Scared to death

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports it’s sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

Is marriage naturally better the second time around?

The Thinker by Rodin

Our next-door neighbor Suzanne passed away unexpectedly six days ago. On Monday she was complaining about her gut hurting. On Tuesday she had a four-hour surgery to try to repair an intestinal blockage. She moved from surgery to critical care. On Wednesday afternoon she was dead, her husband Bill became a widower and everyone on our little cul-de-sac was in a state of shock and grief.

Yesterday I went to the local funeral home to pay our respects and to celebrate her life. We’ll be trying to come to terms with this for a long time because Suzanne was a terrific neighbor: always friendly and helpful. She made our little street a real community. Her New Year’s Day parties were renown here in our 55+ community.

It seems kind of crazy to feel loss, as we knew her only two years, but we do. The night of her death, I slept fitfully at best. She and Bill were an item and were one of those crazy, always-together, supremely happily married couples that are actually hard to find. When not traveling they could be found daily on bikes or long walks, and when walking were hand in hand. There was a tangible intimacy between her and Bill that just radiated from them. When Bill told me the story of his first date with Suzanne ten years ago, his voice picked up and his face glowed. At her funeral he said without a doubt that their ten years together, eight of them married, were the best years of his life.

The truth is I was more than a little jealous of Bill and Suzanne’s relationship. It was the sort of marriage most of us aspire to have but don’t have. It was also second time around for both Bill and Suzanne, having divorced or lost spouses. I’m 32 years this month into my first marriage and don’t plan to change the situation. Still it’s obvious that my marriage can’t compete with theirs. I married a fellow introvert. We love each other and now that we are retired obviously see plenty of each other. We share some passions like Star Trek and politics but mostly inhabit our individual universes, intersecting mostly in the morning and at meal times. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Yesterday at the wake I chatted with many of the couples present. Without exception they agreed that Bill and Suzanne were exceptionally well matched. Their marriages could not compete.

I have noticed of those couples whose marriages I think are exceptionally intimate, they all seem to be second marriages. Thinking through the marriages I know well, like those of my siblings, all still on their first marriage none of theirs resemble Bill and Suzanne’s. Bill and Suzanne were an older couple (I was shocked to learn Suzanne was 81; she certainly didn’t look it) that nevertheless seemed eternal newlyweds. There was such an honest passion and intimacy between them that it seemed somewhat surreal. And it carried over to their larger lives. It touched us as next-door neighbors. It was like their house at the end of the cul-de-sac radiated happiness and warmth.

The cause of her death appeared to be due to an earlier cancer that went into remission, but which left her intestinal wall thin. She had the bad luck of having an obstruction at the spot, which tore the wall, which caused peritonitis. These days you sort of expect people to die slowly, at least from natural causes. When I heard she was in critical care I figured it was nothing to worry about. Someone with such spirit of life as Suzanne would doubtless pull through.

But she didn’t. Bill seems to be handling her death pretty well, expressing deep gratitude for their time together and hope they will meet again in some nebulous afterlife. Here’s hoping, Bill. Ten years of the kind of relationship you and Suzanne had should have more than filled your cup to overflowing. Perhaps that’s why Bill is handling it so well. He knows he was blessed to have these years together with her. What remains is a sense of profound gratitude rather than the deep loss I expected. Perhaps the loss will manifest itself in Bill in time.

There may be something to this second time around being better. It makes a lot of sense when I think about it. What are the odds that a first marriage will actually last a lifetime? Consider that most marry young and that both are thrust into adulthood, usually with children to quickly follow. There are so many natural tensions to deal with in a first marriage: jobs, kids, aging parents, aging people with changing needs, likely unemployment somewhere along the journey, general societal stress, siblings, toxic coworkers and maybe bad neighbors. That so many first marriages survive at all is amazing, although it gives us no insight into the quality of these marriages. I know in my case, having a life partner is deeply gratifying. With our daughter all grown up and with both of us retired, this phase of our marriage is quite sweet. We are hardly alone. It’s a phenomenon psychologists know well. Remove a lot of the stressors from a marriage and its overall quality will likely improve.

Still, I think there must be something about a second marriage that by its nature will make it likelier to be better than a first marriage. It’s likelier that fewer marriage stressors like kids and jobs will exist in a second marriage. Hopefully you have a chance to reflect on what you did to stress the first marriage and take corrective action in the second one. Most likely you will be more focused on shared interests and compatible natures than beauty, Donald Trump being the exception. Those of us in first marriages deal with the marriage as it has evolved over a very long time. We know our partner as intimately as you can possibly know someone. What you eventually end up with is someone imperfect and with foibles just like you.

