Scared to Death of Death and the Dying

I had to have a physical, for work, something about that whole healthcare thing. I usually have a good, thorough physical and all the “girl stuff” every year. But I haven’t, in like, a couple, maybe a few years. I’ve had a “quickie” to satisfy the requirement to participate as an “older” adult leader for a Boy Scouting backpacking adventure a year or two ago, but no “girl stuff.” So. It was time.

The blood work was all good; a high overall cholesterol but only because my “good”, or protective, cholesterol was off the charts. But I still get grief from Mom about butter, eggs, that one piece of bacon I have on Sunday and the single bowl of ice cream I eat once a week. And when I answered the “fill in the bubble” survey for work, after inputting my total cholesterol number, I’m now getting some “Heart Insight” email about every 43 minutes in my email inbox. I had my mammogram last week. I still have another lovely, fun-filled, screening to schedule, the joy of turning fifty

So I get a call from a number I don’t recognize this morning, and then a voicemail. I listen to the voicemail and it’s my doctor, he asks me to call him back regarding some results. Now, I have my doctor’s number in my contacts, so it should have identified him, but the call came from some city in Washington. It was the same number with a Washington area code. I’m guessing that it has to do with the phone system the healthcare group uses and outgoing calls are rerouted in some manner for some reason that I’m sure no one can explain. If I’d known it was him, I’d certainly have picked up the phone. When I call back three seconds later, the doctor isn’t available. I sit around most of the day staring at my phone, which, of course, never rings. I have things to do, errands to run, shopping to do, hair to cut. I’m sitting in the parking lot of the hair salon and I just know once I am in the chair and cannot answer the phone, it will ring. I called the doctor’s office again, left another message, tried to explain that I was returning the doctor’s call, that he’d requested I call. He was with a patient, still, and I was told he’d call. My hair is all cut, I am home, four hours later and well after office hours, no call. So, if I die it’s because of convoluted phone systems and faulty voicemail.

I know. I’m being dramatic. But death has been on my mind a lot lately.

On my mind because it seems I’ve been sort of surrounded by death, the dying and devastating diagnoses recently and for the past few years, yes, those same past few years that I’ve managed NOT to have a real physical. I don’t dwell on it, it is part of life, but, perhaps because of my age, the age of my parents and my peers, there does seem to be quite a bit more of it all to deal with theses days. As I’ve always said, and firmly believe, I am not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not living. This is very true, those are my solid beliefs. Perhaps rephrased slightly. I’m not afraid of death, of being dead, I’m afraid of not being able to live life to its fullest. I am absolutely, positively petrified, to death even, of a long, slow, agonizing death and prolonged medical treatments, procedures and prescriptions. I saw my dad do this dance for decades. I see friends and acquaintances going through the same thing. I gallantly think I’ll just deny that kind of intervention, but it is so hard to tell how you’ll actually react until you are standing at the precipice.

I have a pact, a pinky swear and an oath with my kids, when I am too old/sick/tired to live the life I want, if I am ever dependent on a million pills to make it through a day, it is time to go snow camping. I am cold weather survival certified, courtesy of the Boy Scouts of America. Because of the training I’ve endured and the proficiency I’ve demonstrated, I am qualified to take other peoples’ kids out into the cold for prolonged periods of time because they know, with a fair amount of certainty, that I will return them a) alive, b) with all of their appendages and c) with no frostbite on any of those appendages. And d) with lots of REI dividend points! One thing I learned is that hypothermia is not a bad way to go. You are cold and uncomfortable for a while, you get a bit woozy, eventually, and feel all warm and comfy, then you kind of go to sleep and die. So, we’re going snow camping at some point in time, assuming I don’t have a faulty parachute or a bad whitewater kayaking day or a cataclysmic mountain biking fall or only a foot caught in a stirrup of a saddle strapped to a really fast horse at a full gallop up a mountain trail, the rest of me bouncing along the boulders along the path. If none of that happens between now and “then”, we’re going snow camping. I’ll just sort of forget to pack my down sleeping bag and appropriate clothing for the night. I’ll leave the tent flap a little bit open and, well, I described the rest above.

I know we must all, eventually, die. Of something. But I can’t imagine the horror of hearing those words, “you have cancer”. Or, worse, “you have cancer and we can’t treat it.” I have many friends and acquaintances with cancer right now or who are “recovered” recently. I have friends who have untreatable cancer. I have always struggled a bit with how to react and what to say to those who are facing death. I remember back in college, a young man I’d gone to school with since grade school was diagnosed with an “inoperable” brain tumor. They removed what they could and sentenced him to death. All I knew was that this fine, young man, one of the nicest guys I ever knew, was going to die. I took it hard, though we weren’t all that close. I’ve never handled the death of the young well. I still cry over the teens I went to school with who died in car crashes, even those I wasn’t all that close to. A couple of weeks after hearing about the young man and his brain tumor, I ran into him, literally, at a local bar. His head was shaved and he wore a fedora style hat to disguise it. I remember freezing in my tracks, mouth likely agape, for what seemed an eternity, before I was able to greet him. I managed a hello and moved quickly on. To this day, I regret my inability to stay and talk longer, my inability to know what to say, or do. I was such a putz. Am such a putz. Thirty some years and probably as many surgeries later, he is still alive. I have not seen him since, but think of him often. I like to think I have matured enough to embrace him and speak with him at length, if ever given the chance.

