Terribly sad day at work today. One of our senior executives died on Saturday and although many were aware of it immediately, most of us learned the news on arrival at the office this morning. He was just 49, a really really really nice guy, and I was lucky to know him just a little because my desk happened to be in the vicinity of his office and we shared an administrative assistant.
He died of a cancer that was really unfair given how healthy he was before. He'd been fighting it for a while now - maybe a year and a half? Seemed entirely possible he'd beat it even as recently as three or four months ago but around the beginning of February we all learned it had spread a LOT and there really was nothing left in terms of hope. His last day in the office was about five weeks ago.
Cancer is really unusual in our family. Heart disease is rampant, though. I have already lived a long time with the assumption that that's going to be the cause of my death. It's caused me a lot of anxiety, and the part I thought I was most afraid of was the possibility of sudden death. That I wouldn't see it coming, wouldn't have a chance to say those last important things. To tidy up the paperwork, clean the closets, and leave everyone with a list of instructions about what to do next. I'm so used to being in charge that I worry most about who will take care of all the stupid details I usually tend to.
In a way, that belief has helped guide my life in recent years; very few things that I consider important are left undone. People I care about know it. Books on my list get read. I try to learn every day, work hard, play enough, find joy in simple things, and clean the house just enough. I do want to spend more time with family, and I didn't have a will until last year, but overall I'm less panicked about a sudden departure than I used to be. It helps that my children are stretching their wings and showing signs of being able to feed themselves. (Figuratively, that is. Clearly, they know how to clean out the fridge on a weekly basis.)
But regardless of how much more "ready" I get, I still always sort of envied the people who were genetically likely to die slower, knowing it was happening. They would have at least a little good time to consciously do the most important things remaining. And as things got worse, I figured they'd have the comfort of home and familiar surroundings, and could possibly even control the actual exit provided they remained cognizent long enough. I know of more than one person who basically arranged the ultimate dose of medication. I thought that would be a preferable way to go, you know? "So-and-so died at home on Saturday, March 24, surrounded by loving family." Doesn't that seem a lot nicer than the image of clutching at your chest and dropping dead in the middle of a Walmart or something?
But I'm not so sure any more. I think in some cases, the "knowing" period is just one horribly painful time. How can you live with someone you love and look at them every day - a hundred times a day - knowing that it's one of the last days? Not everyone is strong enough to face that with bravery, without falling to pieces. It probably seems that time is moving so fast and yet so excruiciatingly slowly at the same time. Every minute filled with . . . the knowing. Do you want it to last? Or to stop? Is it easier on the person dying but at the expense of the survivor(s)? Or vice versa? Then of course there's the real and terrible physical pain the dying one endures. When is the right time to trade the ability to hold a coherent conversation for relief from the agony in your back, your head, your abdomen? What an awful choice to have to make.
I have experienced both sudden and expected losses and personally thought the sudden was harder to cope with. But it could also have been a factor of the person's age at their ending. Before a certain age, no death is expected. After a certain age, no death is a surprise. Just where, though, is the dividing line?
I don't know. And I don't know which way I will go or want to go. Unless you take a preemptive (and premature) strike, none of us really gets that choice to decide how or when. But in the meantime I'm going to try my best to keep the paperwork up to date, keep teaching the kids to fly, and keep believing in life before death.
As for my thoughts on after, well . . . that's a post for another day (hopefully).