Death, Airplanes, Internet and a Proper Hug; What’s the Connection?

I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was haunted in the night by the spirit of a young woman I observed, dead, earlier in the day.

I’d spent my day running with my running club. We are weeks away from our first full marathon of the season and the mileage is mounting. We ran eighteen miles. The parched state of California received some much needed rain the night before, and whether it was the mileage, the prospect of running in the rain, or the combination, turnout for our long, autumn run was very light. In my pace group, where there are often a dozen or more people, only five of us assembled. Of the five, two stated they’d only be running four of the eighteen miles before turning back. The three of us that persevered consisted of a coach, myself, and one other young female team member. It was perfect running weather; cool and a little damp, the dust of summer washed away with the rain from the previous night. Leaves were plastered to the asphalt pedestrian trail as though decoupaged there and clouds littered the otherwise sunny, blue, sky, allowing the sun to warm the morning just enough to take off the chill and to penetrate the damp.

We were just over halfway through our eighteen miles; the plan was to run upstream seven miles, back and past our origination point two miles further downstream, then return to the park. We were running, keeping a steady and comfortable pace, and commiserating about the amount of will it would take to run past where our cars were parked after fourteen full miles for the last four. I could hear sirens in the distance, which is certainly not uncommon. The parkway we run along nearly every Saturday morning parallels the American River, for dozens of miles, winding through the greater Sacramento metropolitan area, which now boasts a population of well over a million people. Sirens are common in such high concentrations of suburbia. The sirens did seem very close, though, at the moment, this didn’t really register. A man approached us, opposing us, a runner, on the other side of the trail, per proper trail etiquette. He spoke to us, half shouting something about the sirens and directing the police in the direction from whence he came. I thought he was joking, at first, making light of the sirens, as though he were running to flee some feigned crime, but then he mentioned a runner, ahead, in cardiac arrest. My heart nearly stopped, cold, at the thought. Cardiac arrest. That’s what that means; the sudden cessation of heartbeat, of blood flow, of circulation, of oxygen to the brain. Of life.

We continued to run, the three of us, at first with a few forgotten words of acknowledgement, then in silence, in shock, then in dreaded speculation. Our running club, though with a low turnout today, has over five hundred members. Our membership, especially after the impressive lightning, thunder and rain the night before, accounted for most of the athletic activity on the trail this early, Saturday morning. What were the chances the fallen was one of our friends, our teammates, maybe even one of our coaches?

We rounded a corner to find a crowd of team members around the form of a fairly young, female figure, prone, on the dirt, next to the paved trail. Our coaches are all trained in CPR, and, so, CPR was being administered by people familiar to us. I’ve been certified numerous times in CPR, in first aid, in wilderness first aid. I’ve had to employ some of my wilderness first aid skills, but, never, gratefully, have I had to actually employ CPR. In fact, I’ve never actually witnessed CPR being administered on anything but those peculiar, somewhat other worldly, vaguely androgynous, mannequins, used in practice. To see CPR in real life is shocking. The young woman’s head was, correctly, tilted back, enabling the opening of the air passage in the throat. It is an extremely artificial posture, though, and just added to the horror of the scene. Another team member was rhythmically pushing down on the victim’s chest with the force and violence required to artificially pump the blood, from a still heart, to the brain, but the force and violence required, you knew, especially with this woman’s very tiny frame, left every rib and the sternum fractured. Her face was visible, distorted by the grasp of the hands of the rescuer tilting her head back, her pallor was an alarming and very unnatural shade of blue-gray. Everyone standing nearby, the entire pace group ahead of us and a sprinkling of others, wore grim expressions and looked on from an encircling crowd, like a crowd that gathers around a particularly gifted street performer, everyone positioned themselves to better see. I didn’t want to see. I’d seen enough. Cardiac arrest. She was, medically speaking, dead. Her life force, the flow of blood and oxygen, was mechanical, artificial, and temporary, at this point.

