Something I wrote on my 49th birthday:
Early on [in the history of this site] there are hints of the standard-issue Fear of Death that comes as a free gift with every birth. And while that's disturbing, it's not extraordinarily so: most people tend to wilt just a little when contemplating the Grim Reaper. Some of us are better at sneering at it than others "Yo, Death, I got your sting right here," said James Lileks but we laugh at Death because we know Death will have the last laugh on us. (Christ, I'm quoting Lou Grant now. And it's not "I hate spunk," either.) The passages above, though, make it pretty clear that knowing I'm going to die isn't what scares me; what scares me is knowing I'm going to die alone. Some day, more likely some night, that "finite number of breaths" will be reached, everything will come to an end, and no one will know until two or three days later because some mundane task wasn't performed on time, some phone call wasn't returned, or, most absurdly, because this goddamn Web site wasn't updated.
There is, of course, an alternative: detailing every last minute of, well, every last minute.
If, indeed, they are the last minutes. Alan Sullivan, stricken with leukemia, is fighting back:
On the first day after my chemotherapy, I feel rotten. Slight fever, slight nausea, severe fatigue, and an evil taste in an inflamed mouth. It's one thing to anticipate, another to experience. That's the downside, and it could easily get a lot worse, if my anemia increases, or some infection takes hold. However ... there is an upside. During the past few months I had developed swelling in several lymph nodes up the back of the scalp. I didn't even know there were nodes in such places. Caught between bone and skin, they were more sensitive than their tissue-nestled cousins. They were also hard and extremely easy to discern. Today they've shrunk by half or more. No wonder I feel so awful. Tumor lysis is a nasty business. But that is the objective toward which I am making some painful progress.
And he is making progress. From the very next day:
I'm impressed, almost awestruck. All the nodes are melting away like snowballs in May. I slept deeply last night, despite some aches from yesterday's followup shot of Neulasta. This morning I'm still weary and queasy, but the weakness is gone from the legs. No other significant side-effects are discernable at present. The weather is due to clear today, and I'll try walking a mile or two this afternoon.
More resigned to his fate but not even coming close to wallowing in self-pity is Rob "Acidman" Smith:
I don't need your prayers. I ain't dead yet, and I intend to hang on as long as I can. My problem is NOT going away, no matter who prays for me.
And he's sure it's coming sooner or later:
I hate to say this, but "slowing the progression of my prostate cancer down to an almost negligible level" is a death sentence. That's just the way that disease is. If it ever spreads, you can slow it, but you can't stop it.
On one level, both of these stories are a bit scary, because (you guessed it) both of these guys are around my age, and I'm rapidly learning that whatever indestructibility I may have thought I possessed when I was younger was only an illusion, and a fleeting illusion at that. Still, there's a marked absence of the sort of self-absorbed whining that you'd see if that person at Death's door were, um, me, which suggests that it's probably a good thing I haven't come down with anything highly lethal yet, since I'm obviously not prepared to deal with it psychologically.
Or maybe it's just that I always thought that the end would come at a time of my own choosing, due to my own (in)action. That particular blue funk is in some sort of temporary remission, and I am in no hurry to see it restored to the fore, but I'm not at all delighted by the return of the element of surprise.
In the film Big Fish, a boy sees a vision of his own death. That knowledge gives him marvelous confidence throughout life. In his moments of greatest fear, he can reassure himself by remembering, "This is not how I go."
Do I really want to know exactly "how I go"? Until I can answer that question, I must stand in awe of these two gentlemen who have been told how they might go, and who refuse to flinch.
Sympathy, only if they request, which they won't; respect, absolutely.
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Copyright © 2005 by Charles G. Hill