Perhaps in a second marriage these imperfections become easier to overlook as they take a long time to discover. Maybe that in some part explains Bill and Suzanne’s good fortune together. Or perhaps you get a better sense of the spouse you need now since the rose-colored glasses are off. The spouse you had then doesn’t quite fill your criteria anymore.

My own father remarried late in life, and had five years together with my stepmother before passing last year at 89. I don’t know if it was a better marriage than the 55 years with my mother, but it certainly was a different marriage. It allowed my father to grow in his last years, which was good, and gave him the companionship he craved.

Should I also suffer my father’s fate of being a widower and choose to remarry, I won’t be surprised if I find that it sweeter. By no means would I say this is because there were things about my spouse that were unlovable. But just as a plant that is repotted in fresh soil often perks up, I suspect people can too. Should I predecease my wife, I certainly hope she finds a new love. It would give me pleasure to know that someone else would have the joy of her presence if I cannot.

As for Suzanne, you are already missed and have left a hole in our lives. It will never quite be the same.

Happy Fathers Day to me

The Thinker by Rodin

This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.

So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.

A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.

Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.

I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.

Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.

I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.

Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.

Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.

This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.

Eulogy for my father

The Thinker by Rodin

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration
My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

Searching for the exit

The Thinker by Rodin

Dad is lying on his bed, half human and half ghost. He is not as pale as he was during his last bout with pneumonia, but he certainly looks ghost-like. His companion machine with its steady pulse is squirting oxygen into his nostrils with each breath. Dad is wearing pants in bed, a linen shirt and a felt shirt on top of that, despite the open door to the balcony letting in the warm moist Mid-Atlantic summer air outside. It doesn’t take much to make you cold when your body fat is gone. My father, who once towered six feet tall, was now diminished, and now weighs about 140 pounds.

He is lying flat because it is hurts less to lie, but also because standing takes work, which means using oxygen. Standing also requires muscles to move and right now it hurts to move his muscles. It probably hurts because he is not eating much, so to stay alive his body is looking for energy elsewhere and is busy converting the protein in his muscles into energy. All his muscles hurt, he tells me. Dad has the appetite of a bird, except that I suspect a bird eats more. A spoon or two of food makes him feel full, and then he wants to lie down. NPR news fills his bedroom while he lies, but mostly he is not listening. He sleeps a lot: all night and most of the day.

Frankly, there is little incentive for him to get out of bed. When he does he hurts and even with oxygen going into his nose it’s easy to feel winded. His left lung is still there but essentially it is non-functional as it is full of fibrous tissue. His stomach hurts a lot, particularly when standing. The good news is he can still stand. Dad can sort of take care of himself. In reality though he has lost a lot of his agility, so he needs someone to help him into clothes and out of clothes. He gets through the night by keeping a urinal next to his bed. Dad is not so much living as he is existing. His wife (my stepmother) provides companionship and helps in the nursing duties, that is until I arrived.

My father is scared but cannot seem to admit it, and depressed, which is something he will grudgingly admit. The Lexapro may help with the depression, but he just started taking it and it takes a few weeks to have an effect. The psychiatrist cannot see him until mid July. Dad needs lots of things, but mostly he needs to eat a whole lot more. It’s not clear if his stomach can process it.

What Dad needs even more is family and that’s why I made the four hundred mile journey to see him and spend four nights with him. I was there out of love and concern, but also because I am retired, so I can spare the time. He needs someone to listen with compassion. He needs someone who understands his whole person. I can do that, as he did the same with me many times growing up. I can hold his hand. I can make gentle suggestions. But mostly I listen. It’s pretty clear that Dad wants to leave his mortal coil. His way of doing so strikes me as passive aggressive: eat very little and spend much of his time in bed.

While he can walk, he walks haltingly. And he cannot walk too far and he walks somewhat unsteadily. When he gets out of his apartment he needs to be in a wheelchair, and generally that means Marie is pushing him. But at least for four nights it can be me. His oxygen bottle is slung from the back of the wheelchair. There is not much to look forward to in his condition, but there is at least dinner in the dining room of his retirement community, where almost everyone knows him by name. He looks diminished but when asked how he is doing he says “okay”.

It’s in the evening when something resembling life reemerges. He is energized around people and can maintain a conversation and at least for a while forget his pain. He eats little of what is on his plate, but takes sustenance from participating in the conversation around him. Returning home, with me there he will sit on the living room sofa and engage in conversation, but most of the time he hurts too much and wants to return to bed.

