With the advent of fall weather, it should not be a surprise, but I was an early victim at the end of last week, and spent the weekend tethered to home. I had all the usual symptoms, i.e. fever, congestion, cough and runny nose, but when you have lung cancer, the fear is that this will devolve into pneumonia and create major complications. With all the continued success from the current chemotherapy regime, I'd slipped back into my comfortable belief in my own immortality, but the past few days has shaken it up.
We don't do death very well in our society. Of course, there are the headline deaths--murders, accidents, natural disasters. But there is very little said, beyond what you can read in the obituaries of ordinary people about the deaths that occur by aging or gradually through the disease process. And I think that this failure, if you will, gives us ordinary humans, a skewed weltanschaung or point of view. Death for us, is an outlier. Unless we're in the medical or related profession, we don't deal with death on a regular basis anymore. And when we do, we treat it, as I have recently, with denial.
I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but when my paternal grandmother, Helen, died in 1994, one of the items that was passed down to me was a 5 year diary that she kept faithfully from 1953-57. Every day in the five year period was on one page, so she had 4 lines to capture the essence of each day. All the pages are completely filled. I was and am in awe of that sort of dedication. I have numerous notebooks that have half or less of the pages filled from my diary efforts that petered out along the way. I have read my grandmother's diary all the way through once and have read parts of it numerous times. One of the things it conveys is that death was a more constant presence in my grandmother's life then than it is in mine now. She mentioned visiting terminal friends, deaths (her father in law, my great grandfather Cullen, died during this time), funeral home visitations and serving at receptions on a regular basis. And this was when she was younger than I am today. Grandmother also wrote about going to the farm and killing, plucking, and preparing chickens for the Sunday night social at church. So she was aware of death on many levels, levels with which I am not acquainted. I wonder if her familiarity with death had any effect on her approach to life.
My daughter, the 4th year med student, also has a familiarity with death that I do not possess. Her current rotation, which ended Friday, was in the Intensive Care Unit at UW hospital. Her last week there was extremely stressful with 3 patients dying in her last three days. She didn't tell me much about this (she can't because of privacy concerns), but we did spend some time talking about how these deaths made her feel and what is a comfort to her during these times. She is young and strong, but I could see that these deaths were very, very taxing to her. I wished that I had some words that could have eased her pain, but I realize that this is something that she ultimately will have to come to peace with for herself.
We fear what we don't know. And fear can become paralyzing in its power. Hopefully my bout of flu will continue to fade quickly and without further event. It has, however, given me the opportunity to stop and reflect and reconsider.