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.

Serial Killers

What if I told you there was a gang of serial killers out there, they are extremely dangerous, bloodthirsty and kill daily? Would you be a little worried?

There is. There is a gang of serial killers, they attack, each on their own, they attack as a merciless gang. They lurk in the darkened alley ways of the city, they wander the lonely roads in the country, they sneak into homes, office buildings, job sites, and campuses, no place is safe, really. They are always looking for, and finding new victims. They will revisit those they have victimized before. You have already been victimized, perhaps, targeted, at least. I’m quite certain they know exactly where you are and they are patiently waiting for the opportune moment to strike.

These serial killers will never be caught by the police, they will never be tried or imprisoned for their heinous crimes, they have a certain impunity. They are so present in our society, in our daily lives, they are latent and awaiting the moment to execute. Most violent crime is committed by those we know than by strangers. These killers are no different, we usually open the door and invite them right in without even a thought. Our actions, or inactions, make it very easy for them to become a part of our lives, to become familiar, to become intimate. Then they kill.

They will destroy you if you let them, but you will not actually die. You will be tortured and the pain could be worse than anything you’ve ever experienced. It’s possible, very possible, that they will return, again and again, to victimize you over and over. You need to know who they are, you need to know how to identify them, and, most importantly, you need to know what to do when you meet them in a dark hallway, because chances are, you will. You may already be battling them and you just don’t realize their lethalness.

This gang of killers are inattentiveness, indifference, indecisiveness, disinterest and they are responsible for killing ambition, motivation, relationships, friendships, careers, goals, and any chance for personal growth, success or evolution. If you just let out a big sigh of relief, that was probably the wrong reaction. While these killers will not actually take your life, they will destroy it, if you let them. Do you care?

Allow me to introduce you the each of them so you’ll know how to recognize them.

Inattentiveness
adj.
Exhibiting a lack of attention; not attentive.

This silent killer sneaks up on us so stealthily we rarely notice until it has a grip on us we can’t break free of. Think of a once vibrant, loving relationship where great attention was paid. The lovers took delight in conversation with one another, listened actively in order to learn more about each other. Every touch was a thrill and they touched often. Great consideration was given to the need for affection, for comfort. As the relationship ages and the lovers have learned all there is to know about their beloved, their conversations become less involved, less frequent, less meaningful. Because nothing interesting is being shared, just the gripes and complaints and trivial happenings of the passing days, active listening becomes the first victim. Since active listening often involves looking intently at one another, in offering empathy, comfort, and affection, these benefits disappear, leaving the lovers to feel unappreciated, uninteresting, unimportant, and lonely. Not worthy of attention. A lack of caring. Lovers become more aware of their differences, of petty annoyances and disregard the feelings, thoughts and ideals they once shared in common. This creates a feeling of loss, of frustration, of abandonment between the lovers, which most certainly does not strengthen the relationship and more often, becomes the impetus for the deliberate destruction of the relationship.

Inattentiveness can also attack a friendship in a very similar manner. Friends who have lost interest in one another, like lovers, will drift apart and become more identified with their differences than with what they share.

Inattentiveness is present in our vocations, as well, whether in our careers or in our studies. We are usually enthusiastic with new endeavors, with new pursuits, they interest us and we devote a great deal of focused, positive energy to them in both thought and deed, usually resulting in high performance and recognition or reward. Once our new vocation becomes routine, we often begin to pay less attention to the details, the energy dwindles, our performance begins to falter. The recognition and reward we once enjoyed is less frequent, has become totally absent, or perhaps, has been replaced with reprimand.

Inattentiveness is tricky to combat because it is so tricky to detect and thwart before the damage occurs. Whether in a relationship, a friendship or with a vocation, it is important to always bare in mind the details that should be attended to on a regular basis. This can be done in a number of ways; making a meditative effort to pay attention through affirmations or a regular exercise in paying gratitude. Making attentiveness part of your daily routine, for example, a revolving “to do” list on your work or study calendar, or, making a routine, concerted effort to call or visit your friends, to share experiences with them regularly that will become something in common that you share, can remember and reminisce about in future conversations. Likewise with lovers, devote a time each day, perhaps during a meal, to actively listen and actively share, make a habit of doing things together, like preparing meals, doing dishes or other chores, just sharing quiet, active time, working side by side can be a lot more attentive than it sounds. Be sure to also make a routine habit of sharing new experiences, walking in a new park, taking in a play by a local theater company, anything, really, that can become something you share in common, fodder for conversations and fond memories. Always take that extra moment, everyday, to say “I hope you have a great day today” and “I’m glad you’re home (here), I missed you”.

Inattentiveness, though very lethal and very powerful, can be easily avoided altogether by developing the behaviors that thwart it into daily or routine habits. Remember, habits are behaviors that have become ingrained, that have become so much a part of what we do, we feel we can’t function without them. Attentiveness is the obvious antidote to the destructive effects of inattentiveness. Foster attentiveness, always, make it a habit and avoid the pain, loss and misery of inattentiveness.