Getting him ready for bed is a time consuming and tedious process, which involves disrobing him, re-robing him, and cleaning him in between these states. It means assisting him with flossing and brushing and when not his shower day washing his chest, back and face. It means laying out clothes on chairs, shuffling shoes around and getting his urinal ready for night, all while tethered to a fifty-foot oxygen line. For me it means seeing his 88-year-old body so gaunt, with bones practically protruding from his skin and waiting to assist when he stands and sits. It means buttoning and unbuttoning shirts, helping him on with boxer shorts and pajamas. It means getting him a glass of water to use when brushing his teeth. It’s a ritual that varies little every night.

My presence means a lot but it is hard to quantify. On Friday I noticed him eating a little more and felt a bit cheered. I tried to be nonjudgmental as he tells me how he feels. I encourage siblings via email to call him and cheer him up. On Friday after dinner he goes to his desk and sifts through papers for a little while. This small act is actually a hopeful sign.

Fathers Day means company and phone calls, dinner provided by my sister and cookies provided by my nephew. It means love and companionship and, being my family, a discussion of contemporary politics in the living room where my conservative stepmother offers me reasons why she hates President Obama. My father mostly listens passively until I critique Fox News when he offers me a handshake. My Dad makes a point of being apolitical in front of the children, but occasionally a liberal viewpoint will leak out.

By Monday when I leave he is eating more. I encourage him to keep doing so. To start he needs enough calories not to lose any more weight, but his traditional passion foods like chocolate do little to engage him. I leave him with my stepmother who won’t coddle him and wonder if he will improve or regress again after I am gone. I can’t stay with him forever. I have a wife back in Massachusetts with chronic issues that also needs support.

There is always hope for a recovery, but realistically the best we can hope for is that he does not slide further. His pulmonary fibrosis won’t go away. He will be tethered to an oxygen container for the rest of his life. If things get much worse it will be more than my stepmother can handle. Nursing assistance will be needed and perhaps a nursing home. It’s not hard to predict that if he gets into a nursing home that he won’t live too long. He needs a social life to survive and there is none of that there.

Meanwhile, I hope that he will retain enough muscle mass not to fall, and I hope that some infection does not quickly fell him. He is doing far better (at least so far) than my mother did in her decline. Dying however slowly and incrementally is still an ugly process. Love and companionship help, but it’s not quite enough. He slips a bit further away from me with every passing day. It leaves me sad and melancholy.

Dying is not fair, but it must happen. There seem infinite paths for dying and my Dad seems to be choosing his way through it somewhat. All I can do is try to make things better, which may be giving Dad a sponge bath, holding his hand when he is low and letting him know how much I love him.

Dying well

The Thinker by Rodin

Dear old Dad is dying. It’s been an inference most of us have made based on his condition, which has been slowly but steadily worsening. Yesterday it became more explicit in his email to us. Dad’s left lung basically doesn’t work anymore. In his case it is due to a condition called pulmonary fibrosis. With just the right one working, he doesn’t get as much oxygen as he used to. Consequently he is frequently tired. He now joins a dubious but rather large club at his retirement community of men getting supplemental oxygen. His wife (my stepmother) now gets to wheel him to and from the dining rooms for his evening meals.

That’s not the half of it. He’s lost weight and is continuing to lose weight. For a man that was once six feet tall, he is down to 146 pounds. He looks gaunt. He has little appetite. In fact, his stomach hurts most of the time. It hurts more when standing and less when lying down.

When we saw him last toward the end of April he could walk unassisted. He can still walk but of course it will tire him so it’s not a great idea for him to do too much of it. He could also engage in conversation, although my stepmother was the more articulate of the pair. That he can still type an email means he retains motor skills.

If you have to die he is doing it pretty well. He is still at home, which is his apartment in his retirement community. He may be able to avoid assisted living altogether before he goes. How much longer he has is a mystery, but his time is likely in months, if not weeks. He has clearly given up trying to prolong his life. At 88, his body is simply wearing out. Even if he had extraordinary surgery like a lung transplant, he is very susceptible to infection. Visiting his dying sister last year involved flying cross country, which meant he caught pneumonia somewhere across the country at 35,000 feet. He informed us last month that he won’t be coming to a planned family vacation in July. His driving days are likely over. Unless he needs to see a specialist or go to the hospital, he’ll probably remain inside his retirement community until he dies.

Dad is pragmatic about death. In a retirement community, death is hardly a stranger. It is all around you. It is simply a matter of wondering when your number will be called. The community mailboxes have new death notices posted nearby pretty much every day. People drop out of your life rather mysteriously. It usually means they have passed on but didn’t want to make a fuss over it. You either accept death pragmatically or you let it rule you. My Dad has opted for the former.

