Sunday, February 06, 2011

Life, Death, and the Unknown


Recently I came upon a conversation involving reactions to mortality.  Basically it was “what would you do if you knew you were dying?”

I opted not to participate. The conversation was taking place on a forum I no longer post to (I occasionally lurk in silence to read, but very rarely). And I’ve learned that this is one of those “no talking to people” topics.

What I always find interesting is that mortality discussions take on a flavor very much like “if I won the lottery,” which is mind-bogglingly naïve.  Trust me, even under the best of circumstances you don’t get to be both incredibly active and terminally ill at the same time.  These folks who think it’s a Tim McGraw song are in a bit of denial. 

But if you ARE healthy and think that’s a great philosophy, I DO recommend you “live like you were dying.”  Do it, if you can.

I beat cancer, and later found out that I had a terminal illness.  The interesting thing about diagnosis like mine is that they can only estimate life span. I have had pulmonary fibrosis for five years now, which is dead-center on the life expectancy.  In other words, I am only supposed to live three to five years past diagnosis, and seven at the most.  Yet I am not only still alive, I live reasonably well in spite of things.  There is no cure, and so far no treatment that allows us to live indefinitely with the disease, so all PF patients are dying, most likely within five years of discovering we have it.  Yet I’m only on oxygen as needed, still remain active, and recently found that while my body is damaged forever, the destruction of lung capacity has, apparently, halted.  So who knows?  I could live a long time with lots of annoying issues, none of them I would not gladly face to keep living.

I can’t climb mountains or fly at high altitudes or run marathons.  People almost always say “I would travel.” No, most likely, you wouldn’t.  Dying people—and I am among the most active and able of the group—can’t usually travel. That’s a nice movie plot—but there is also a reason most of those movies end with “it wasn’t a brain tumor after all!”

But being limited doesn’t mean being DONE.  And while I find the naiveté  amusing, perhaps occasionally insulting, the flip side is I am walking that walk without freaking out—or giving up.  And here’s where I can actually, perhaps, offer some sage advice.

  • Don’t be scared. The truth of the matter is, none of us know when the moment is actually going to happen and a lot more people die suddenly without getting a chance to prepare.
  • Do what they tell you.  Even an incurable, terminal disease can miraculously vanish, or benefit from a sudden medical discovery.  Just because there is no hope on day 1 doesn’t mean hope is gone. If you follow medical advice you’ll be more likely to last long enough to see it.
  • What you CAN do, do. Finish stuff, don’t put things off til later, and try to check off any bucket list items you can, realistically.
  • Figure out what you really do believe and you’ll most likely find you can deal with it a lot more calmly and casually than you think.
  • When Tim says “live like you’re dying” he means embrace the joy of life, not dwell, wallow, whine, and obsess. Not only is that a waste of the life you have… your spirit listens to those messages.  If all you think and/or care about is your medical condition, you won’t be around long.  We can very quickly come to adore our misery. If your sickness becomes your love, it will love you back… and love you to death.

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