You coast through life, not thinking too much about death and the fact that your time on earth will come to an end at some point. Then a few things start to get a little too close for comfort and you’re staring down the face of your own mortality.
So it was for me this trip to the US.
Later this year I have a ‘zero’ birthday, so that’s always a time for reflection. And a time to realise that I have fewer years left on this earth than I’ve lived. At 25, 30, and even 40 you don’t really feel that, but there comes a point where it’s bleeding obvious. And so I’ve made the decision that if I really want to do something I will — life really is too short.
But back to my latest US trip. During my two weeks there (and in the months beforehand), these things happened to people close to me:
- A friend in Vancouver, Canada was diagnosed with breast cancer and is currently undergoing chemo. Like the friend below, she is asking for and getting help from friends, acquaintances, etc. and not trying to tough it out herself, strong though she is. (Update: Six days after writing this post, my friend passed away [21 March 2014, aged 58]. She took a turn for the worse during the week, was admitted to hospital overnight with a cough she couldn’t get rid of, then to the ICU as her immune system had broken down with the chemo, then, after catastrophic organ failure, her family made the decision to turn off her life support — as per her wishes. She slipped away within a few minutes. Fly free, Emma! You had guts, determination, balls, a HUGE heart, said what you thought, and you lived life to the fullest, grabbing each day by the hands and wringing out every drop. You will be missed by a legion of friends and family around the world. And by your beloved kittehs.)
- A friend in California is losing her husband to a tumour on the spine. The prognosis is that even with chemo drugs etc. he maybe has another two years, but the reality is that they might have another six months or five years together — no-one knows. No matter what, whatever happens from here on in will only get harder — both the caregiving and the reality of his death. She is being very realistic and is asking for help, but I wonder how much of her realistic attitude is just her brave front to the world? She now can’t work much outside the home, and travelling to other states to work is out of the question (she’s a freelancer/contractor, so that curtails her earning potential right at a time of her life when she needs it most; however, she is the ‘poster child’ for ‘Obamacare’ as she says that without it for his treatment and pain meds she was staring down the barrel of losing their house and declaring bankruptcy just a few months ago). (Update: Her husband passed away peacefully at home, 30 April 2016.)
- Another friend and his family in California lost their beautiful 19-year-old daughter and sister in a car crash; she was a passenger in a car being driven by a drunk/drugged driver. The driver has been sentenced to 10 years’ jail, but that doesn’t bring back their beloved daughter. I can’t imagine their pain.
- In the past 18 months or so, a dear friend in California has lost her father, has had to put her mother into care and is now sorting out her parents’ accumulated possessions gathered over a lifetime together, is losing her husband to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, and has lost her 40-year-old son to suicide. She’s also getting a shadow on her lung investigated… How she copes is beyond me. Her strength is amazing, though it doesn’t take much to break through that fragile crust.
- Another dear friend is getting old and it’s showing. He’s in his mid-70s now and is still working, but is finally talking of retirement, though I’ll believe it when I see it. I had the pleasure of catching up with one of his sons at my friend’s house… and worked out that the son is now older than the father was when I met him. That was scary.
- My 82-year-old uncle in Michigan has cancer and has undergone treatment. (Update: He passed away peacefully at home, 30 April 2016)
- But the worst is my 90-year-old uncle, whom I haven’t seen in a few years. He has gone from being a strong, vibrant, energetic man, to a shadow of his former self. He still lives at home, but in my opinion, he needs full-time, not part-time care. He can’t do much for himself anymore, and what he does do is dangerous — like leaving on the stove after cooking his eggs in the morning, and driving! He’s having difficulty breathing, is incontinent, bruises and tears his skin for any tiny little touch. As he said to me a few times while I was there: “Getting old is no fun.” Based on the current state of his health, I doubt I’ll ever see him again. [Update: Bill passed away 7 June 2014, a couple of months after I wrote this.]
So, I’m feeling mortal.
On a more positive note, my parents (both in their 80s now) are both still hale and hearty and fit and healthy. They celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary last year, and are still travelling (they’re on another trip somewhere at the moment — I can’t keep up!). And I was privileged to have the company of all four of my grandparents until I was well into my 20s, when the first one passed. My final grandparent passed when I was 40 and he was 97. I was so lucky to have that experience as so many people don’t get blessed with even knowing one grandparent, let alone all four. I just wish I’d appreciated them a bit more, and had asked them a lot more questions about their lives growing up, but when you’re young, you don’t think about such things and they aren’t very important in the context of your ‘exciting’ and busy life.