His will has long been in order, along with end of life directives. He tries not to look too far ahead and take each day as it comes. He is gracious in his decline and grateful for his life. He realizes his dying could be much worse. He probably won’t lose his motor skills, like my mother did. He probably won’t end up in a nursing home, except possibly at the very end. If he needs hospice there is a good chance it could be done in their apartment. He could die in his bed, which is probably how he would prefer to go, the same bed (moved many times) that he and my mother inhabited over their fifty plus year marriage.

It probably won’t be the pulmonary fibrosis that kills him. Most likely he will succumb to some sort of virus or infection. In the end it was not the Progressive Supranuclear Palsy that killed my mother ten years ago, but a common bladder infection that she could not fight off. At this stage of life, what once you could fight off now is more likely to kill your overwhelmed body. His last bout with pneumonia required a hospitalization, but he survived it. Another one would likely kill him.

Still, he is grateful. He is grateful for his long and mostly healthy life. He is grateful for all of his eight children who turned out to be all good eggs. He is grateful for my mother and grateful to find a new partner in marriage late in life. He is grateful for having his wits together, being able to speak, being able to think clearly and being able to participate in much of what makes life enjoyable. He has lived a long life but he senses his end is not too far away. He neither wants to postpone it nor accelerate its end. He is tired of fighting what he cannot change. He is dying and he is content to die when he is called.

I can’t speak for all of his children but in general we are content to let him go in his own way and his own time. Of course it saddens us that he is dying and of course we will grieve when he is gone, and probably a lot before then too. But he has lived a long and rich life. He has done all those things that good people are supposed to do and much more. While my mother was dying, when he wasn’t caring for her he was tutoring one of the staff in the nursing home in math. Until very recently he ushered at church. He gave generously of his limited treasure. He loves us all and treated us all with kindness and respect, which we returned. He retains a serene confidence in his Catholic faith and his belief that he will be in heaven soon. His issues are not so much dying, which is inevitable, but day to day issues. Like most aging men he has an enlarged prostate. He needs convenient and frequent access to a bathroom.

Still, it is hard not to feel some grief as he declines. Some parts of him simply are no longer there. He took enormous comfort in food. Chocolate cakes used to be his passion. Chocolate anything was largely unsafe in his house. With so little appetite, chocolate is no longer a passion. He most likely has eaten his last slice of chocolate cake. He hasn’t the interest or the appetite for it.

I’ve urged my siblings to go see him and tell him what he has meant in their lives, although I think he already knows. I need to see him again soon too. Now that I live in New England it is not as easy, but I can probably drive down monthly to spend time with him. It’s unclear to me how much handholding he needs. It may be that I simply need to hold his hand a few more times. He is serene in his decline and accepting of it, seemingly without apprehension, taking one day at a time and eking out whatever remaining joy it will offer him in the time he has left.

R.I.P. Arthur Belvedere Dent, 2003-2014

The Thinker by Rodin

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.

Valjean
“Bring them home”
From the musical Les Miserables

Eight years to the day after we put our cat Sprite to sleep, today our cat Arthur also went to that great big clover patch in the sky as well. It’s like the gods are trying to tell us something.

Arthur
Arthur

Like most of these feline-human relationships, the end, when it came, came rather abruptly, although not unexpectedly. Arthur Belvedere Dent (usually it was just “Arthur”) had been a kitty in decline for more than a year. Like most cats with a terminal condition, he soldiered on with life, likely in discomfort and pain but mostly without obvious complaint. It’s hard to know exactly what his condition was, but lots of cats die from tumors or inflammation of their digestive tracks, and it was likely he had at least one of those. The only surprise with Arthur was that he was taken from us while relatively young. We were told he was three years old when we got him in 2006, but likely that was just a wild estimate, as stray cats don’t come with birth certificates. Our cat Squeaky made it to seventeen; her brother Sprite nearly hit 20 before he passed on. Shorter lifespans is part of the problem with many strays, not to mention purebred cats. That seems to have been true with Arthur.

Sprite, as I expressed in a moving eulogy after he passed away (and which still usually gets a couple of hits a day) was an angel. I will never be as bonded to a cat as I was to Sprite. I don’t dance, but somehow Sprite and I could dance together. We understood each other intuitively and bonded in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Arthur, on the other hand, was my son.

