My elderly father-in-law (I’ll call him Mon Pere) is living in the light of two very different worlds right now. In the first, he pursues everything he enjoys with great flair. He goes out dancing with his ladylove, attends continuing education classes at the University, tells his same beloved, off-color jokes over and over again, and takes long, contemplative walks by the river every afternoon. In the second, he lives with metastatic cancer. Mon Pere is what’s known as a character, and he navigates both worlds with the same idiosyncratic grace.
His cancer is slow growing and if it weren’t for a preventive screening test some time ago, he wouldn’t have even known it was there until recently. Because of his age at the time of discovery, and because the likeliest outcome of treatment would have been to erode his treasured quality of life, he declined anything aggressive and has instead lived pretty much the same life he lived before, only with the uncomfortable knowledge that a force he could neither see, feel, nor resist was relentlessly growing inside him.
This burden of helpless knowing strikes me as unnecessary and a little cruel but, as far as I can tell, Mon Pere has no regrets. All our conversations eventually drift to the topic of how grateful he is for the life he’s led and the deep pleasure he now takes in his daily routines. For all I know, without the useless knowledge of his cancer over the years, he might not be feeling this heightened sense of gratitude and pleasure. Perhaps that’s what makes the added burden of fear he’s also had to live with worthwhile.
Mon Pere has been, all his life, every year, an avid traveler but that, too, is changing. This morning he refused an invitation from the hubster to go on a fishing trip to Maine, emotionally disclosing that, these days, he longs more for the simple charms of home. There’s a creeping pain to be dealt with and instinct is whispering it’s time to rein in the adventures.
I’m moved and fascinated by the unconscious courage he displays. He’s unusual in that he’s always been willing to talk about his own death as well as the life he’s determined to live on the last leg of his journey there. He’s been clear with us all that, for him, living fully is more important than living longer. While he’s prepared to surrender to the naturally occurring indignities of dying, he’s determined to avoid any additional medically inspired ones, and so far he’s shown an uncanny instinct for sniffing out and avoiding most of the interventions that might extend-but-strip his life simultaneously.
I admit I’ve been tracking his choices closely over the years, and I’ve learned a lot from him. The truth is that, like him, we all dream of living fully until it’s time to die. The problem is our healthcare system isn’t designed for that. It’s not designed to allow dying at all. It’s designed to keep everyone alive as long as medically possible and, while that’s a decided boon during the healthy years, its lopsided effort at the end is now churning up so much turbulence that a simple death has become a rare event indeed. I’ve looked into the haunted eyes of too many surviving loved ones and seen the same regret there; They never wanted to die like that.
Everyone agrees there’s a problem, and there are many good efforts afoot to change it, but in the meantime passing through the medical system during aging is a lot like swimming downriver into ever-increasing amounts of flotsam and jetsam. There’s so much to get snagged on that it requires an almost impossible degree of knowledge and native cunning to navigate through it all unscathed.
But Mon Pere is doing surprisingly well. He’s like an old trout, refusing to rise to the fluttering lures cast over him, sinking lower into the water instead. He’s not susceptible to the whispered promise of extra time because, as he so often says, Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. He doesn’t have a bucket list left of things still to do because he already lived his whole life doing them. What he craves now are the infinitely dear, small pleasures of life. To walk and learn, laugh and dance, savoring the wonder of each new day.
This gradual slowing reminds me of the other elders I worked with and how they, too, started to bend and change under the weight of this approaching mystery. It often seemed like they were nearing something I couldn’t see, something with an immense gravitational pull to it, as though the closer they circled in, the denser and heavier they became.
I used to think of death itself as a null and empty void…a dark nothingness, an absence-of…with physical life perched on one side and, hopefully, some kind of spiritual life on the other. But that was before I spent time working around its edges, before I discovered the strange, luminous field this final Unknown generates. Some have called it the light of dying, which I’ve also glimpsed, but at the very end, in those last hours before a person dies, it took on an additional dimension. It felt like an immense current flowing through the home, as if some subtler kind of electromagnetic field was in motion. I noticed everyone’s emotions, muscle contractions, and breath seemed to unconsciously synchronize with it, and my own response was the same each time. My skin would tingle and hair rise, my heart would first fill with a vast ache and then suddenly contract and break in one sharp blow. And out of the pain it would delicately unfold again like some kind of pulsing sea anemone, opening up its thousand waving tentacles to grope the passing current…for what, I still don’t know.
The experience was reassuring but disorienting, too. There were a few times after returning to my car when I had to just sit and grip the steering wheel for a while, dazed and bemused by how sharp and crystalline everything looked, as if I was gazing out through a long-smeared window that had finally been cleaned, before the strange afterglow would fade enough for me to drive safely away.
I don’t think of death as an empty void so much anymore. I’m not sure what I think instead, I can’t make make sense out of something I’ve only glimpsed, but the thought of it makes me feel curious, calm but a little nervous, and breathless.
Mon Pere is hardly dying yet, he may not for years, but he’s slowing. Turning. Caught in the outermost edges of that pull now and commencing its widest spiral. He’s a little sad sometimes, a little scared, but mostly he’s head over heels in love with his life, as he should be. As we all should be.
This is the most amazing ride.
copyright Dia Osborn 2011