Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Certain Uncertainty

     Well, it's been longer than I thought! Here is my newest, long overdue, next post:"The only certain things in life are death and taxes."

     Tax Day is April 15. Death, however, doesn't set a date. We never know when death will come, and we never know how much time we have to enjoy our lives as they are. This reality has been brought home to me in recent months due to two situations, as follows.
I have had a client, in her 80's, through my caregiving agency, we'll call her Edith. I started working with her last summer after she was given a terminal cancer diagnosis and was in pretty bad shape. Her doctors gave her six months to live, so she began preparing for her death. She was on hospice care, she addressed all her assets, she said goodbyes to family and friends, and waited to die. Edith expressed feelings of frustration and helplessness to me, hating her pain and limitations, and wishing she knew when death would come. Through the consistent care of our agency's caregivers and hospice, I saw Edith improve. She started feeling better, doing more, and her spirits were up. By Christmas, she was going off oxygen support and even out of the house. Still, we thought she was dying inside, her cancer silently (though, wonderfully, painlessly) undermining her outer picture of health. Then, in February, that changed. I worked with Edith one day, helping her get ready and go to a doctor's appointment. She walked out of the exam room with a smile on her face and excitement in her voice - remission. That one word changed all of our perspectives. Now, Edith wasn't dying, we could practically count on her living to 100! She was cured, and immediately started planning her next vacation. Certainly, she was reasonable in recognizing her current physical limitations; after being home-bound for so long she has lost strength, but she told me how her whole outlook had changed. She described a new appreciation for small beauties and joys in life, and renewed interest in making every day count.  Her experience with death made her grateful for life.

     For me, this experience with death, expected within a certain time-frame and then still uncertain, brought me to understand how little we humans actually know and the complete lack of control we have over death. Even when our respected experts predict impending death, we can be so very wrong.

     The other situation that has brought the subject death to the forefront of my mind is the recent and unexpected passing of my boyfriend's grandfather. Up until three weeks ago, Mr. Carlson was a very independent, functional, and apparently healthy 87-year-old. Longevity is in their family, so no one thought much of the fact that he was fast approaching ninety. I had the opportunity to do a nursing school project with him and his wife last fall, and was blessed to spend several weeks getting to know them and hearing the story of their lives. Personally, I have lost several grandfathers, so I had, in a way, adopted them as my grandparents in my heart. In a moment, everything changed. One minute, he was attending a church function, and the next, he suddenly collapsed and he and his family were catapulted into the stress and emotional rollercoaster of the ICU. During the next week, he deteriorated and recovered, up and down; he coded and was intubated, he was extubated and then rallied. He went home on hospice, cheerful and chatting, and then he went downhill for the last time and went home to heaven, less than a week after the start of his health problems.

     His life was active, full, and lived to its best. In our conversations during my interview project, he expressed a desire to avoid the troubles and severe limitations of 'old age', to live as he was, and then die when it was his time, preferably painlessly and quickly. He expressed a calmness about death, because to him death meant going home to the Lord. For this reason, I am so glad he died the way he did, as hard as it is for his family, and as much as he will be missed.

     This experience made reality come crashing in: we never know when it's our time to go, and we never know how much time we have.

     It's been incredible to have these two situations bring death, life, and my own mortality into sharp focus. I am reminded to be grateful for every day, taking in the beauty of each moment and each stage of life. I am reminded to not take any of my loved ones for granted, to spend time with them because it is precious, and they will not always be around. Most importantly, I am reminded to never expect my life to be a certain length as if I am entitled to it, and to accept each day as the gift of life from God that it is.