Other than the well made up, embalmed figure of my deceased grandmother at her “viewing”, prior to her funeral, expertly made up like a Broadway star, closed eyes, lips, and rosy cheeks accentuated colorfully, I’ve only ever purposefully looked at one dead person; my father. And, really, I wish I could unsee that, it was horrid, it was dreadful, and as hard as I try, I will never forget that final glimpse. I’d said goodbye to him several days before he finally passed. I recognized the moment his true spirit left his body, some other quasi-dad-spirit inhabited him for the last couple of days; angry, confused, disoriented, surreal. I’d arrived at the hospital as quickly as I could when told “it was time”, driving nearly eighty miles, but I arrived too late. A dear and helpful cousin was there with my, somehow, disbelieving mom. I was encouraged to “take a last look”. The form behind the curtain with the twisted face and the grotesque, gaping mouth was not my father. Someone had shoved his dentures in, post mortem, giving him the look of a low budget horror film skeleton. I have no regrets in life, but for that one. That is not how I wanted to remember him, I find it horrifyingly unforgettable.

The scene along the running trail was as horrifyingly unforgettable. I wasn’t sure if I recognized her, the fallen runner, or not. I remember the absurdity of noticing how cute her argyle running skirt and hot pink compression socks were. The mind is a freaky thing. The ambulance arrived as we did, and the paramedics leapt into action, wheeling the gurney across the running trail in front of me, at precisely the moment I attempted to pass. In some almost comically awkward and inappropriate moment, I blocked the gurney and the gurney blocked me. With reflexes like frozen molasses, I realized the situation and stepped quickly around the paramedics and the gurney, allowing them access to the victim and me to access to the open trail ahead. Our coach remained behind to assist, if needed. The remaining team member and I ran on. A few minutes later, the ambulance passed us up, quickly, silently, with lights flashing. I never know how to interpret these things.

We ran on. And on and on. We chatted a little, about the incident, what else? We managed to keep a reasonable pace, coaching ourselves, timing ourselves, for nearly eight miles. We found the fortitude to pass the parking lot and run downstream the additional two miles, as planned, to turn at precisely the appropriate point and begin the final, excruciating two miles back to our originating and finishing point. A mile and a half from our destination, we met our coach, going the opposite direction, finishing out her mileage. We cheered her on, she cheered us on. Runners are awesome like that. She mentioned that the downed runner was not a part of our club. What did I say? I said, “Good.” Then quickly added an appropriate disclaimer, that it was still, all, terrible, whoever she was, but I was glad it wasn’t someone we knew. Still, it didn’t sound right, seemed vulgar and crude, but I didn’t have the faculties to articulate anything more appropriate. A hundred yards further on and my running partner gave up; she was too tired to go on at a run. I was stiff and sore from activities earlier in the week, my knee was ablaze with pain and walking was far worse than running. I couldn’t continue at a walk. I just wanted to run, she just wanted to walk. We parted ways; I ran in alone, she walked in alone. I wouldn’t have left her, alone, especially in light of the day’s events, but I knew another pace team from our club was shortly behind us and would catch up to her in moments. I kept running. I ran faster. I ran a lot faster, the last mile and a half, my speed increasing the closer I got to the end. I couldn’t make all of this end fast enough. And though, now, the run is over, and the day is over, and the fitful night of restlessness is over, I don’t think the memory will ever escape me. I have been touched by this person’s experience with death, fleeting or final. I still don’t know whether she was resuscitated, or whether she passed, nor do I have a way to find out. I don’t know if she had a known, pre-existing condition, or if she was smote down by some unknown, congenital flaw. Or was it as a result of some risky behavior? Things I’ll never know and will always wonder, if only for selfish reasons, to prevent such a fate in my own future. My brush with death. My brush with mortality. My brush with someone else’s mortality.

My brush with someone else’s mortality kept me awake. All night, every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing her form on the ground, a crowd around her, her alarmingly blue face, smashed and distorted between the caring hands of one of her rescuers, her thin, tanned, fit legs sticking out from the adorable, argyle, running skirt and peeking, again, behind the fabric of her hot pink compression socks. Her shoes, small, bright, colorful, still laced perfectly. The ambulance, large, red, obnoxious and obscene, on the pedestrian only trail. Running almost into the gurney as it was wheeled across the paved path. The shocked look on the paramedics face, mirroring, I’m sure, the shocked and horrified expression of realization on mine as I scuttled out of the way like an unwelcomed rodent on a crowded city sidewalk. The thought that kept me awake more than any other was the connection I felt to this complete stranger, the intimacy of seeing someone’s face in the first moments of their death. I’ve only ever glimpsed my own father in such a compromised state, and that, unwillingly, hauntingly, regrettably.

