Long, semi-confessional post coming up. If that’s not the kind of thing you like to read, skip this post and wait for the regular stuff.
Advanced, interstitial lung disease, the report accompanying the X-ray says. I’ve done the hospital thing long enough now to know that what a report says now does not necessarily imply a death sentence; that it is a snapshot of how things are at that particular moment, subject to change. That’s the whole point, presumably, of medical advances: that even the most terminal sounding diseases can be treated. But I’m the first one to see the report, and it is not mine. It is my father who always either being investigated for something new, or treated for something already going wrong.
We’ve reached the stage where things can be managed but not – emphatically not – reversed. Whether it’s a matter of a few months or years is immaterial. Driving back from the hospital today, I said to myself that I had better face this question of death now, when I can look at it dispassionately. At least, after a fashion.
What does that mean, ‘facing this question of death’? It’s not even a question. If I want to get all easy-philosophical about it, I could say to myself that we’re all dying every day. Yeah, so?
Negotiating the traffic, I started to make a list of things I did not want to deal with from scratch after the event: phone numbers of ambulances, crematoria; procedures –how little I know about what to do; death certificates; transferring documents into the names of next of kin; paper work – endless amounts of paper work. At the same time, I was appalled at myself for being so disloyal as to even allow these thoughts. It felt indecent.
And then – the whole question of illness. A dear one’s illness at least has this advantage: it gives you time to prepare for the end. It is the opposite of the kind of death some people are lucky enough to have, which is sudden and mostly painless, not brought on by accidents, war, murder and all the other things humans are capable of. In those cases, the ones left behind have had no time to come to terms with anything, and they are condemned to live with the shock of it forever.
For those who suffer, whose bodies deal with the pain of disease every day, their families have the dubious advantage of having time to accumulate their losses, to count every decline as one step towards a certain end, so that when it comes it comes as no surprise; if things were very, very, bad, it might even be a relief.
I feel ambiguous about the role of medicine in all of this. At times I want to say, don’t mess with life expectancy; the body’s got to give out in some way and warding off terminal illnesses with invasive and painful procedures only prolongs the agony. At other times, I’m happy that such things are possible; when it’s clear that someone who wants to live is able to because of what is available. It’s not the middling cases I’m really talking about, though, where the benefits clearly outweigh the cost of it in every sense.
If it was I who was that sick, I’d know what I would choose: I would choose to die without being pulled back so I could live out one more day in pain. This is controversial, I know, which is why I’m saying only what (I think) I would do.
But right now, it’s not my death I’m thinking of. And thinking of it I am, let’s face that as well, afraid. In the whole recipe of fear, one ingredient is the thought of the inevitable grief. No one, we’re told, has ever died of a broken heart but who has counted the numbers of those that wish they had? I don’t want to have to experience the pain of it again and again and again everyone someone goes away permanently. These are times when I want to say, let it be me instead. Let other people deal with it.
And then I think of my son and I remember who those other people will be. And I can appreciate why the will to live is so strong in people that they will go through whatever they do – we’re all shields for someone else, cupping our hands around the fragile flames of their lives. What would happen if we took our hands away is something we are not willing to even contemplate.
So what I’m talking about is not the fear of dying; it’s the fear of living.
Now what can anyone do about that?