It’s true that I called Sprite my son too, but Arthur earned the title. I don’t have a son in real life, so I look for substitutes. The only substitutes close at hand are male felines in the house. While I have never had a son, I understand what a father-son relationship should feel like. Sons generally respect their father, but they are still very much apart from their father. That’s the way it was with Arthur. We loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company, but we could not dance together. However, we could enjoy our time together and we did.

Strays are hard to socialize so unsurprisingly Arthur was too. It took a year, but he settled down. It finally occurred to him that this was his home, and we weren’t going to get rid of him so he could stop peeing in the vents and running away from strangers. One of our most memorable times with Arthur was when we brought him home after his first visit to the vet. He was totally floored. He was back to the same place and he told us all about it. He was not a particularly vocal cat, but that day he certainly was. If a cat could show joy, Arthur showed joy that day. Trips to the vet were never fun, but they got easier as he aged. He knew he would always come home. Well, at least until today.

Those of us who have cats love them because they are like fingerprints. They often look alike, particularly the ubiquitous tabbies like Arthur, but none are alike and each will project personalities that are distinct. If you find people interesting, it’s hard not to find cats interesting as well. While they cannot speak a word of English, somehow you know pretty well what they are feeling and what they are saying. Purrs usually give away how they are feeling.

As cats go though, Arthur was a simple kitty. He liked his humans (us), could warm to the occasional stranger but mostly kept his distance from them. He didn’t expect that much out of life except some amusement from his humans, a place to sit in the sun and when the weather was warmer, access to our screened in deck. There in safety he could bliss out in the sun, let the wind waft through his fur, or let the local birds and squirrels keep his attention. There was something about the tall tree next to our house that held his attention when he was on the deck.

He had to be taught to sit on laps but enjoyed it once he got the hang of it. Once the inflammation started in his tummy though, lap sits were too uncomfortable. Life became simpler: endless days on the top of the cushy chair behind the ottoman in our TV room, with a prime view of the outside including our comings and goings. It meant daily shots from my wife, which he hated and consequently meant that he grew to distrust her. It meant us finding ever more creative foods that he might actually eat; otherwise he was doomed to waste away. Toward the end we went through many variants of Fancy Feast, verboten to most cats whose owners listen to their vets, but for cats with a limited lifespan, why not? He mostly ate the Fancy Feast mixed with baby food (with meat) in it. He seemed to like the baby food part the best. It was gentler on his stomach. Still there was lots of diarrhea, an inability to sit comfortably due to the inflammation, and awkwardly stumbling up and down stairs to his kitty boxes with his legs abnormally splayed. Since he wasn’t absorbing much food, more food became very important. He would let us know about it when we came near the kitchen, and would wait patiently in the kitchen until someone fed him. The telltale sign of his health, his unusual tail that curved up behind him, disappeared some eighteen months ago and never returned. That was our first clue we had a sick kitty.

With the help of our vet we gave him a pretty good quality of life in spite of these issues. We probably got a year more of his company thanks to special foods and medicines. We knew it could not last forever. Today his life abruptly came to an end. After I went to work our daughter found him on the floor unable to move his front left leg, and howling in pain. This brought me home from work to assess the situation. It was clear that this was the end. He tried awkwardly to move with one good paw and two ineffectual back legs. It didn’t work. He twisted himself up like a pretzel. The time had come. All we could do is minimize his pain.

A quick assessment by the vet confirmed our diagnosis: there was no good quality of life left. It was time. They gave him a tranquilizer while we petted him. It definitely calmed him down to the point where he seemed dead. His eyes lost focus and the edges looked black. We said we loved him, stroked him continuously, made sure to watch him and then let them take him from us. It was not the ideal way for him to go, but it didn’t last that long. He went we believe knowing that he was loved.

Particularly during his decline I made a point of going by his spot behind the ottoman several times a day and spending time petting him and talking to him and assuring him that we loved him. And he always purred. My message was consistent and loving. All you can really do is love your pet to the extent you can. And then on one heartbreaking day, you have to let them go.

It’s the yin and yang of owning a pet. There is the joy of having a pet, and the sorrow of putting them down. It has to be this way, it’s not fair but it is what it is. I can’t read my son’s mind, but I do believe he knows he was loved, and he was, very dearly. This father sure has had his share of heartache today, putting down his adopted son.

Rest in peace, Arthur. And thank you for seven and a half years of gentle love and heartfelt genuineness. I told you a million times that I love you and will always hold you in my heart. I still do and I always will.

Love,

“Dad”

You’re dying. So what else is new?

The Thinker by Rodin

The inescapable implication of being alive is that you will die. Most of us accept our mortality in a kind of abstract way. We are aware of it but choose not to dwell on it. Fortunately, life offers us plenty of reasons to ignore it. For most of us, simply surviving is a full time struggle. Contemplating your eventual death is easier to ignore when you are young but less so as you age.