It was the thought of connection that occupied my mind for much of my sleepless night, the connections we have with those in our lives we consider large, important, crucial, vital; our parents, our lover, our children, our friends, our relatives, and then the tiny connections we have with others, fleeting, momentary, mostly unrecognized or unnoticed; people we pass on crowded sidewalks, or a running path, even those miniscule connections where we make brief eye contact with another soul, or someone we smile at for some imperceptible reason, or greet, never to be seen again, strangers in passing cars whom we acknowledge in a brief moment of passing, people on a crowded subway, pushing like hungry lions towards the kill, into the car, then out again, only to disappear into the crowd, forever, on the platform at some station.

I once wrote a piece, though I’ll be damned if I can find it, about connection. I wrote it from an airplane, in the dead of night, from 38,000 feet above what I assumed was the Midwest, below. I flew in the dark of night, often, for work, and I would usually pass the time by looking at the tiny pinpoint sized dots of light below. Each dot perhaps the light of a car, maybe a window in a home, a light illuminating some moment of life for some other person. I often wondered if, perhaps, one of those people associated with some dot of light below, might just be gazing up, at me, within a tiny pinpoint of light, blinking across the darkened sky. Did we unknowingly connect in some very abstract manner? And, like some sort of synapse, would this tiny, unknown connection foster some cosmic reconnection at some point in our shared futures?

As sleep eluded me last night and my mind was filled with thoughts of a young, dead woman in a short argyle skirt and a smashed, blue face, my man slept more soundly, in my presence, than he has in a very long time. So as not to disturb his well-deserved slumber, I quietly sat and stared out the window. I stared at the dark shape that is Mt. Tamalpais, a sight that entrances me any time of the day or night. I have a strong connection to that mountain I can’t quite justify. I stared at the stars, though few, in the inky sky. There, too were clouds, or a fog, creeping along the edges of the sky. And, every few minutes or so, on ascent out of San Francisco International Airport, northward at first, to a point, then the course altered according to carefully calculated plans, to some other destination on this globe, an airplane, a small, blinking, pinpoint of light. Is it possible, that within one of those aircrafts, sat, by the window, a sleepless creature, peering down at a random dot of light on the earth’s crust, speculating some remote and tenuous connection with a soul associated with that dot of illumination? With, perhaps, even, me? Did we connect on some infinitesimal level, a future synapse set to fire?

We all have millions more connections with others than we can ever begin to count, or realize, or even begin to imagine. But what of the connections we have to those we have occasion to care about, those that “matter”. The big, orbs of bright light within our cosmic view, the swinging, swirling, searchlights that seek to draw our attention to them, constantly, incessantly. Are we nurturing those connections? Caring for them? Fostering them? Cultivating them? Or are they just a bright and annoying nuisance we wish we could block or shield from view? This is what really deprived me of sleep; am I connecting with those I’m connected to? No. That’s the true thief in the night for me; thinking that, perhaps, I am not connecting, at a level I’d like to, with just about everyone in my life. Are you? I suddenly felt very, very alone, not too unlike the downed runner in the argyle skirt, my connections suddenly and unexpectedly felt fragile, tenuous, distant, and sometimes, even, forced. Like dial-up internet.

Are we paying the appropriate amount of due to those we cherish in our life? Parents, children, lover, friends, relatives? Likely not, we are overcommitted, distracted, and overwhelmed. Though I’m certain some of our connections get more bandwidth than others, connectivity to those we love parallels the basic ISP we pay for; well-intentioned but somewhat sporadic and not nearly adequate to serve all connected. So, if we were to suddenly become “premium cable”, what would that be, how would that differ?

