Monday, December 20, 2010

When It's Time

The older I get, the less I fear death.
When I was young, I couldn't imagine dying. It terrified me. The thought of missing out on everything, of nothingness, of being buried in the cold ground – unimaginable to a youngster who barely understood what it was to be alive, never mind to be dead. Of course, back then I also believed I was the centre of the universe. That I was the only one who saw, who thought, who knew what was going on; the rest of the people in the world were just stage actors put there for window dressing and my amusement. Or lack thereof. I really believed I was the exception. That I would live forever. That rules of mortality didn't apply.
What an idjit, eh?
Don't hold it against me. I grew out of that kind of thinking pretty quick. Still, it took a long time to realize that I was gonna croak some day, just like everyone else.
I remember the time me and my friend Mark (and I think his brother Andrew and my sister, Elizabeth) were out bike riding on the back roads around Markham. (Back then Markham was a village surrounded by farms and dirt roads and we roamed the concessions on summer days without fear of child molesters or bad guys of any description.)
We were out, just tooling around, and we came across a pioneer cemetery we'd never explored before. We dropped the bikes and checked it out, meandering through the weatherbeaten headstones, some of them more than 100 years old. It was a gorgeous, hot summer day, not a cloud in the sky, and we were all full of the innocence of youth in an innocent time, not a disturbed thought in our blessed, middle-class heads.
And then I came across this:
Reader beware as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
The fact that 40 years later I can still quote it verbatim gives you some idea of what an impact it had. It scared the crap out of me. It scared the crap out of my friends! We hopped on those bikes and pedalled our arses back home as fast as our young legs would take us.
It was like someone reached out of the grave and touched us with a bony finger to say you, yes you, were coming down to the land of earthworms to pay an extended call.
For a long time I wanted that put on my headstone. I thought it would be cool to scare kids the way that headstone scared me. Only in the last 15 years or so have I given up that notion. Maybe it's because I have kids of my own. Maybe I just grew up and realized it didn't matter, and that's not really who I am. Maybe I'm old enough now to realize death isn't a joke, that it's not to be taken lately, but it's also not something to fear.
Getting old, getting aches and pains, is how we accept dying. How often have you heard people say, "it was a relief," when discussing the death of a seriously ill person? Or a very old person? Or someone who is profoundly mentally ill? You would never say that about a young person or any healthy person in the midst of a vibrant, satisfying life.
My father died after a long, exhausting battle with a rare blood disease. At the onset, when he first started getting lifesaving blood transfusions (his body stopped manufacturing its own blood), my mother asked how long this would last (meaning, I think, how long before he would be better and wouldn't need it anymore). The doctor replied, "Until he's had enough."
It was hard to fathom his meaning at the time.
My dad was still in pretty good shape. He was a fighter. He'd battled addictions, and won. He went through open heart surgery, had his knee replaced, survived a traumatic car accident that threw him into intensive care for five weeks. I mean, he'd been through it all, and he always pulled through. He had no intention of just rolling over. He went for his blood transfusions, he went to the doctor, he took his pills and, slowly, began to waste away in front of our eyes. As the disease progressed, he needed more frequent transfusions. At the end, he was getting two a week and it still wasn't enough. He couldn't eat. He couldn't swallow his demerol. He was in so much pain that he moaned constantly. Finally, one day, he'd had enough. 
"No more," he said to us.
No more transfusions. No more pain.
My father was ready to die. His body had given out and his mind sought relief from pain.
Tomorrow I'll be going to a funeral for the grandmother of some of our closest friends. Richard and Tammy stood up for us when we got married this fall. Nan was Richard's grandmother and Tammy loved her as much, if not more than, anybody. They had a close bond and both Rich and Tammy are in mourning right now. It's especially hard, this close to Christmas.
I never met Nan but Dave knew her well. He says she was a warm, generous woman, the kind of person who, when you went to visit, immediately sat you down and plied you with home baked pies and cookies and whatever else she had on hand. She was generous to her family and friends, and lived in her own home, healthy and busy and active, until she had a stroke a few weeks ago. She was 90 years old.
Not a tragedy, not when you can live that long and be that healthy and that beloved by those who knew you. A successful life, by all standards. Her funeral will be a tribute and a celebration to a life well lived.
Still, it is never easy to lose someone you love. Whether they're in pain, whether it was expected or not, there is always a hole in your heart when someone is gone. 
To Richard and Tammy, Emily and Megan, Wes and everyone else touched by Nan's death, I send you good wishes. Be kind to each other. Love one another. 
And have something to eat. 
I think Nan would really want you to eat something.
Especially you, Tammy, you ol adorable skinny butt, you.
See you tonight at the viewing.


  1. To The Rainey family: so sorry for your loss. It's tough at anytime, but at christmas it seems so much worse. Cathy, I think you wrote this beautifully. I could picture you tapping away on your computer with a tear running down your cheek. I know we all miss Dad! It still seems unbelievable when I'm down at the farm puttering about, and I look up expecting to see Dad coming to give me a hand, and he's not there. But as you say, it was a relief to see Dad out of his pain. I'm sure your with me that we'd never wish him back to experience that again. But it doesn't stop us missing the man he was!

  2. A very poignant post.
    It brings to light the line from a movie about the concept of not being judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved.

  3. a mind bending post cathy. wow is all i can say..

  4. Touching and sweet and softened with humor. You're a good friend and I'm sure a great comfort right now.

  5. My condolences.

    Most people do not fear death as much as they fear dying.
    I had suicidal ideations when I was in full depression.
    I've since moved into that arena of being comfortable with my life. I know death will come, and likely I cannot control it.

    Many hugs.

  6. It was kind of the opposite with me. When I was younger I was suicidal. Now, as I creep closer toward health, I cling more to the idea of life. Since no one has survived death no one really knows how they will meet it. I just want to face it with as much dignity as possible (and, at the right time, have an exit strategy). I think death should be faced with clear open eyes.

    The fact that you remember that epitaph also shows how keyed into words you are.

  7. Well written Cathy. It brings back many memories. My deepest sympathy to Tammy. Richard & family. Love Mom

  8. Oh, thanks everyone.
    Liz - well said.
    Deb - you will no doubt be judged very well.
    Michael - thanks!
    Harry - right back at you!
    Jenn - I'm so glad you're feeling better.
    Mark - I'm glad you're feeling better, too, and have a long time to enjoy it.
    Mom - You're the best, you know. The best mom ever! I drove home the other night with such a warm feeling. Thank you.

  9. A tough read for me, but necessary. Mortality is always lurking in the corner. When I was young, I also was ready to fling life in a trash bin. The last few years, I've been afraid to tread to near to death. I appreciate what your father went through, and you; watching the man who raises you wither to a shadow is one of the hardest things to endure, perhaps even more than the actual loss of him.

    My husband and I have been watching a show about people who died, but then came back, and what they experienced. The stories are always the same: light, warmth, a loved guide or angel, peace, even joy. Is there a heaven? or is it just the neurons shooting off as they twitch in death? Who knows? I'm not even sure I care. But it makes me feel less afraid of dying.

    This week I lost my third uncle of the year. It's a tough time to lose anyone. Hugs to you, your friends, and everyone else who has lost someone they loved. Peace...

  10. So sorry I'm late here ... But yes, my sincere condolences. An elegant write, Cathy...

  11. Oh Linda, sorry to hear about your uncles, all of them. Funny but not funny how death never works alone. The same year I lost my dad, I also lost my father-in-law, an uncle, an aunt and two good friends of the family. Peace to you, ok?
    And Anthony, you're always welcome to the party, late, early or otherwise!


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