Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Little Ditty on Death

Nothing clears a room faster than the topic of death. But when you've flirted with it as much as I have, you can't help but formulate a few thoughts. I revise the playlist for my memorial service every time someone tells me, in some form or another, that I'm going to die. Then something happens that reverses that prediction and I stop my preparations for what promises to be a kickass service.

Now that my future is looking bright again, I think about what I've learned in this last fight. For one thing, I'm more comfortable with death. Or maybe I'm becoming desensitized after so many false starts. I now notice ways in which our society promotes crazy notions that assume we can avoid this inevitability. The truth is, we begin the process of dying the moment we are born.

Many countries face death and the process of dying as just another part of the Circle of Life. But modern society has demonized this inevitable step, maybe because we've scrambled the notion of death as a fact of life with the ways in which many people die. We have created horrible, tragic ways of taking (and wasting) life that didn't exist generations ago -- drug related deaths, senseless shootings, natural disasters brought on by global warming, not to mention higher disease related deaths caused by crappy diets and the lack of exercise. So we invent ways to cheat death instead of addressing the causes of so many fatal problems. Then we lay the blame at death's door, instead of seeing the irony of such flawed logic.

The task then becomes making sense of senselessness. I've learned that this is the fastest way to make yourself crazy. There is no making sense of something like cancer, because, by definition, it's senseless. We created the beast. So believe me, I'm no stranger to the possibility of a senseless reason for dying. But that's not death's fault.

For me, the challenge is to find a balance between being prepared for whatever may happen and having faith that I'll live longer than any actuary table would predict for someone with my medical history. It's tough. Having two unrelated cancers means I have to muster up twice as much strength to combat the temptation to occasionally visit what I call the Dark Side. You know what I mean -- that knot in your stomach when you think about your own mortality.

I've developed a few ways to beat back the Dark Side. One is to remind myself that death is not the worst thing that can happen. Not making a positive impact in some way, to me, would be an outcome far worse than death.

When I venture close to the Dark Side, I think of two people in particular, not because of the way they died, but because of the way they lived. One is my friend Phyllis Cardinale. Phyllis was a member of my first cancer support group, and was the main reason I kept going back. I only knew Phyllis for about a year, but she left quite an impression. She had a great sense of humor and faced her death with grace, dignity and wisdom that I never forgot. She was responsible for leading me to Dr. Forte and to my close friend, Elissa. (Phyllis also worked as a paralegal in my law firm in the late 70s.) Phyllis was a fighter, undergoing 6+ years of treatment for breast cancer, including a stem cell transplant. She named her wigs, according to her moods, and wore them as sassy accessories. Elissa took her shopping, in her wheelchair with her oxygen, just a few days before she died. She wasn't the type to sit around -- not if she could squeeze a little more life out of each day. Phyllis reflected on her approaching death with curiosity, hoping she might be able to somehow know that her family would be okay after she was gone.

The other person I call on for guidance is my maternal grandmother, Natica Seger, aka Grandma Tootsie. Toots was a tough Swede, a staunch Democrat, and a role model for balancing her independence with complete devotion to her husband, Victor. Saying goodbye to Tootsie when she was dying of ovarian cancer was one of the most profound moments of my life. She was sweet, wise beyond words and at peace. Her sadness at having to say goodbye to people was tempered by anticipation for meeting up with my grandfather and her parents. In her last days, her fiesty spirit surfaced when she would wake up sputtering, "Oh, sleep is such a waste of time. Let me tell you some more stories while I still can." Whenever something happens to bring the Dark Side closer, I think to myself, "What would Phyllis do?" Or, "What would Tootsie say?" That, to me, is leaving an impact.

Another way I fight the Dark Side is to focus on the advantages to having a heads up on the way I might die. Knowing what's coming, I'd be able to figure certain things out, depending on the circumstances. I kind of like the idea of having a pre-death memorial service. I envision such a great party, I would hate to miss it. I wouldn't have all those growing old fears that hover closer as we age. I'd control as much as possible, which is important to control freaks like me. I'd make sure to express my love to all who have given so much to me, which I try to do now. I would also make it known that if anyone says that I "lost my battle with cancer," I will lovingly smack them from whatever dimension in which I happen to be residing. (See my August 30, 2009 post, "Does Anyone Really Lose Their Battle With Cancer?) Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned is to control what I can and let go of the rest. Letting go leads to peace and peace leads to happiness.

I had been putting off writing my thoughts on this subject, but was inspired by my friends Michael and Georgette McHale, who offer the world their loving insight, strength and humor. Thanks to both of you for choosing love over fear.