While money may buy you a better level of quality of internet connectivity, with our relationships, time is more important than money. With that being said, we need to make more time for those we love and, if as a result, accept making less money. Every now and then, we see something on social media that reminds us that our loved ones will be much more likely to remember the time we spent with them than the money we spent on them. Physical human needs are basic, and, really, the simpler these are met, the better, that we realize this early enough in life to make a difference is a blessing. One of the most critical human needs, next to air to breathe, water and food, is love, and, my friends, love, in its purest and most true sense, is free. It costs us nothing to hug, to touch, to kiss, to hold hands, to listen, to share stories and engage in conversation, or just, simply, to be present, and these actions are, by far, the most valuable. And like all things of great value, there are varying degrees of quality, and, quality matters.

Connection as a value vs. connection as a duty; connection is a two-way relationship. It takes two for there to be a connection; very simply, you cannot connect two dots with a straight line if there are not two dots. If one party bases their connections on value, and the other out of duty or obligation, the connection will be an effort, there will be a strain, a sense of obligation on one side and a sense of lack on the other. This is where feelings of resentment and corresponding feelings of being taken for granted arise from.

When both parties connect based on values, the connection is fulfilling and nurturing for both parties, it grows and is strengthened, it is solid and more lasting. If both parties connect out of duty or obligation, it is little more than a transaction; temporary, momentarily necessary, empty, minimally gratifying, purposeful, but only briefly, and, if not distasteful, then certainly not memorable.

After a long, haunted, sleepless night, I remembered what I’ve always known; life would be more joyful if we didn’t take for granted the deep connections we have with our lover, our parents, our children, and our friends. If we approached these vital connections from a sense of value rather than a sense of obligation or duty, they would be far more fulfilling to all involved. Why would we ever consider anything less than that? If we nurture our connections with those who matter to us most, meaningfully, on every level possible, we’d find more peace, joy and fulfillment, and so, too, would they. We simply need to touch, to hug for longer than a second, to kiss deeply, to press cheeks together, to feel one another’s skin, to hold hands, to caress. We only need to connect more holistically, to listen wholly, make eye contact, smile, ask, do, surprise. Cherish. Adore. We need to prioritize that which is most important, in the moment, and minimize that which is not; put the cell phone aside, be so engrossed in conversation that no one dares interrupt, embrace, put the past behind and future away, live only in the moment. Find joy. Life is uncertain, but certainly short, we need to connect our dots with the straightest of lines.

I watched a movie the other night, a French film featuring eighteen, five minute short stories about love, in Paris. One of the stories was about a man who was married to a woman for a long period of time. In that time, everything she did that he once found endearing, became irksome. He took a lover. He planned to meet his wife to tell her of his love, of his affair, and of his intent to leave her. His wife, instead, told him of her leukemia and that she would die. In this moment, he knew, out of duty and responsibility, he must rise to the occasion. He ended his affair and focused his energy and focus on his ailing wife. He rose to the occasion by connecting with her as he once had, he acted as though he didn’t just love her out of duty, but that he loved her as he once had, that he was “in love” with her. He found himself, shortly, as in love with her as he been when they’d first fallen in love. But, alas, she died, and he was sad and tortured and saw the things that reminded him of her, those things he once found endearing, then irksome, everywhere he looked. He became haunted by them. Yes, a tragic story, but what I took away from it is that love, relationship, connection, can migrate from endearing to irksome if we do not nurture it, always, as we do when it first sprouts. Like a plant, we water it and care for it and sing to it when it is a seedling, but after a season or two, it will no longer flower or thrive unless we continue to care for it. Such are our connections.

As an example, when you kiss your lover, on an “ordinary day”, assuming you kiss every day, is it  a  quick tapping together of the lips, with closed lips and eyes, like second graders in a school play, made to kiss by some cruel story plot, like the conciliatory kiss of a numb and bored couple after thirty years of bland matrimony, or the type of kiss you’d concede to applying on the lips of your great aunt, with her bad fitting, slippery, yellowed, dentures, or to someone a bit too well acquainted, recently, with onions, or not well acquainted, recently (or ever), with dental floss. I was the recipient of the best kind of kiss, just today, after my haunted, sleepless and very thoughtful night. It was warm, sweet, lingering, and loving, and what every kiss between lovers deserves to be.

