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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seven 7hings to Think About While You Think About Dying

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
- Dylan Thomas

You never fully realize just how much you want to live until you think you’re going to die.

For about 10 days, I thought I was going to die.  I know that sounds all melodramatic but it really happened that way.

I went to see a doctor due to a random pain in my abdomen.  The doctor ordered a CT scan and the next day she called to tell me that it showed that I had, “...a possible lesion on the head of [my] pancreas.”

Though I had no other symptoms, my mind immediately leapt to the worst possible outcome:  the lesion was pancreatic cancer.  I did some research and discovered that only 5% of people with pancreatic cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis.

Sidetrack for the best joke I wrote a couple days after the phone call:
Doctor:  “You have a possible lesion on the head of your p-”
Me:  *gasp*
Doctor:  “-ancreas.”
Me:  “Oh, thank God it’s only pancreatic cancer.  For a second there, I thought you were going to tell me there was something wrong with my junk.”
OK, back to the story...

As it turned out, the CT scan was wrong.  I had a follow-up MRI and it revealed a perfectly healthy pancreas.

But for the ten days between the phone call and getting the MRI results, I had to consider the very real possibility that I was going to die.

Everyone -- me included -- understands on an intellectual level that life isn’t forever.  We’ve all had grandparents or an old Aunt Hattie who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil but to be faced with the reality of it for our owngoddamselves is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

This whole situation caused me to stop and think about a lot of things.  It made me think of how I have spent -- and am spending -- my life.  It made me think of how important the people in my life are to me.  I forced me to think about The After, about what comes next.

Not in the abstract.  I had to consider all of these things as my reality.

So here’s what came to mind:  Seven 7hings to Think About While You Think About Dying.
  1. Cliches Come to Life:  “Life is short.” “We’re not promised anything.” “Live every day like it’s your last.”  When faced with the possibility of my life ending for realsies, every one of these cliches came to life for me.  They’re cliches for a reason: they’ve been true since humans have walked the Earth.
  2. Hospitals are the Worst:  There are no two ways about it, there is little comfort in a hospital.  I happen to live in an area with an amazing hospital system whose primary focus for all clinicians -- including the notoriously gruff doctors -- is to put themselves in the shoes of their patients.  And they do an amazing job of it.  But other than the maternity ward, hospitals rarely bring good news.
  3. Hospitals are the Best:  Because hospitals are places where people come on their worst days, they are the best places to touch other human beings. Everyone is having a bad day, feeling alone and scared.  What better opportunity will any of us ever have to make someone else feel just a little bit better.  Best of all?  You’ll end up making your own visit just a little bit better, too.
  4. It Really is the Little Things:  There are at least a million little things I take for granted every day.  The first cup of coffee in the morning.  The sunset.  The feel of my wife’s wrist on my fingertips, the smell of her hair, the warmth of her lips.  How can I possibly stock up on enough of these things to last through The After?
  5. Work is not Life:  This one really, really matters.  I’ve heard it said that no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.  When I thought my number was up, the old cliche, “work to live, don’t live to work” came to mind.  Once you’re dead, the office will find someone else to sit at your desk and after a few maudlin email exchanges, they’ll forget you were ever there.  Your family, on the other hand, will miss you forever.
  6. Life Insurance is little comfort:  I have a reasonable amount of life insurance, enough that my wife and family would be taken care of financially.  However, the look on my wife’s face when we discussed the possible future made it clear that money alone wasn’t what she had planned for our future.  Actually, this was heartening.  At least she doesn’t love me for my money.
  7. Preventative Maintenance:  Having to consider -- really consider -- the fact that no one gets out of this gig alive really drove home the point that I only get one body in this life.  For the first 35 or so years I owned this model, I treated it pretty shabbily.  I made some positive changes over the past 15 years but drove home the point that I’d like to drive this one for another 100,000 miles or 30-40 years, whichever comes first.  I see a lot of high-fiber, low-fat, zero-taste food in my future.

Most people have heard of dog shaming (  For the seven of you who haven’t, it’s an internet meme where a photo of a dog in a compromising position is posted with a sign describing their shameful behavior.  It amuses the owners and the dogs really don’t know what the heck is going on.

Apparently “sick shaming” is a thing, too.  When you tell people you’re sick (or may be) the first reaction is “Oh, you should have quit smoking” (duh) or “Do you eat unhealthy?” (I don’t).  The implication, of course, being that whatever illness you have is the result of something you’ve done.  In other words, you deserve it.

Notwithstanding the utter bullshittitude of this contention, why do people do this?

When a person implies that the illness is somehow the result of something the sick person did, it allows them the illusion that they are somehow exempt, that they are masters of their own health, that they will not make the mistakes you made, thus won’t get sick.

Well I got news for you, Sick Shamers: you have no more control over the randomness of major illness than I do. Sometimes bad shit just happens to people.  In fact, you can pretty much bet your sanctimony that one day, some random bad shit will befall you.  It’s not that I am wishing this upon you; it’s simply a fact.

Getting news like this is never easy.  Why on Earth would you want to make it worse?  You want to be human?  How about some empathy?  How about putting yourself in the shoes of the person who’s just gotten what may be the worst news of their lives and, oh, I don’t know, maybe try to bring them a little comfort?

Sick shaming is just a way to delude yourself into thinking you’re exempt.  But you’re not.  So how about you just don’t do it?

Smokey Joe