Retirement is one way I grapple indirectly with death. I am fortunate enough to be able to retire this year at age 55 if I choose to do so. I coped with this fact by assuming I would pick up some other job. It so happened that an instructor position opened up at the community college where I teach as an adjunct. However, when they finally offered me an interview, I turned them down. I had my reasons but one of them was that I wasn’t ready to kiss a demanding but enjoyable full time job I love goodbye, at least not quite yet. Retiring, even if it is to another job, made me feel old. Being employed and well moneyed makes me feel needed and validated.

A terminal illness should make you confront your mortality at last. My mother in law was diagnosed as terminally ill last week. She has stage-four lung cancer and her prognosis is four to 6 more months of living. There is some hope that a $6000 pill might extend her life another year, but its success rate is marginal. Operating is out of the question. Her heart is operating at twenty percent of normal and she had part of her left lung removed a few years ago in a previous attempt to get rid of lung cancer.  She still gets around but now needs supplemental oxygen day and night. Her blood oxygen levels are now so low that she will need a blood transfusion this week.

She seemed to have an inkling that the biopsy would give her this terminal news. Even without the lung cancer, her life is precarious because of her heart disease. A combination of factors that come with age and poor choices earlier in life (like smoking) have caught up with her. However, she has managed to live into her eighties. Given her health history, this in itself is remarkable.

Long time readers know that I lost my mother in 2005, but spent about five years witnessing her decline. The whole experience was wrenching for me, my family and of course my mother. (Her eulogy however has proven to be immortal, since six years later it is my most frequently read post, averaging about thirty five page views per day.) Now I get to watch the process indirectly and somewhat more dispassionately, as she is my wife’s mother, not mine and she lives two thousand miles away instead of thirty miles away.

My wife is discovering that it makes a difference when your own parent is the one who is dying. To say the least she is distressed and feels pulled many ways. Should she immediately fly to Phoenix where her mother lives? What would she do there that is not already being done? For now she has the lifeline of the telephone, an imperfect way of communicating concern, until she figures out an optimal time to fly across the country to see her. So far they have not really talked about the elephant in the room.

What can you really say to someone who is dying that does any good? There is really nothing you can say or do that will change the fact that her death is staring her in the face. You can say you love her, which is undeniably true, but love by itself is not strong enough to repel death. You ache with all your heart to take this millstone off her neck, but there is no way to do so. You want to be a positive presence in her life but at the same time you are wracked with turmoil. It’s useless to pretend otherwise, but some amount of pretense seems to be required in order to keep you from becoming a weeping, sobbing mess. If you are brave enough, particularly in their last weeks, you hover by their deathbed as they slowly slip from this world and maybe hold their hand and stroke their forehead as they pass.

That comes at the very end. Meanwhile there are months of a slow decline, with small triumphs and setbacks. The whole family stays on edge. Tempers are likely to flair; this is our mother we are talking about. And yet there are conversations that need to happen. Is there a living will? Has Power of Attorney been granted? Where does she want to be buried? Is she okay with cremation? It seems uncharitable to bring up these topics, but they really need to be discussed. The American way of dying is often laborious and filled with paperwork.

My wife won’t go alone to Phoenix, at least not for all of her visits. I plan to visit at least once, likely as she moves closer to death. Just as my wife’s perspective of my mother was vastly different than my own, so is my perspective of my mother in law different than my wife’s. To me, she was mostly a kind-hearted sweetheart, deserving of my love and respect. From the day of our marriage I called her “Mom”, for she became an honorary mother in my life as well as something of a substitute mother after my own mother died. I enjoyed calling her on Mothers Day, and chatting with her on the phone and even sending her cards on birthdays and holidays, particularly after my mother was gone. It was easy to do and heartfelt. Before she dies she certainly deserves to hear from my own mouth my love for her, and my appreciation for having her in my life. To the extent she wants me and I have time available, I can be near her and simply listen to her. My role may be invaluable, because I do not come with the baggage of a biological relationship. I can serve as an independent reference of her self worth and validate her existence on this planet. In short, I can act sort of as a minister and will be glad to do so. And should she want to confess her fears and failures to me, I will be glad to listen with an open heart.

My own mother departed this world with some baggage not resolved between us. She alluded to it before she died but we never quite had the conversation we should have had. We all must meet death, but death must be a little sweeter and easier to endure if your heart is not troubled by sorrow for past mistakes.

In the end, helping her reach this stage honestly is probably the best use of my time, and hers.