What is an embrace? A hug? It is not the quick draping of limp arms about ones shoulders with an even quicker retraction, like the lifeless arms of a marionette on strings, thrust up, then dropped, with zero feeling. Do we embrace others as we would a fitful toddler, not our own, covered in snot and the remnants of chewed up graham crackers, or like a congratulatory embrace of an athlete having just finished a very sweaty feat, or of that thrifty uncle who saves money on both water and soap by only imbibing in their application weekly, or so?  A meaningful embrace, a quality hug, is not too loose, not too tight, one that says “you’re welcomed within these arms, but you aren’t being controlled or forced to stay.” An embrace that is long enough in duration for nearly every sense to be engaged and nourished (though I don’t always lick people while they hug me, so the sense of taste may be optional in a “good” hug). A nourishing hug is a hug that is long enough in duration to compliment the level of intimacy of the relationship; a few comforting moments for the snotty, food encrusted, non-related toddler, and the stinky uncle, but perhaps the better portion of half a minute, at least, for your lover. While I don’t whip out a slide rule or my calculator app on my smart phone, some term of time in between is apropos for other special people in our lives.

I had the best embrace, ever, today. A Sunday morning where no one was rushed to be anywhere, me after a poor night’s sleep, and him having an unusually restful night. In the bright morning light, a mutual embrace of uncertain extent, minutes maybe, perhaps an hour, or more. Sweet, loving, wholesome, nurturing, tender, comforting and fortifying. I fell asleep in this perfect hug, four arms enwrapped, and I slept like a child after a long, nightmarish, night and woke feeling completely loved, more rested, and restored. Nearly restored.

Don’t impede opportunities for chance connections to occur; smile at strangers, say hello, hold a door open, shake hands, guide, help carry something for someone overburdened, wave at benevolent drivers, or offer someone the spot in front of you in traffic. Every connection, whether a pinpoint of light or a beacon, has some impact on your life, to acknowledge this, to recognize this and to make as many of these connections as purposefully positive as possible is the path to joy, for you, and for the other dot at the end of the line.

Life is short. Life is uncertain. Life is certainly short. I believe we are so connected with our world, with “the universe”, that things happen for a reason. I believe it is through some level of individual effort and consciousness, through contemplation, that we attempt to discern some of those reasons, those lessons. From this experience, from this story, I have become more aware of the fact that life is fleeting, life is tenuous, and life is what we make of it. Make joy. Through this experience, I realize that many of my connections, my relationships, aren’t receiving as much of my positive energy as they should. Lessons I’ve learned in the past have been fortified; I am grateful for each and every moment as they arrive and as they pass, I am grateful for the people I cherish in my life now, for the connections we have, the connections we will accentuate, I am grateful for the connections I will make in the future, both brief and lasting, and I will make every effort to focus on them, to acknowledge them and to keep practicing drawing the straightest line between two dots I can.

Scarlett’s Letter August 17, 2013

Another trip to Sacramento.

I got up early and headed east on Interstate 80 to run with SacFit this morning. Except for the getting up at 4:30 AM, I really enjoy these mornings. I love driving on an empty highway, as fast as my little car will go, coffee cup in one hand, and my Pandora station du jour at an unsafe volume. Just as I get to the edge of Sacramento, the sun breaks over the Sierra Nevada Mountains further east and I am blinded. But, for the few moments before my vision is totally impaired by the brilliance of the sun, it is glorious. Perhaps I need to consider buying sunglasses with superior optic lenses. I’m fairly certain the pair I got at the gas station for twenty bucks isn’t really the optical quality I should be wearing for driving or sports or, at all. A point to consider.

These drives are so carefree, so exhilarating. Especially when there are no cops, and there generally aren’t, at this time of day. I like to go fast. I like to go fast and get away with it. I know I’m on borrowed time, I exceed the speed limit far more than I obey it, and I’m at least fifteen or twenty years, now, without a speeding ticket. But as I am sailing down the highway, feeling like prey that escaped the gaze of a predator, I round a corner and see a horrific accident. There are cops and emergency vehicles and I can’t help but think, no survivors in the wreckage. And I am sobered. Life can be led safely, life can be led carelessly, and either way, you could lose. It’s almost like a crapshoot every time you get in a car. Or Russian roulette. I reduce my speed and drive more cautiously. For about two miles.

