Monday, August 16, 2010

Of Birthdays and Death

Celebrating my 46th birthday this week has been a wonderful exercise in being grateful for all of my blessings, and the need to take grateful stock of my life is underscored by the persistent presence of sickness and death that is such an intrinsic part of human existence.

As a nurse, I have worked with the dying and the chronically ill for many years, and their struggles are a reminder that our hold on this mortal coil is tenuous, at best. Several years ago, my wife and I spent about three weeks living at my mother's house in New Jersey, caring for my step-father as his body slowly diminished in its power and presence at the hands of pancreatic cancer. Presiding over his dying process and his death was a powerful and moving experience, and despite my many years of nursing, his was the first death that I witnessed firsthand. That last gasping intake of breath was profound in its finality, even as we waited for the exhalation that never came. I noted how quickly the life force left the body, and how quickly we shifted from care-taking to grieving in the space of one breath.

In 2001, a very close friend of our family was gunned down by the police in a circumstance that might be plausible in a movie or novel, yet was wholly unreal to those who witnessed it and those who survived his horrible passage from this world to the next. Distressed, he had called our home to solicit our assistance moments before the police burst in and riddled his body with seven bullets, and we heard his dying cries of love on our answering machine as he lay bleeding. His death was indeed something almost beyond belief, and the post-traumatic stress that followed was life-altering.

Last year, a dear friend took his own life after years of struggling with chronic pain, depression, and an undiagnosed cognitive condition that robbed him of the ability to use his brilliant brain in the way in which he was accustomed. Memory failed him, words were slow to come, and the loneliness that he experienced was simply too profound for him to see a way to continue on. His 51st birthday would have been last Friday, and I miss the opportunity for him and I to celebrate our August birthdays together, Leos in heart and spirit.

Another close friend was diagnosed with an advanced cancer a few months ago, and this shocking news of urgent surgery, treatment and the potential for death from the ravages of the disease were yet another wake-up call. She is literally fighting for her life while she also faces her own mortality square in the face with courage and understanding that our time on this earth is indeed limited, either by illness, fate or irreversible circumstance. She is a shining example of grace and courage in action.

The other day, it was revealed that a close friend's sister died suddenly at 42, leaving a young daughter without a mother and a confused group of family members and friends. Sudden death is perhaps the most difficult to digest and understand, but acceptance is still the eventual goal, no matter how challenging the path to that state may be.

So, birthdays come and birthdays go, and we move forward in our lives with our petty complaints, our desire to do better, and the courage to continue on even in the face of monumental loss and grief. Birthdays are indeed a time for celebration, but they are also a moment for reflection, atonement, and the realization that this very birthday may very well be our last.

In light of that reality, why then do we waste such precious time with the minutiae of our complaints, problems and apprehensions? This is one of the puzzles of human life, and perhaps this year I will learn even more deeply that my time on this earth is limited, that these days are precious beyond description, and that it's time to live life without regret and hesitation. Perhaps this is the year when I will realize the enormity of the gift, embracing life with the open-eyed wonder that its many mysteries deserve. Happy birthday indeed.


Anonymous said...

As a former oncology nurse ( i am now a case manager) and a daughter of a pancreatic cancer patient, I felt connected to this story. I have seen many ( at least 50) people die. When it was time for my father to pass on to his next journey, I felt ready and happy for the end of his suffering. It was the rest of the family that caused me so much grief. As we sat in the hospice wing, my brothers could not understand why we were there and not in the ED!!!!! I agree, we must appreciate every birthday and every day as they are truely gifts!

Lisa said...

I hope you are recovering from your virus and that your birthday was enjoyable. Sunday is my birthday. Six years ago, I was in between chemo and surgery for stage 3 breast cancer. I knew then the preciousness of each day. I asked God for six more years to finish raising my daughter and I am happy to say that I have received it. She has just started her walk into adulthood at USC. Every year from now on is gravy.