Thoughts on death and dying

The Thinker by Rodin

Should dying be scary? Should being dead be scary? It seems for most of us the gut answer to both questions is yes. There is a lot of money to be made feeding our fears and phobias around death and dying. The beauty industry depends on its ability to sell us on, if not on the illusion of immortality, at least looking much younger than your age. Dying is steady business, if not a growth business, for a burgeoning network of service providers from retirement communities, to nursing homes, to funeral homes. Hollywood’s revenue stream would be severely diminished if the powerful emotions inherent in these topics lost their lure. Would there be a video game industry of note if we did not use their virtual worlds to work out of death anxieties by blasting various bad guys, aliens, zombies and assorted creatures from the id? Our prosperity may be measured, to some extent, on our obsessions with death and dying.

A former creative writing teacher of mine, doubtless echoing someone else, posited that there were only two great mysteries of life: sex and death. As a fifty-something gentlemen, sex is no longer a mystery to me, but relationships remain as puzzling as ever. After seeing my mother go through her long decline, dying is less of a mystery to me as well. On a typical day, my top rated post of the day will be a eulogy I wrote for her over five years ago. My creative writing teacher must have been on to something then, because my blog statistics show that sex and death are what people care about. In the last thirty days, 1253 out of 10,573 page views (nearly 12%) were for the eulogy I posted about my mother. However, there were at least 1534 page views were for a half dozen sex related topics. Even at age fifty something, I am still interested in sex, although significantly less that I used to be, and even though there is little mystery in sex anymore.

As I age, I find that my feelings and thoughts on death are changing too. My greatest nightmare traditionally goes something like this: I go see the doctor and he discovers I have some dreadful disease. He tells me that I will have a painful and debilitating decline and in six months I am likely to be dead. Today, I don’t find that nightmare nearly as frightening. This is because one of the consequences of aging, at least for me, is that I both know and feel that I will die. To go from being alive to being dead, I will go through a dying process. Dying may be a very short process or a very long process. But I will die regardless. In short, dying is entirely natural, as natural as birth. At some point it is unreasonable to be too afraid of a natural process.

The late Timothy Leary, always a bit of a contrarian, was bizarrely thrilled to learn that he was dying. He saw dying as something of an adventure, presumably something akin to the many trips he took with acid (LSD) in the 1960s. Leary, who died in 1996, kept fans appraised of all aspects of his death on his web site. He even had his death videotaped for posterity. While the dying days of many are hardly memorable, and are often painful and humiliating, they do not have to be bad. For some, particularly those who receive professional hospice care, dying becomes an experience in extreme living, as drugs keep them from much pain and the tender and compassionate relationships developed in hospice care leave them feeling loved and listened to, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

My own mother’s dying process was wrenching for her as well as for us, but some part of it was wrenching because of her attitude toward death. She could not accept her death, even though she knew she was dying. Her attitude may be because she helped care for her own mother during her dying process, and her mother was mentally ill and reportedly cantankerous through it. It may be that dying, like any other life experience, is what you make of it.

Occasionally I run across remarkable stories about people dying. One of the most remarkable was the death of my friend Lisa’s niece Lauren back in 2006. Lauren, who I never met, died at age 19. She remained chipper and compassionate with everyone through her long dying process. She rarely complained. In some ways, the process of dying and her decision on how she would cope with it defined a remarkable part of her life. She chose for it to be a positive experience and so it was.

I hope when my turn comes I can be this way, but I won’t know until that time arrives. I hope the essence of who I am will be stronger than the scary and bitter feelings that are natural from many during the dying process. I hope when the time comes I will not be full of regrets and disappointments, but realistic and grateful for the time I did have, and for the experiences I have enjoyed. I hope I find the courage to die well, perhaps doing a better job at the end of the life than the many missteps I made through life itself.

Death itself is no longer scary to me. Part of it is because I sense I do have a spirit, and thus a certain immortality. If I were physically immortal, like Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, I suspect I would find it mostly a downer, because those I loved would not share my immortality, and the world would change so much. A lifespan of eighty to a hundred years, should I live that long, is very long in itself. If dying is a property of life, then it is also true that the one constant in life in the universe is change. The universe is always recreating itself. In death in some ways I will be recreating as well, either through some sort of reincarnation process or I will help give life to new forms of life. Either outcome is good. I hope I find that my life was a glorious, and perhaps undeserved gift. I hope this knowledge will fill me with gratitude, wonder of my limited understanding of the universe, and a realization that through death I allow more life to emerge.

Death – much ado about nothing?