Like last week, I arrived early enough to relax, think, write in my journal and eat my half of a peanut butter and honey sandwich before my run. We ran 9.5 miles today. The email said we’d be running 10.5 miles, after 8 miles last week. It seemed like a pretty big jump, but I’ve run twenty, so I don’t really care. Apparently, there was an error, so we got a reprieve of one whole mile. This is my third week with my new pace group, and I’ve been really pleased. The pace has been good and there have been no whiners and no mid-run potty breaks, water refills and all those little delays that annoy the hell out of me in “group” runs. I don’t like having to stop my watch mid run to accommodate the small bladders of others, both the anatomical and the hydration pack variety. You’re either prepared to run the distance, or you’re not. I am. Let’s do this. This week, quel domage. Tiny bladders of both varieties, and whiners, too. We are an 11:30 pace group, with our one minute walk break after each five minutes run, we should average between 11:45 and 12:15. We ran 13:20. Seriously.

As we neared the end of our 9.5 miles, I reached for my phone to stop my running apps and save the time and route information. There was an unexpected text message from a close friend. It seemed a little early in the morning for her to be texting, and that could mean only one thing. Bad news. We have one friend quite ill with brain cancer, and another who has been battling another type of cancer. With a little trepidation, I viewed the text message. It bore news, terrible news, the possibility of which hadn’t occurred to me in my wildest imagination. Her older sister had passed away the previous night. You know how that cold curtain falls over you when you hear news like that, like every drop of blood has been drained from your body. Your mind goes blank and your conscious mind feels like it has been shut in a box deep within your brain. Everything around you unfolds in slow motion. I could hear myself saying “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

This wasn’t totally unexpected, I suppose. She’d been battling alcoholism and related health issues for some time. But she was better. She’s been better. I thought she was okay. I thought she was going to be all right. Oh my God.

I did my stretching, dutifully, numbly, and headed toward my car. I saw a friend of mine, from high school, that lives in the greater Sacramento area now and runs with my running club, several pace groups ahead of me. We graduated the same year and we know all the same people. He knows my friend and her sister, so I shared the news with him and he was as shocked as I was. It was good to have someone nearby to share some thoughts and a few memories with. It helped immensely and I was able to go back to my car and reply to the text message with a  fair amount of composure.

Through it all, we agreed, life is so incredibly fragile. There are those who, like us, try to eat well, exercise and do everything we can to preserve health and secure a long, active life. And there are no guarantees for our efforts. There are others who, intentionally or not, destroy their bodies, their lives and even those who seek to end the life they’ve been given, intentionally. There are more who just take life for granted and let it slip mindlessly away. Squander it. Life is a mystery. Life is a gift. Every day we wake to see another day is something we should express gratitude for, something we should cherish. Every day we wake from sleep, we should seek to put the gift of another day to the best use possible. There are people whose lives are cut short that would love to have the time that another has so carelessly wasted. There are people battling terminal illnesses that would love to have the days that another person discarded in ending their life too soon.

I don’t think we are meant to understand. I think we are meant to take what we do know, that life is fragile, life is uncertain and that life is mysterious, and remember to honor the people in our lives that we love. Spend time with them. Listen to them. Talk with them. Show them affection. Express love. Each day we live is a gift, and each day those around us are there, too, is also a gift. Fleeting. Cherish those gifts.

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.

Prepare to Die

Prepare to Die – this is a phrase you might hear in an action movie or an old western. So, what could you do? Run, fight, or submit.

I’ve got really bad news for you. You’re going to die. While true for all of us, when the doctor tells us those words and there is some immediacy associated with them, what do you do? Curl up in a corner, huddled under a blanket and wait for the grim reaper? Or grab a friend and start crossing off those things from your bucket list?

Guess what? You’re going to die. I don’t know when, you don’t know when, but you are. What are you doing about it? Run, fight, or submit.

I know people who have been preparing to die practically since birth. I remember in my thirties, working with a woman a few years younger than me, she was probably in her late twenties. We were talking about snowboarding and she said “oh, I”m too old to snowboard”. Huh? There’s an age limit? I was just learning to snowboard at the time, was I breaking some rule? The good news is, her whole attitude has changed and she is now, twenty years later, an avid scuba diver. And I haven’t tried THAT yet!

My point is; are your preparing to die or are you crossing things off your bucket list?

