This point was driven home on Tuesday. On Monday night my grandma, or Beppe as we call her, went to the hospital with complications arising from cancer. She has had cancer for years now but it has been kept under control through a specialized treatment that is only available, I think, in Amsterdam and Edmonton. Because of this treatment she has lived a fairly regular life for the past several years despite having cancer.
The happy ever after fairy tale seemed to be ending on Monday though. She became quite sick and suffered from vomiting and other symptoms of malaise. The doctors told us to "prepare for the worst" as I'm sure they euphemistically put it, when some fluid entered her lungs. Her children put everything on hold and rushed to be by her side while I sat helpless in Calgary re-appreciating how important this woman is to my life.
Tuesday I spoke with her for what was presumably to be the last time. This is what spurred me to later think about death and its euphemisms. My mom had told me that Beppe was at peace with death and obviously understood the severity of her condition. I was aware and wanted to make sure that she understood how much I love her and how much I appreciate the important role that she's played in my life. The problem is that there is the unspoken rule that prohibits people from speaking about death.
Death and taxes right? Everybody knows that it's inevitable. But consider the following hypothetical situation. While driving you come across an accident. You rush to help and discover the driver alive but sufficiently injured that there is obviously no hope whatsoever of survival. Now in times like these people have a powerful desire to have some last words, to tell friends and family how important they are and that sort of thing. There are thoughts that need to be vocalized prior to death. The stereotypical, "tell _____ that I love her" sort of thing. However, when you come to this doomed person do you ask, "Do you have anything that you want me to tell your loved ones?" or do you lie and say, "Hold on, you're going to be OK."
You might ask the first question but I'm sure that the instinctive reaction is the second comment. There is almost an imperative that you can't admit death as if it is somehow shameful to die. Speaking with my Beppe I tried to tell her how much I love her and what she means to me but likely I stated it awkwardly because the whole time I was trying desperately to avoid any words that implied she was about to die. Thus the past tense became entirely taboo. I love you is easy but when I tried to tell her how important she's been in my life it sounded too final, like she was important but those times are ending.
She told me that she knew where she was going. What do I say to that?
Well at the time it was assumed she hadn't long to live but she survived the night and doctors were more optimistic in the morning. But no matter how optimistic they become she's still mortal. Hopefully I'll get to speak with her again but it's certain that one day I won't be able to tell her anything more. I fly tomorrow to go visit. I will try harder to say what I feel.
The question of this blog is, "why are we so ashamed of death?" I think that this is a direct quote from Patch Adams, maybe I just can't escape that movie. That's the question of the blog but I'm instead going to answer a different question, or at least hazard a guess, on the question of how to live life with the knowledge of death.
I read a great quote by G. K. Chesterton the other day. It wasn't entirely about this question but it is such a cool quote that I'm going to force it in here anyway. He said to, "desire life like water and yet drink death like wine." Writing this quote I see that it fits even less than I had hoped. He was speaking of courage and how a soldier must act if he is surrounded by enemies and needs to escape.
In the case of living though we must love life and live to the fullest. We must desire life like water. However, the knowledge of death must always temper our actions. Death has the fantastic ability of focusing on the important things in life and removing the minor details. Nobody on their deathbed stresses about what colour flowers they had at their wedding though many stress about it at the time. Proximity to death makes things like friends and family of the utmost importance. My Beppe was at peace because her family was with her on what was believed to be her deathbed. Her family was there and there was love so she was happy.
So as we live our lives we must be cognizant of death without fearing death. Look at a clock with a second hand. Each second that ticks is a second less of life. The amount of time left is unknown but it is certain that each second that ticks by brings us one second closer to our last. What are you going to do with your time left? What am I going to do with my time left?
I don't entirely know the answer to the question but I do have a partial answer. I wish to live so that if I'm denied the opportunity of having last words it won't matter because my friends and family will already know that I love them. (Because I lived out my love, and to drive the point home, I regularly told them.)