.

Yet there also is something to be said for not suffering, for going out like a snuffed candle, for feeling no pain or fear or guilt or remorse or sorrow.

One of the worst ways to die that I can think of is the way that one of my glass tribe lost her husband on Christmas Eve. Short story long, Jill buried her husband of 34 years on March 2, 2008. Coincidentally, if you believe in coincidence, that was the date I took my first lampwork lesson. I didn't know Jill until sometime later and didn't know her story until much later. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer, went through treatment, remission, recurrence, more treatment, the cancer spreading, hospice, and eventually the inevitable.

About five years ago, she met a man, fell in love and married him. Six months ago he was diagnosed with leukemia. He went through hellish chemotherapy, brief remission, relapse, a stroke, transitory vision loss, partial recovery, a potential stem cell donor match, hope, a decline, palliative care, hospice and, once more, the inevitable.

It's impossible for me to imagine going through that once, let alone twice. Jill, I mean.

That has to be one of the crappiest ways for a life to end. Hospitals, chemicals, nausea, pain, hope and then hopelessness, morphine, stupor and the letting go.

I think I'd rather be hit by a train than to spend my last six months sick as a dog, hurting, scared, guilty, helpless and then, poof, gone.

If I think about what would be worse, watching someone you love go through it, or going through it yourself, I always conclude that I'd rather live it than watch it. Let it be me, if someon who I love greatly has to be sick.

That's saying something, since I am terrified of being ill. I've been so lucky to be robustly healthy. I rarely get so much as a head cold. Illness and depression are a bonded pair for me. The minute my system is weakened or my resistance is low, my neurotransmitters go haywire.

That's OK, there are drugs for that, just please, universe, don't let me bear witness to anyone in my family suffering under threat of terminal illness.

I'm sorry to be so uncheery during this season of good cheer. Here is what I want the takeaway message to be. Love fiercely. Treasure each day. Be kind. Dwell on all that is good. Take nothing for granted, especially time. Make the most of whatever you have. Be good to yourself, take care of yourself, respect yourself. Respect others. Practice active gratitude.

And it's OK to talk about it, to acknowledge death as part of life, to have a plan, to make a will, to make your wishes known. It's OK to consider risk and contemplate mortality. Talking about it won't make it happen, not talking about it won't prevent it.

Neil and I were walking and Neil was saying that it's above freezing at the North Pole, and talking about how the ozone layer that protects us from solar radiation is thinning, and how species are going extinct and people are overpopulating the planet. He talked about Stephen Hawking's proclamation that if we don't find a way to leave Earth, the human race will perish.

I'm trying to decide how much I care if mankind doesn't continue to exist. I think that colonizing Mars is a lunatic's fantasy. We'll never surmount the obstacles when we can't even take measures to save this planet, a much lower bar to conquer. I probably won't be around when Earth becomes uninhabitable one thousand years hence, give or take. How essential is it to preserve homo sapiens or specimens of humanity? Your mileage may vary, but I honestly don't think we're that special. Some of us downright suck.

Even taken as a whole, humankind with its good and its bad is not all that. Species come, species go, new species evolve. If we're gone, we're gone. I feel a tiny bit sorry for my great great great (etc.) grandchildren, if I have any, but I don't know them personally and there's not much I can do. As I told Neil, I will recycle, I will try to reduce my carbon footprint to the extent it's within my comfort zone, I will be the change to the degree I am able, but that's all I can do and I can't grieve over consequences I have no control over.

Speaking of not grieving, social media is exploding with outrage over the number of celebrity deaths in 2016. People are saying, buh-bye 2016, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Statistically, I doubt this year was any different in the number of celebrity deaths than any other. And it's unlikely to be any different in 2017 or in any year after. In fact, as we age, more of the idols of our childhoods and young adulthoods will be going to that great celebrity playground in the sky. Wait, what? Do celebrities get their own special playground in the sky? I doubt that.

Here are some of the notable deaths for me during this past year.

David Bowie, age 69, Alan Rickman, age 69, Glen Frey, age 67, Harper Lee, age 89, Nancy Reagan, age 94, Keith Emerson, age 71, Prince, age 57, Morley Safer, age 84, Patty Duke, age 69, Muhammad Ali, age 74, Elie Wiesel, age 87, Gene Wilder, age 83, Leonard Cohen, age 82, Robert Vaughn, age 83, Leon Russell, Mage 74, Greg Lake, age 69, Zsa Zsa Gabor, age 99, George Michael, age 53, Carrie Fisher, age 60, Debbie Reynolds, age 84.

Notice that I said notable. Not tragic. Not grievous. Not outrageous. Sure it's sad that Prince, George and Carrie were so young, but drugs were involved so I can't mourn overly much.

Besides, I didn't know them. I knew who they were. But they didn't know me. So how sad should I feel? About 55.3 million people die each year. That's 151,600 deaths per day, 6,316 people dying per hour. Some of them are children, teenagers, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Do we each of us mourn for all of them? Should we?

We don't. We shouldn't.

I will mourn for those I know, I will grieve for those I know who suffered personal losses.

As I think about it, I apprehend that when we mourn celebrity deaths, we are really mourning for ourselves, for the passage of time, for the transitory nature of life, for the evidence of our own mortality.

And that's understandable, as long as we recognize that that's what we're doing.

Or not. Who am I to tell you who to mourn for, to judge you for who you mourn for? No one, that's who. You choose who you will mourn for and I'll choose who I won't mourn for.

There may be some overlap.

I can live with that.


Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, set to music by Natalie Merchant)

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