I was on the phone with my significant other last night, I was talking about the Insanity workout I’d done earlier in the day. He said “you’re not twenty two anymore, don’t overdo, don’t hurt yourself”. Oh, but he loves my strength, stamina and agility. I smiled, knowingly, and just let that comment slide. I feel twenty two. I feel better than I did at twenty two. As a matter of fact, on Facebook yesterday, Shawn T (of Insanity) talked about visiting Charlotte University and working with a bunch of young people, hoping he’d inspired them to adopt healthy habits for life. Then he posed a question, “are you more or less fit now than you were then?” For me? Pretty darned close. Yes!

I’m turing fifty in a few months. Many of my peers are acting way beyond their years, tottering around the grocery store. I just moved back to my home town, and as I walk through Target and Whole Foods, I feel like I’m peering into every face, “do I know you?” It’s kind of confusing. Some of us are young and spry, others, old and decrepit. Some of us are embracing life, squeezing every moment out of it, others are huddling under a blanket, waiting to die.

My grandfather lived to be over 100. Fifty is only half way there. I’m not even half way there, yet. I don’t need fifty whole years to get ready to die. I got me a whole bunch of living to do. Anyway, at 100, Grandpa lived alone in his house, my grandmother had passed some years before. He fixed his own meals, often bacon and eggs for breakfast. He mowed his own lawn. With a push mower, the non-motorized kind. At noon, he’d walk several blocks to the convalescent hospital to have lunch, not with his friends, for they had all passed. He had lunch with his friends’ children. That is so going to be me! At 100, I’m hoping to jog over to the convalescent home, and after preparing lunch of salmon, quinoa and kale for my friends’ kids, I’m going to teach a Zumba class to the residents. Watch me.

How do you go up the stairs? Many of my peers, at the tender age of fifty, grasp the railing and laboriously pull themselves up, grunting and groaning like it’s going to kill them. When was the last time you ran up the stairs two at a time? That’s my preferred method, as long as no one is in my way, panting and pulling themselves along, in which case, I just politely wait at the bottom of the staircase until the path is clear and bound up the stairs. Obnoxious. I know. But it feels good!

Remember as kids? If you were in a hurry, and sometimes even if you weren’t, you ran everywhere. When was the last time you ran anywhere because you were in a hurry, or because it just felt like the thing to do?

When was the last time you balanced on a curb in a parking lot like a balance beam in the gym? I do that all the time. It’s fun. Don’t judge. I’m the weirdo who runs from the parking lot to the store even though I’m not in a hurry, smiling, balancing on the curbs with my grocery bags on my way back out to the car and bounding up the stairs two at a time at every opportunity. Meanwhile, many of my peers are cruising the parking lot for the closest parking spot to the store door and looking for the elevator once inside.

I have long said, I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not living. And so, I choose to live life to its absolute fullest at every opportunity. I am constantly looking for ways to improve myself, mentally, physically, intellectually, spiritually, so I can get the most out of every moment in life. This is a conquest, something I am driven to do and need like breath. Is there anything in your life that you are so passionate about? Passion is the essence of life. Without passion, we just exist. Without passion for life, we are just waiting to die.

Time is short, my friends. As I am perched at the top of this mountain, nearly fifty years behind me, and, God willing, at least another fifty before me, there is an interesting paradox. I can look back over the last fifty years and think, “wow, an eternity”, then with like the flick of a switch I think, “wow, that was quick”. I know as we age, time moves at what seems a faster rate. This terrifies me. I haven’t the time to be concerned with what people think of me as I bound up the stairs, run across the parking lot, balance on a curb, jump out of an airplane, board down a mountain, ride a galloping horse through a field, a mountain bike down a grade, a kayak through whitewater. I am doing what I know how to do and what I crave, I’m living. I am preparing to die by living life to its absolute fullest, every moment of every day, and with passion. Because when I do cross that magic threshold in the sky, I want to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I want to be nourished with my accomplishments, and I am hoping that through all of it, I am able to inspire others to live well and do well. With passion.

I am nowhere ready to throw in the towel. In fifty years I’m pretty sure you’re going to have to catch me and try to wrestle that towel out of my hand. And I may still win.