My friend who is dying of cancer, brain cancer, I have not seen in probably, nearly, thirty years. She is a uniquely strong, brave and courageous woman. In the face of her terminal illness, and other unimaginable adversities in her life, she reaches out to others with cancer and provides them with information and techniques for seeking out and acquiring appropriate care and treatment to prolong life if not cure the cancer. She hopes to live longer than her doctors tell her she will so she can inspire others to find the courage to face their illness, at all. A couple of weeks ago, a group of friends all got together and had lunch with her. I didn’t know about it or I’d have gone. I was told that it was a day of enlightenment and joy, in spite of what lies ahead, imminently. It was decided that another lunch will be held later this month, and monthly thereafter, until, well, yah. Until. I was invited to attend the next one and will, indeed, go. And I will find within myself the strength to overcome my own weakness and shortcomings, to show my support and compassion, which, like tears, I have no lack of.

There is one minor obstacle, now, though. My dear friend who is hosting the lunch just lost her older sister a couple of days ago. As an only child, I always looked up to my close friends’ siblings, sort of wishing they were my own. And so, though not close, and not near for many years, this is a loss that I feel, perhaps more than I should. It was unexpected in spite of many years of struggles and related health problems. I really didn’t expect this news. And, in the midst of gathering the courage to have lunch with a dying friend, I now have to further gather courage to comfort another.

I am bad. It is my weakness. Death and the dying. I certainly lack no compassion, in fact, I have too much. I feel very deeply and I overreact. This is the basis of my fear; not knowing how to act, what to say, and likely overreacting. I once wrote about how I cried more, once, at a funeral than the widow herself. A few weeks ago, the neighbor across the street was at the brink of death, a long, lost battle with cancer. She was in hospice at home, just waiting. I was never particularly close to her, they moved in about the time I moved away. But she has been dear to my parents, even while ill, for which I am forever grateful. My mom wanted to take her a cantaloupe she bought on sale, because the sick woman loved cantaloupe. Mom wanted me to go with her. I so did not want to go. Like a spoiled little child, I didn’t want to go. But, I did, without expressing my resistance, like a good girl. We knocked on the door and waited on the porch step. Just when it seemed no one would answer, to my relief, and we could just ditch the melon on the step and run, the door opened. We were invited in. We chatted for a full twenty minutes, in the living room, on the couch, with the husband, the daughter, the grandson. Twenty minutes passed before I noticed the hospital bed not twenty feet from us, in the dining room, with a skeletal figure sleeping.  I don’t hide my expressions well, so I really pray no one saw my face when I made that realization. At one point, the frail patient awoke, recognized us from across the room, smiled, exclaimed, “Oh!”, waved and tried to sit up to speak. Before this feat was accomplished she fell back asleep. There was joy in her face when she saw us and suddenly, I was grateful I’d come and I cursed the petulant child inside me that resisted. She died shortly after we left that afternoon. I don’t think she had any of the cantaloupe. I cried at her funeral, too. I hardly knew her.

My weakness, then are my feelings of overwhelming sorrow and grief, sometimes even before they are appropriate. At the first diagnosis of a friend or acquaintance, I am grieving, and it is hard for me to hide it, to be strong for their benefit. I am afraid for my own weakness, that I will be too emotional. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, and as I often quote, we must do something everyday that scares us. My challenge, then, is to overcome my fear of my weakness, my display of emotion, or to just be who I am, over emotional and still, just be there to support and comfort.

I did recently spend some time with a friend who is struggling with an inoperable tumor that resulted from metastatic cancer that originated elsewhere. It has been one tough diagnosis after another. At this point, thankfully, it has stopped, and a lifelong regime of a “new” pill-form chemotherapy promises, at the very least, hope for more time and at most, like the rest of us, to live until she dies. And for the time we spent together that weekend, with other friends, while there was discussion of the facts and the reality, there was only optimism and peace and I maintained calm, cool and collected over my own emotions. There is hope. For both of us, that she will lead a long, happy, productive and cancer free life, and that I can overcome my fear of overreaction to the facts of life, and that, for all of us, is that it will end. Some of us just sooner than others.

And, really, what is the tragedy? If religious, we believe, after judgment, that we will spend eternity in some utopian Club Med in the sky. And for those not so convinced, then we just aren’t anymore. Neither sounds like such a bad deal. I think the mourning, on my part, is more for those left behind to deal with the loss and the emptiness. I know for the funeral where I cried more than the widow it was because of the young son left without his terrific dad, a father who’d been sick and suffering with leukemia since before the child’s birth. A father, though so ill, still coached Little League. That’s the shit that makes me cry.

At every age we are likely to know someone dying or someone who has endured a loss, as we age, more and more so. If we aren’t comfortable with it, we’d better get comfortable with it. Death and dying is a fact of life. It is inevitable. This is my personal call to action. If we fear our reactions may be inappropriate or awkward, think through what we’ll say first, have a repertoire of appropriate responses to choose from. Those who are ill or who are dying, and those left behind after the loss of a loved one, will appreciate and remember our company, our visit, our intentions more than the exact words we say or whether we shed one tear too many. We can’t avoid them out of fear or discomfort because we will regret, absolutely, having not spent that time with them. And, if ever we are dying or have suffered a loss, maybe only then, will we more clearly understand the value of those visits, those words, those intentions, however awkwardly worded or delivered. Lest not wait for that clearer understanding

If death is the last enemy and we aren’t afraid of death itself, and we know that, even if we suffer inappropriate tears at loss, our companionship and support is still greatly appreciated, then all that is really left is our petty fear. As F.D.R. so memorably proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Eleanor, on the other hand, suggests we just look fear in the face and get over it.

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