The Thinker by Rodin

There is nothing like a long three-week convalescence to focus your mind on the impermanence of all things. Our bodies are infinitely complex biological machines. They work with freaky regularity and excellence until one day when, of course, they do not. In my case, it stopped on January 14th when I had tarsal tunnel surgery on my right foot and nerve release surgery on the right leg.

For the first week, I spent a lot of time hobbling from place to place either in crutches or gingerly on my right leg, wrapped in multiple layers of cotton and ace bandages. Since then, the crutches have been unnecessary. I walk where I need to go slowly but mostly stay indoors. The layers of cotton surrounding my leg and foot are gone. They were replaced with two layers of ace bandages on the foot, and now just a single layer. As I end this convalescence, my final accommodations are to keep an ace bandage on the foot and not to drive.

Thanks to the charity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to get to the office twice. Mostly I work from my dining room table using my employer provided laptop computer. Getting through our firewall at work remotely now means inserting my smart card into a USB smart card reader and authenticating myself using a PIN, although it hardly seems any more secure than using an ID and password. Conference calls are also more restful. I can hold the receiver in one hand while lying on the couch. Dagwood Bumstead would love working from home. Yet, despite its creature comforts, I still prefer the familiarity of the office.

As regular readers know, it is my belief that I have a soul, there likely is an afterlife of some sort and I am probably stuck in some circle of life, death and rebirth. Billions would probably agree with me. Millions would not. The latter believe that life is a highly improbable cosmic accident and the consequence of billions of years of evolution. When death arrives, all the lights go out. My friend Wendy, as well as one of my brothers, are in this group. For those of us who find life worth living, nonexistence is a depressing thought. However, because of my surgery, I am thinking maybe death (or non-existence) is not such a big deal. Maybe it means nothing at all. Instead, maybe we may choose to give it a status far larger than it deserves.

Life and death are interwoven into the universe whether we like it or not. As the Buddhists and others have long asserted, the only constant in the universe is change, so you might as well accept it. There are larger forces at work that can be lumped into one world: reality. Time is real, or is at least an aspect of living that cannot be denied. Even stars are born, age and die. Sometimes when they die, they throw their detritus out into the universe in the form of more complex matter. We are all literally the product of this star stuff. Moreover, we are destined to return to star stuff. Some part of our matter and energy was once in a star somewhere. Our matter and energy will once again be part of a star someday. In that sense, we are immortal and have been since the universe was created.

We have all already traversed the universe. Should mankind make it to another solar system someday, we will simply be retracing our inorganic roots. We are not just tied to our planet and solar system; we are tied to the universe. If some day we warp around space like they do in Star Trek, we are not exploring strange new worlds, we are returning home.

During my surgery, I was under general anesthesia for about two hours. Clearly, I did not die in those two hours. Whatever anesthesia I was given had the property of shutting down my consciousness for those two hours (or gave me the inability to recall any of it). I remember being on the surgical table and then, just as in death, the lights went out. Two hours later I was in another room, I was awake and the lights went on. During those two hours, I assume I was alive, but I might as well have been dead. Those two hours of non-existence, which might be more accurately described as an inability to remember anything or to act in any manner whatsoever, perhaps prove a point made by my atheist friends and siblings: death really does not matter.

While fear of death seems to be a human characteristic, perhaps it is all wasted energy. Not that it is easy to do, but perhaps we would all be much happier if we spent our time alive concentrating on living and forgetting all about death. After all, you cannot change the fabric of the universe or its rules. We are all caught in this incredibly complex space-time matrix. If being unconscious during my surgery is any guide, death, which for us humans seems to equate to non-consciousness, really does not matter.

Being infirmed of course matters, as I discovered. Dying matters as well as it is a progressively worse state of being infirmed. In either case, you are losing your tether to your known reality. Our species takes comfort in the known, safe and predictable. In my case, I missed the comfortable ritual of driving to and from the office, and inhabiting an office with a nice view of the Shenandoah Mountains five floors up. Working from home with one foot propped up was convenient and facilitated my recovery, but was awkward and different. Hobbling around in crutches for a week was also difficult, inconvenient and at times painful. It is understandable that I would have some petty grievances over my convalescence. However, when it ends on Friday, I should be back to better health than I was before the surgery. I hope that my life will become more comfortable and less painful.

I take some comfort in this expectation. I also take some comfort in the experience of being unconscious during my surgery, because the universe is also teaching me a lesson: neither my lack of consciousness during surgery nor death in itself are worth worrying about. Hopefully I will fully absorb these lessons and live my remaining life to its fullest in the time ahead of me.