On Living and Dying

It’s been an emotional week for me.  I’ve gotten bad news; I’ve gotten good news.  It’s been a week of death, dying, sorrow and joy.  There have been many thoughts of family.  I’ve witnessed great courage. And I’ve seen the circle of life.  It’s been a week of loss, retrospect, fear and celebration.

My Uncle died on Wednesday.  I’ll admit that we weren’t close at all, but his passing had a profound effect on me.  He was the last of my parents’ generation, and I’ve become the patriarch of the family. We may not have been close, and he did live 400 miles away, but he was always my favorite uncle. He was my uncle by marriage, and not a part of the ‘blood line’, but he was still family.  Most of my memories of him were as a child.  My family would spend a week every summer visiting my Fathers’ side of the family, and it almost always involved spending time with my Aunt and Uncle.  At the time, they owned and operated a Marina on large lake in Eastern Tennessee, and even at my young age I was in awe of them.  I couldn’t understand why, but looking back as an adult I realize it was because they were not main stream.  Everyone I knew had regular jobs working for someone else.  My Aunt and Uncle however worked for themselves.  It was a concept that was alien and impressive.  He was so different from my Father in every way.  He had the cojones to provide for himself.  He could fix things.  His personality was outgoing and confident.  I’m sure that they had their own share of troubles and struggles, but it always seemed that he was in control of his own destiny.  As an adult, the only time I’d see him was at funerals.  After my grandmother died the regular trips to Tennessee stopped, and we only went back when someone another family member passed.  It wasn’t just our trips out there either.  When my own family members started to go, he would make the trip to us; often the only one from that side of the family.  And he outlived them all.  The last time I saw him was at another Uncle’s funeral that I went to.  And he was the same as I always remembered.  He just didn’t seem to age to me.  He was in his 80’s, but just as spry and full of life as ever.

And now he’s gone.

I’ve been very aware for some time of how little of the family is left now.  Of course there are cousins, but they are scattered all over the country and I never see any of them.  And there are my children, and my Niece and Nephew.  But as far as this generation it’s only my Sister and me.  And I had girls; the family name dies with me.

But most of all, my heart goes out to my Uncles’ children and all the people I know he was close to.  He was very involved with his boys, and I think they adored him. I know what it’s like to lose a father, and as close as they were I can only imagine what they’re going through.  Their loss is immense, and even though this hits close to home for me, the real tragedy is theirs.

I’ve recently learned that a good friend of mine has breast cancer.  Breast cancer is bad, and it involves a great deal of fear and unpleasant and difficult treatment.  But I’ve learned her situation is much more than that.  Turns out her breast cancer was several years ago, and she had undergone a double mastectomy as part of her treatment, and it seemed like she had beaten it.  But the cancer is back.  It has metastasized to her bones and lungs.  She was so nonchalant in the way she told me I was of course worried, but not overly so.  Cancer can be treated and the prognosis is often good.  But out of concern I did a little research, and once a cancer has metastasized, its stage IV.  It’s terminal.  New treatments can prolong life, and minimize the pain and effects, but the prognosis is poor.  The life expectancy even with treatment is only a couple of years; five at the most.  She’s still a young woman; barely in her fifties, but she’s looking death straight in the eye.  To know her however you’d never have any idea.  She goes about her life as though there’s nothing going on.  The time I’ve spent with her has been full of laughter and fun.  She’s really a hoot to be around.  She’s been getting her house ready to sell, and has been working hard every night and weekend to get it prepared.  I was under the impression that she was selling just to downsize and get rid of all the yard work and maintenance of home ownership.  But now I have a different perspective.  I think she’s preparing for what she knows is coming.  I had my first clue that there was more going on than I suspected, which is what prompted me to learn more about what was going on.  She had casually mentioned that she had a three hour doctors’ appointment on Wednesday, but when I talked to her on Thursday she was obviously sick.  Her strength and energy has always been ‘normal’; but Thursday it was gone.  She was almost too weak to talk, and I could hear in her voice just how bad she felt.

But her attitude is amazing.  She’s divorced, and her children are grown and gone.  Honestly, the way she’s dealing with this I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even know just how bad it is.  She has her friends, but she keeps the cancer out of those friendships.  But she’s really fighting this fight alone.  I’ve been thinking lately of my own mortality, but this is a real wakeup call for me.  It’s not imminent, but the reality is, she’s dying.  And I’m resolved that in whatever little way I can, and as much as she’ll let me, I’ll be there for her.  Her strength dealing with this is inspiring, and I’m proud to be her friend.

I have another friend who’s going through her own tragedies lately.  It’s kind of a different story; she has been separated for almost 10 years from her husband, but they had remained very close and still functioned as a family in many ways.  There’s no doubt she still loved him, but for whatever reason she just couldn’t live with him. When he died suddenly a month ago, she lost her spouse, just as much as a woman who had been in a marriage the whole time.  She was devastated.  And it gets worse.  Her husband died less than a week before their son was to be married.  A time of happiness was replaced overnight into sorrow and loss.  The wedding went on as planned, and they did a great job celebrating his life along with the celebration of the marriage.  He may have been gone, but he was still the best man and just as much a part of the wedding as though he were still there.  I have great respect for how they handled it all.

But there’s more to this story.  This week she was blessed with her first grandchild.  Her daughter delivered a healthy, beautiful baby boy.  She’s been anticipating becoming a grandmother with great excitement and happiness.  And I have no doubt that she’s going to be an awesome grandmother.

And the circle of life continues.  The loss of her husband hasn’t diminished, but she has the joy of the family continuing.  And with the baby boy, the legacy continues.  One life ends, another one begins.  This is nothing new of course, but the short time this has all occurred has made it very poignant.  But in the sadness, there is great joy for her.  And as her friend, I feel her pain, and share her excitement.

This is my blog.  It’s been all about my personal feelings, the way I’ve dealt with things good and bad.  It’s always very selfish and self centered.  It is all about me, and my life and how everything relates.  Now is when I bring all this around to how all of this has affected my attitude, or provided a time of reflection on my own existence.

But not this time.

These people have their own lives that have meaning that only they can experience.  And these are just three people who I have in my life.  Everyone has their own suffering and sadness, happiness and joy.  My Father used to tell me that no one’s pain was greater than your own.  For him, my broken leg would never hurt as much as his hangnail. I can only know my only feelings.  Everyone has their own and only they can feel them.  It’s not up to me to judge another life or think that mine is any worse than theirs.  I can only accept that we all have our own perspective, and I marvel at the ways people rise to their own challenges.

This time it’s not about me.

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4 Responses to On Living and Dying

  1. I love sentence before the last one. Very thought provoking.


  2. John Hayden says:

    A great essay. The paragraphs about your uncle were very much on the mark. In extended family, the details of closeness or distance or frequency of meeting do not truly reflect the importance or symbolic significance of the relationship.


  3. Miss Cuckoo says:

    So sorry to hear about your uncle. I enjoyed this post very much — it is the first one I have read from your blog. I will definitely be back. Be well.


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