|Mt. Shuksan and cloud|
We piled into Fred's large SUV, and I sat in the middle seat in back, with Steve on one side, and Al's daughter Lisa on the other. Most people think it's no fun to sit in the middle, but I prefer it. I have a perfect view through the front window as well as nice warm bodies on either side. Whenever we must use that seat, I beg for it. But then again, I'm strange that way.
Hiking along in the alternating sunshine and clouds, I had plenty of time to think about the book I'm reading right now: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. It's a book that lingers in my mind, thinking about life and loss. I have saved the last chapter for today. Not a long book, you could read it quickly and forget about all the issues he raises, or you could, as I have, take your time and consider what he has to say. It's a very personal book; as a physician he says he learned many things in medical school, but nowhere was he taught how to deal with death and the dying process with his patients. And, of course, we all have that to look forward to, not only with our parents and friends, but also with ourselves.
Since I have lost both of my children, people often use the phrase "no one should have to bury a child" or something similar when they learn of it. And then they will often retreat from the conversation because they don't want to consider how they might one day have to go through that same ordeal. "I don't think I could go on if that happened to me." I hear that one, too.
What does that mean? How does one NOT go on with life? I remember well when Stephen died I was a young mother of 22. I couldn't fathom how I would go on. Although I had another child, four-year-old Chris, my world had shattered around me and I fell into a deep depression. I can still remember weeping uncontrollably and Chris coming to put his arms around me. He said, "I'll go up to heaven and get Stephen so you will be okay again, all right Mom?" He couldn't think what to do to keep his own world together. That moment must have reached through my anguish, because I can still remember it after more than half a century. And it still hurts.
One doesn't really pass through such a fire without being permanently changed. Within a few short months, my then-husband Derald and I had divorced. We were both hurting and couldn't help the other. Even though I survived those awful years, I managed to add to the pain and suffering of those I loved, but I didn't care because I couldn't see past my own suffering. There are many, many things I would do differently today. There was no such thing as a bereavement group for me to attend back then, and I made many mistakes in my effort to cope. I know that if I had known anyone else who had gone through something similar, it would have helped. But although there were certainly others, we all endured our agonies alone, as if we were the only people who had ever gone through such situations.
But it happens all the time, you know. Not everybody lives to be old, like I am now. And now that I am old, I have my own decline to look forward to. We laugh about it, make jokes about it, but the truth of it is that, as Atul has pointed out in his book, it's going to happen to everyone, and making some rational decisions about our options, thinking about what's really important to us, is essential to having a good life and a good death.
As I read in his book about people who struggled between the decision to stop or continue treatment even though the outcome of their illness was certain, I realized that there are some upsides to having heart disease being the agent that took my parents from me. No long-drawn-out dying process for my dad: he was vigorous and active right up to the heart attack that caused him to die three days later. Long enough for us all to come home and say goodbye, to be surrounded by my other family members. But he was only 62 when he died, and my mother was angry at him for not having been willing to endure bypass surgery so he could have lived another decade or so.
My son Chris was jogging when he was felled by sudden cardiac arrest at the age of forty. He also lived a good life, was happily married and loved his job. He had hobbies that fulfilled him, and he was well respected by those who knew him. When I went to Germany for his funeral, I learned many positive things about my son that I didn't know. It made me very glad to learn more about him, but I still suffered plenty of pain and agony during that time, as well as the months and years that followed. But when I compare the two losses of my children, the first was much, much harder. It was my first loss and I was completely unprepared for it. When Chris died, I was sixty and had lost both parents by then.
And the truth of it is that the young woman who mourned the loss of her beautiful, healthy infant was not the same woman who lost her grown son. The loss of our loved ones changes everybody; it's part of life. It's like everything else that happens to us: we have choices to make all along the way. Becoming inured to it with drugs and attempt to escape is one option; the other is to let it have its way with us. Going through the pain and suffering means that you come out the other side with a renewed sense of the brevity and beauty of every day. That's what it means to me, anyway.
As I put one foot in front of the other on my journey to the pass yesterday, I felt the sun on my face and looked around at the incredible beauty I was privileged to see. I can still travel many miles with a pack on my back, go to places that fill my heart with joy, and enjoy it all in the company of others who share this journey with me. Although one day I will no longer be able to do what I did yesterday, I will still be able to decide what's important to me. And I know that as long as I can feel the sun on my face and experience the beautiful outdoors, I'll be fine. I won't always have to hike to the top of mountains to appreciate the beauty all around me, but for now, I'm enjoying it.