Over the last six or seven months or so, mortality, health and illness have played a significant role in my personal life, and led to many musings about these weighty and universal subjects.
On Thanksgiving Day of last year, my father was hospitalized for a mysterious set of symptoms that left him bouncing between the hospital, a rehab facility and a nursing home for the better part of two months, his life a combination of miseries that brought him to the very edge of his tolerance of discomfort and physical and emotional exhaustion. Luckily for him, he has greatly improved, and while some symptoms persist, he is now happy to be home and relatively independent at the age of 82.
Two months ago, a rather garden variety respiratory infection sent my wife to the local hospital (on our moving day, no less) with a very aggressive bacterial bronchitis. Luckily, her infection was treated equally as aggressively, and she was sent home within a few days and eventually recovered after much rest and recuperation. Still, it was a wake up call on many levels.
Then, out of the blue on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo (which also happened to be my father's 82nd birthday), my wife's father had a massive heart attack and died in the living room of the home he shared with my mother-in-law. Although the paramedics attempted to revive him for thirty minutes (he had no advanced directives to request that they not do so), I am 100% certain that he was dead by the time they arrived. He was a large man in both the physical and metaphysical sense, and the loss of his presence on this earth is reverberating in the lives of many, many people who loved and admired him.
Since my step-father's death four years ago from metastatic pancreatic cancer (a death over which my wife and I presided as midwives, of a sort), we have become acutely aware of how our parents are indeed aging, and how their health and mortality are coming to the fore as they enter the winter of their lives. Other friends who have lost their parents understand our position, and we have watched as certain friends have become the new "elders" of their clans as their parents' generation makes it's exit.
Several weeks ago, sitting at a restaurant in a town outside of Austin with my now widowed mother-in-law and assorted family members, I was acutely aware of how my brother-in-law and I were, in effect, the patriarchs at this long table, a table at which, by all rights, my father-in-law should have been seated at the very head. However, in his absence, my brother-in-law and I had no one to fight with over the bill, so we calmly took out our credit cards and split the bill 50/50, starkly aware of how "The Colonel" (as he was affectionately known) would have never allowed us to do such a thing if he had been there to seize the check for himself. (In fact, in order to ever pay the check for a restaurant meal, I would always need to pretend to go the men's room, surreptitiously slipping my credit card to the server in advance, a sneaky yet highly effective endeavor.) But I digress.
This continuous movement along the life-and-death cycle truly brings home the fact that death---just like life---is itself inescapable, and our time on this mortal coil is blessed indeed. With the happy knowledge that I will eventually be a grandparent, God willing, my heart sings with the notion of life continuing in the very face of death and decay.
Sitting here this afternoon on the porch of an elderly patient's home where I work 12-hour shifts twice per week, I watch the clouds roll across the deep blue New Mexican sky. I observe the movements of the wind, trees, sun, dust, and tumbleweeds across the wide open expanse that surrounds me with a 360-degree view. A small lizard scurries across the worn wood planks of the porch, two birds alight in the bird-feeder, and a horse whinnies in the distance. I am grateful for the life that I have been given, and for the choices I have made that have brought me to this very place.
I think of my father-in-law, his large body now reduced to a small box of ashes interred reverently in a military cemetery in Texas. I think of the ashes of my step-father, some of which sit in a decorative vessel on my mother's kitchen counter, and a container of which awaits a trip to the Italian island of Capri where I promised him I would one day scatter them to the Mediterranean winds. I think of friends who have died, one by murder, one by his own hand, and others from illness and disease. I think of another friend who is currently waging a battle with cancer.
Human life is a beautiful, fragile, precarious and wonderful gift, and many of us waste countless hours, weeks and years frittering our time away in worry, regret, recrimination and remorse. In the final analysis, it's the quality of your living and your giving that counts, not the number of CDs in your collection, the balance in your checking account, or the make of your car. We humans get caught up in such shenanigans, losing track of what's important as we mindlessly chase that which is ephemeral and meaningless. It can be a long way from birth to death, and sometimes it's a short ride indeed, but the quality of the space in between these mysterious processes is truly the issue to deeply consider.
I have firmly and unequivocally entered middle age, and as my 50th birthday approaches in only three years hence, I look back and examine my life, realizing that it is likely more than half over. Regret is neither my friend nor my companion, and I realize that in order to honor the dead who have gone before me, it is my righteous duty to take this life by the horns and live it with the fiercest love and grace that I can muster. That is the greatest gift that I can give to myself, and it is the most fitting tribute to those who have moved on from this life to the next.
Our mortality is, in the end, one of the things that make living a fulfilling life so urgently sweet. Our time is limited, there's much to do and see, and there are hearts to touch and people to love along the way. Moving forward is indeed the only option, even when those we love leave us behind to wonder what is beyond that ethereal veil through which they have passed. I want my life to be a testament to what I love and what I value, and I believe that I am on the right path. I am grateful for my time on this earth, and I want to always rest in the knowledge that, despite the pain and suffering, it was truly the ride of a lifetime.