WAITING TO DIE
As I age, I am becoming more aware of death. I don’t mean just my own death, but the eventual death of my friends, my pets, and my relatives. We all die eventually; even my car died the other night and I had to call a car ambulance. I am becoming increasingly aware death as an inevitable consequence of being alive, or in my car’s case, functioning.
My first close encounter with another’s death was that of my childhood dog Judy. Judy was an Irish Setter that my parents purchased around the time I was born. I’m not sure why one would buy a dog when there is a new baby in the house, but my dad probably felt that a boy should have a dog.
It was nice to grow up with a dog that was my age, and I never really thought about the fact that she would not always be there. Then, as she began to slow down and started having health problems, I realized she was not long for this world. She spent more and more of her time lying around as if she were waiting to die.
Judy died on Christmas day when we were both 12, and my dad and I carried her out to the frozen back yard and dug a grave for her. It was a very sad Christmas. It was also the beginning of my contemplation of the idea of death; a contemplation that has increasingly been on my mind as I age, as I contemplate my own mortality, and as more and more of my friends and pets pass away.
My second dramatic encounter with death involved our replacement dog. Cheetah was a female black lab that got pregnant during her first heat. We suspected that the father was some sneaky dog down the street. Our vet told us that Cheetah was too young to nurse a litter, and that we would have to kill the puppies as soon as they were born. That advice was probably terrible, but it was in the early 1950’s, so we didn’t question it. I watched as each of 12 puppies was born, and I watched my dad take each one and kill it. I can’t even remember how he did it. It was a rather traumatic experience for all of us. Sometime after that, Cheetah got breast cancer as a consequence of absorbing her unused breast milk, and had to be put down.
During high school I had a friend whose father was an undertaker. There were several occasions when I was in his house and got to see dead people laid out in preparation for a viewing and funeral. I had never seen dead people before, and it was both creepy and fascinating.
Death became a rather common event during my two tours in Vietnam, beginning with the plane crash that killed some friends of mine. Between my two tours in Vietnam, I flew many missions bringing dead Americans back from Vietnam to Andrews AFB. Then, during my second tour in Vietnam I brought a lot of leaky body bags back to the morgue at Saigon, and saw a number of dead Vietcong lying out in the field. I was becoming immune to the idea of death and to the viewing of corpses.
Years later, while driving along a dirt road in the mountains of Colorado, I saw where a Jeep had gone off the side of the road and rolled down a hill. I went down to investigate and found the driver lying in the sagebrush. He was dead, but still warm, with flies crawling in and out of his nose. My sister and her stepdaughter were back at my truck, and I yelled for them to come down and see the dead guy. They were horrified, and wanted nothing to do with it. That experience made me realize that Vietnam had made me rather nonchalant about seeing dead people I don’t know.
I have had many pets in my life, and most were loving companions to whom I eventually had to say goodbye. Some of them were sole companions for the relatively short time they were in my life, and I was the one who had to make the decision to end their lives. I held them and tried to comfort them as they died. I have vivid memories of those moments of saying goodbye, and I wish there were someone who could do the same for me when my time comes. Unfortunately, our legal and medical profession requires us humans to suffer as much as possible until we die of whatever is wrong with us. Thus the actual time you will die is not known, so you, and your friends and relatives, end up waiting for you to die.
I am still rather nonchalant about death, but never the less, I am waiting expectantly for it. I don’t find the idea of my pending death frightening. It’s the process of waiting for it as it approaches, not knowing when or how, and wondering what debilitating circumstances might precede it. Friends tell me that I should not think about death, but enjoy life while I can. That is a good philosophy. Unfortunately, there are a host of reminders that we need to prepare for our death. There are retirement issues, life insurance planning, tax advice, wills, power of attorney, living wills, beneficiaries, estate planning, moving to a smaller house, retirement location considerations, being close to shopping and medical care, long-term health care, etc. Thus it is hard not to contemplate one’s own death while at the same time planning for it.
I always do my own taxes, but last year I went to a tax preparer to have him review what I had done. He was also a financial planner, so he got around to asking me about my investments and was I financially preparing for retirement. Then he said, “You know that most of your retirement money will be spent on health care the last two years of your life, so when that time approaches, you are better off taking a hike with Mr. Smith and Wesson.” I actually paid for that advice.
So yes, I am waiting to die. I’m actually planning for it. I might as well since no one else is planning for my death. At least I hope not. The problem with planning for one’s death is that we don’t know when we are going to die. We are planning for an event to end all events, but the date is unknown. And when the planning is done, there isn’t much to do but to try and enjoy whatever life remains while wondering when and how it is going to end.
I think about my grand parents and my parents, and how each of them degenerated and went from home health care to nursing home to hospitals where they died after years of suffering. None of them were lucky enough to die in their sleep. Recalling their progressive loss of freedom, loss of mobility, loss of health, their suffering, and eventually wanting to die, makes it really challenging for me to enjoy what life I may or may not have remaining. I’m trying to enjoy it, but it’s getting harder and harder as time marches on toward the inevitable. And then there is all the shit in my house, basement and closets that needs to be thrown away. It’s tough to throw out one’s life memories, even though many of them have been in boxes for years. Perhaps I’ll just leave the stuff there and let someone who couldn’t care less about it throw it away.
I was told many years ago that I would regret not having kids, because when I got old, there would be no one to take care of me. I still don’t regret not having kids, but I’m starting to see their point. Who will take my car keys away from me when my driving becomes a danger to others, or when I can’t find my way home because I’m getting Alzheimer’s? Who will make sure my bills are paid, pick up my prescriptions, and make sure that I’m eating properly? Who will find an Alzheimer’s facility for me when I can’t remember anything? Who will arrange for my funeral? Do I really care if I have a funeral or not? I may live another 30 years, or perhaps only 30 days.
Waiting and wondering…