Indifference
n
1. the fact or state of being indifferent; lack of care or concern
2. lack of quality; mediocrity
3. lack of importance; insignificance

Indifference is similar to inattentiveness in that it will kill a relationship, a friendship or sabotage your vocation. Indifference does not behave in the same manner as inattentiveness. Inattentiveness usually attacks after the passage of time. Indifference is already there, from the beginning, just lying in wait. Indifference is a reaction to something that is said or to a task to be undertaken, and it basically translates to “I don’t care.” Stop and repeat those words “I don’t care.” How damaging they can be. Think of things your lover or your friends say to you that you really don’t care about a great deal. Can you imagine how they would feel if you said, out loud, “I don’t care about what you’re saying at all.” It would be crushing. Can you imagine what your supervisor at work or your teacher at school would do if you said “I don’t care about this task or assignment at all.” If we vocalized our lack of care or concern, indicated the lack of significance or importance we assigned to all we considered of lesser importance we would definitely find ourselves out of love, out of friends and out of work in a short spell. Keep in mind, that vocalization is not the only method of communicating. Your actions, or inactions, though unspoken, speak volumes. A shrug, an irritated sigh, an eye roll. Forgetting to perform a favor or a task because it doesn’t matter as much to you as it does to the other party, hurriedly completing tasks because you’ve waited until the last minute to start them because of the insignificance you’ve assigned to them. Saying you’ll get to something without the actual intent to do so or pawning the task off on someone else. Whether any of these happen within a relationship or at work, they will communicate indifference, they will say, loud and clear, “I don’t care.”

In a relationship or a friendship, we are, or should be, vested. We should care because the other party cares. If anything is of significance or importance to the other party, it should, for that reason alone, be significant or important to you. Care enough to care because it does make a difference, the difference being a lasting, thriving relationship, the reward of a job well done, a small investment for a lasting benefit.

Indecisiveness
adj.
1. Prone to or characterized by indecision; irresolute
2. Inconclusive
3. Not clearly defined; indefinite

Indecisiveness is an interesting creature, and a quiet killer. Indecisiveness is characterized by the inability, or unwillingness, to make a decision. It demonstrates a lack of commitment, a lack of caring.

In a relationship or a friendship, indecisiveness often results when one party asks another to make a choice, a decision, or state a preference. Usually, the inquiring party poses the question as a means of involving the other party in an action, an activity, or a decision that he or she thinks is important. The inquiry can be made in an effort to share an experience or an activity, task, or decision of interest or magnitude. Indecision translates to “I don’t want to be involved,” or “it doesn’t matter.” True, some indecision comes out of concern over choosing incorrectly, a lack of knowledge required to make the decision, or ignorance, but they all communicate the same result.

Indecision in our vocation represents an unwillingness to participate in a process or action we have been assigned or in which we are expected to participate. Indecision often translates, or in fact becomes, inaction, a lack of performance. We are expected to perform in exchange for some compensation; pay for a job, grades for studies. Lack of performance will usually result in diminished pay (or pay increase) or diminished grades.

Indifference is a lazy killer, it is inherent and lurks, it just sneaks in in response, without thought or deliberation. To destroy indecision, make the decision to be involved, when asked. If someone cares enough to want to involve you in the decision making process, if you are expected to take action and make a decision, in both cases, the only respectful thing to do is to decide. If you lack the information, the knowledge, the facts or the courage to make the decision, ask for some guidance. This act, alone, demonstrates respect and your willingness to be involved, to participate. Simply saying “what do I need to know to make a decision?” or “how best to decide?” demonstrates your willingness and your respect, it engages the other party actively, the decision is made collectively, and everyone is pleased.

Disinterest
noun
1. Apathy, lack of interest, disregard, detachment, absence of feeling

Disinterest is the deadliest and usually will work closely with inattentiveness, indifference and indecisiveness. Disinterest is always nearby, always hiding, always ready to attack. In relationships and friendships, in our vocation, disinterest is common and disinterest is hurtful. Disinterest is natural, but its expression is detrimental. To express disinterest is to diminish the importance, or the joy, even, that is held by the other party, whether a lover, a friend, an employer or an instructor. To harbor disinterest will destroy any kind of relationship.

It is not an expectation that we will all find an equal measure of importance or joy in that which interests those we interact with. To be less interested, or uninterested, is normal. But, out of respect, to be interested enough to listen, to consult, advise, to care will mitigate the harm. To disregard the interest is extremely hurtful in a relationship or friendship, and in our vocation demonstrates our unwillingness to participate in the process or action we are expected to participate in.

When we become detached from a topic or subject, we are creating a separation or distance with those who find interest. It may be a small fissure, at first, but continued detachment or disregard will create a division that may become impossible to span, at some point, a large void, a chasm, an abyss.

When we feel a lack of interest in a topic or subject of someone we interact with, to defeat disinterest, we often just need to inquire, to seek further understanding, to implore. By seeking additional knowledge or understanding, interest is expressed, and often, a genuine interest ensues. Our lack of interest is usually a defense mechanism for a failure to fully understand or empathize. Whether in agreement, or not, with the topic or subject, once more enlightened, a more complete understanding will allow you to interact more fully, to demonstrate respect, empathy and caring, all critical in any type of personal relationship or professional or academic interaction.

Knowing just a little more about the dangers that lie in wait for us, for our relationships, our friendships and in our vocations, affords us the ability to defeat them. When we go out into the world, or assume safety in our homes, there are always dangers present, danger of victimization at the hands of criminals and those who seek to do us harm. The best defense to any of these dangers is being aware; being aware of the potential hazards, being aware of our surroundings, being aware of where to seek safety, if necessary. Protecting ourselves from the serial killers we identified above; inattentiveness, indifference, indecisiveness, disinterest, is no different. We need to know, first, that they exist and what threat the pose. We need to be vigilantly aware of their presence and how to avoid them, where to seek safety from their actions should we encounter them. Pay careful attention. Care full. Care.