Saturday, December 26, 2009

Death Considered

There was a good article in the local paper about death today. Talking about our personal and societal attitudes toward death. It struck a chord specifically with me, as I have been working on a story about my grandfather, prior to his death, some 25 years ago.

The article touched on multiple themes, some of which even I don't have a viewpoint that I can articulate well. Like the death of a child. The paper noted that we don't even have a word to describe it. If you lose your parents, you're orphaned. If you lose your spouse, you are widowed or a widower. If you lose your child? There are no words that can explain, justify, soothe such an unfathomable loss. I know "life expectancy" is an average, but statistics tell me that outliers like that don't make sense. May life be good enough to me to outlive my children.

Other death events are actually very comprehensible to me. The centenarian who passes peacefully in their sleep. My great uncle Caesar, who, after 87 years of independent bachelorhood, dropped in front of his stove making himself lunch when his heart just stopped. No fanfare, no pain, no fuss.

I grew up on a farm, far out in the country, where death in one form or another, is plausible, understandable, even expected. And everything you do revolves around that. When livestock are hurt or injured, you evaluate the options on a cost/benefit basis. If the cost of treatment is less than the value of their well-being and productivity, you call the vet. If you can't meet that measure, you get the shotgun. When a kitten is born, sick and too weak to survive, same answer. It's the same answer mother nature would eventually give in the wild. Survival of the fittest.

Don't worry, I am not talking drastic measures, people. I'm just saying that we are very funny when it comes to our mortality, or the mortality of others. We will spend ridiculous amounts of money in this country, both individually, and collectively, through our government and our insurance companies, trying anything to extend our lives, if only for a fraction of time. I had a client who had a cancer product in development that had a groundswell of grassroots support. It didn't cure cancer. Its claim to fame? It extended the life of terminal prostrate cancer patients who had failed other treatments. By about 4 months. Millions of dollars in research. In the hopes to gain 4 months. On the average life expectancy of the US male (75.6 years), that .33 years is an extra .4% of life.

Again, I can't judge anyone's individual choices or circumstances, but I do question our reluctance to face the inevitable in a more logical way, sometimes. Power to my grandmother, who has her cremation plotted out, paid for, with detailed instructions for when the time comes. No need for planning anyone. Bless your heart if you are someone who has selected the organ donor option on your driver's license, or has a valid DNR (do not resuscitate) order so your loved ones don't have to make difficult logical choices at a highly emotional time.

Theoretically, I'm not close to death. I'm hoping statistics play out in my favor, and I get to enjoy my time with family and friends, as intended. But when my time starts to run out, particularly if I have advance warning, I'm hoping that I, and my family, and my friends, and my medical advisers will help me make logical choices.

I've selected the organ donor option . . . you won't need my dead, useless kidneys to keep my memories alive. At least I hope not. On my list of important things is an executed DNR. Fortunately for my grandfather, my grandmother and his children were logical, and knew when the limits of modern medicine could not gain us back any more of the man we once knew.

Maybe in my lifetime, we'll find a way to make euthanasia a logical option in certain circumstances. When Shep, our family dog could hardly walk, and wouldn't eat or drink because the cancer had taken too much from him, that one little syringe seemed like a blessing, even to my 12-year old self. I don't know why our pet collie should have a better option than people dying of painful, incurable diseases. We ought to better support hospice systems, who do their best to let people ease their way out of life with as little pain and as much support for the remaining family member as they can.

Heck, I'm willing to put aside some of my personal convictions. I've never done a drug in my life that wasn't prescribed by a licensed medical professional for its intended purpose (I have other vices) . . . but if I'm terminal and you tell me a little morphine and some medical marijuana are going to make me slip out with a little less pain and a smile on my face? Light one up! Give me a double shot of SoCo while you're at it and lets make it a party.

Every person is unique, and the circumstances of life and death are unique. But lets face it, people - death, itself, is not unique. Death is inevitable. We spend time and effort going to birth classes and making birth plans for every contingency in labor, and we have parties for babies who aren't even here yet. What if we spent that much time planning and preparing for the only known certainty in life - death (*)?

* * * * *

The saddest part of the article, though, was in a vignette of an older woman facing death. She battled her disease for a long time, but when she came to the realization of the inevitable, she gathered her family around her to tell them she loved them. Hers was not, she recounted, a family that said "I love you" very often, so when she said it to her family members, a common response was "we feel the same". How sad, that in life, they had reservations about saying "I love you" such that, facing death, they could only meet those words with "we feel the same."

Maybe you're not ready to give up your organs, or go draft a DNR or living will, or prepay a funeral. But the best planning for the inevitable you can do, now, is to live your life well, enjoy the time you're given, and remember to say "I love you" to the ones you want to hear it back from.

Respectfully submitted,

The Wife

* I would have gone with the "death and taxes" thing credited to Ben Franklin, but Ben didn't live to see some of the loopholes our government (*cough* conservatives *cough* . . . excuse me, must have a tickle in my throat) has created in the past for some of our wealthiest (non)taxpayers.

1 comment:

DrChako said...

We are closely aligned you and I, made more poignant due to recent losses.

Remember our promise - spontaneous simultaneous combustion. If that doesn't work, option B is going out at 150 miles per hour, naked in the Ferrari.