On Dying Young

Within the last year, I lost a childhood friend. He died a middle aged man of “old people” causes, perhaps brought on by lifestyle choices. He was a star athlete in high school and college. A beast of a man. If anyone was indestructible it was him.

More recently, I lost a brother-in-law who died suddenly and unexpectedly, having gone into cardiac arrest. He was also middle aged. I had just visited with him a few weeks earlier, talking around a kitchen table.

The deaths of peers is greatly shocking and saddening to folks my age. That’s even an understatement because words can’t describe the multiple awful feelings for those of us left behind. We know we’re not young and we’ve unfortunately experienced car accident losses and the like but it seems nearly impossible to come to grips with liver failure, cardiac arrest, cancer and such at age 50 or so.

Making sense of death may be the most difficult of human endeavors, at any age. Yet, the truth is that death awaits us all and may lurk after our very next breath. It is number one in the category of things we can’t control.

Even though we all face death, we refuse to think about it. Ironically, this is even true for most devout Christians and for others who believe in something better following the end of our earthly existence. This refusal to think about death makes the actual and inevitable occurrence of death that much more shocking and difficult for those who remain.

I may or may not at least see through a glass, dimly, on this subject. It was almost ten years ago I suffered a major hemorrhagic stroke. I was paralyzed, lost speech and had greatly diminished cognitive ability. I have been blessed with a great deal of recovery but it took a long time and has never been complete. The stroke was unexpected, the result of a birth defect. I was in excellent health. The poster child for a guy with an office job but who worked out like a mad man and ate right. Still, the stroke occurred and I was fortunate to survive.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma. The cancer had grown to about the size of a fifty cent piece and I hadn’t noticed because it was on the bottom of my foot. I now have a different bottom of my foot and less lymph nodes but, again, I survived.

Very recently I had another stroke. This one was unrelated to my previous stroke and, again, was a fluke. An artery was dissected, probably due to a bony growth in my nearby vertebra. Again, my health markers were excellent but I still had the stroke. Apparently, I am at a significantly higher risk of future heart and stroke issues just because this happened, in spite of my good health.

I relate my health issues only because I have had to face life threatening issues from seeming “old people” issues at middle age. I am very blessed to be alive but I may have a somewhat unique perspective of being both a survivor whose friends and relatives have not been as fortunate but also as one who truly did not know if I’d see another sunrise. I approach this very humbly but I’ve experienced the waiting on biopsy results as well as having been conscious during my two strokes and consenting to my own brain surgery for my first stroke.

Our human bodies are remarkable in their resilience yet so fragile nonetheless. I think it is this dichotomy which may lead to some sense of refusal on our part to consider our own deaths, not collectively, but in the first person. However, I don’t think that it explains the whole matter. If I can make any sense of my own inevitable death in the first person, perhaps I can give some comfort to those who grieve.

I wish I could say I view death as less scary with what I’ve been through. I cannot. I was petrified in the ambulance again recently, wondering if I would soon breathe my last breath. I am starting to believe, however, that a large part of the problem lies in our refusal to even think about it. Granted, it’s not a cheerful topic yet I don’t want to repeat the fear I had in the ambulance, nor do I want to not even have a chance to say good bye.

Therefore, it may be worth seriously asking myself, right now, what if I didn’t see the sunrise tomorrow. Maybe the morbid child’s prayer is not so morbid.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray The Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray The Lord my soul to take. Amen. ”

We weren’t even thinking about those words as children but maybe they are worth thinking about now. Am I so afraid of death because I have doubts about my soul? Yet, I am a Christian who believes my soul will live on in eternity.

And what of survivors? We seem to take much more comfort generally in the eternal resting of loved one’s souls, knowing that they are at peace and in a better place. Our grief is heavy but we do take some solace. Yet we dare not even allow thought of our own passing. If it pops into the mind, our defense mechanism seems to be to go blank, mentally, until a different thought comes to mind.

The common theme seems to be our attachment to the here and now, both for ourselves and for those we lose. The primary difficulty seems to lie in our not thinking about these issues. I think the key here is fear and our understandable clumsiness in its navigation. And not mere fear but another word which I will call by name below.

As I type these very words, I am going in for more testing in a few minutes. This testing is for possible cancer. As I type, the testing may show that I’m merely facing a false alarm. The testing may show that I have a real and serious problem but one that perhaps is beatable. Or, this may be one bullet I can’t dodge. I could be terminal.

I know the standard advice is to not over think this. I don’t know the results yet and I should hope for the best. While this may be good advice as compared to presuming the worst, I do not think it is preferable to at least considering the worst. That is because the “worst” I’m convinced is not terminal cancer. It’s not heart disease. It’s not stroke. It’s not sudden death from any cause. This is not the “worst” for either the victim or the survivor.

The worst is dread. Absolute dread. Not just fear but the horrible and palpable fear that one can touch but dare not try because its truly there. It’s the same dread experienced by small children who believe that something mysterious and evil is in their rooms once the light is turned out. We leave that dread behind along with our childhood but we don’t lose the potential of dread. And we never forget the feeling.

Dread is so powerful because we dare not confront it. However, an amazing thing happens when we do. Let me give an example from my own experience right now. If the result of my test an hour from now is terminal cancer at age 51, with a wife and four school age children that does not mean that I need dread that. What if this is it? I actually feel fine right now. I may have a little time to enjoy a bit of life, try to arrange my affairs, and participate in planning the management of my possible pain and suffering. Sound depressing? Believe me, it’s so much better to face the possibility and think of it as I just stated. Compare this to the vague paralization of dread with no good use made of the time I may have left. As bad as it seems, is it not better to allow myself to deal with the possibilities and think about them sensibly? That gives empowerment rather than paralysis.

As to the sudden death, I have experienced its possibility in being conscious while having had two strokes. However, the actual experience of sudden death would be without the dread.

As to survivors, is not the dread so terrible because of its multiple forms? What if that is me someday? How will I go on without him or her? What will be my future?

These are truly dreadful thoughts but are we not better off letting ourselves work through the answers, giving ourselves permission to grieve, to fear, to wonder and to experience all the awful emotions that we feel? But then to answer those questions. Our answers won’t be pleasing. We may need the help of trusted friends, family or trained counselors to work through this but it is much more useful than dread.

In fact, dread is so awful because it freezes us from thought and action while allowing itself to fill our bodies, hearts, minds and souls. Mere fear is better. If we run away from something, at least we are running.

Before I leave for my tests, I have come to, for me, a revelation. Satan is real but death is not at his disposal. His greatest means of torment is dread.

Yet I’m reminded of the first Psalm. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Amen.

August 22, 2013

Copyright 2013 Daniel Blake

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