Embracing My Mortality
By NANCY PATRICK
I hope my title doesn’t imply that I think I know more about life than the rest of you do. I have, however, had so much time on my hands during the pandemic that I’ve done a lot of thinking. I have confessed before that I think too much—always have.
One of the issues filling my thoughts relates to life span. The average life span of an American in 2018, 78.8 years, somewhat surprised because I have known so many people who have lived well into their 90s and a few who have surpassed 100 years of age. On the other hand, I find many obituaries of people in their 70s and 80s. At my 50th year reunion for my high school class, I sadly learned that over 40 of my classmates had already died, and in the 3 years since, over 10 more have followed those.
Although I know many people who say they want to live “forever” (meaning here, not heaven), I have never shared that goal. Why? Because my brain and spirit have difficulty adjusting to the radical changes I’ve experienced in my life. I often feel out of my element with all the moral, social, ethical, economic, spiritual, technological, and ecological changes that surround me. In many ways, the 50s-80s formed my world view. The changing world began making me extremely uncomfortable in the ’90s.
When I taught high school English, I introduced my American literature students to the work of William Cullen Bryant. At 17 years of age, he wrote the poem “Thanatopsis,” which means death in Greek. His poem attempts to allay the anxiety of those who fear death as an enemy. The beautiful poem by this young person reveals a spiritual truth about the cycles of life that many older people never learn.
The poem’s message teaches that people should not fear death because it is simply the last step in living. Just as a baby does not worry about its birth, neither do we need to worry about death. It will come as naturally as birth does. The last stanza follows:
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
I recently read an article by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, oncologist, bioethicist, and vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He expresses the same desires I have for my last chapters. I do not have a death wish by any means, nor do I plan to commit suicide. I did, however, formulate my philosophy of life and death after years of observing my parents’ generation deal with their medical issues after the age of 70.
Modern medicine has afforded people the ability to live considerably longer than earlier generations. Dr. Emanuel calls those who fight the natural life span “American immortals.” He states that living too long can “transform how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.” He says that by his 75th birthday he will have accomplished his goals and fulfilled his responsibilities.
As he listed the gifts of his life, I did the same. I have loved and been loved by many people. I had a long and rewarding career as a teacher. I loved my parents and cared for them during their last years. My husband and I accomplished that rare goal of a lifetime marriage during which we had a wonderful, loving son who became a generous, loving, kind, and purpose-driven man. He then had a daughter, our sweet granddaughter, who completed our family.
I have lived an extraordinarily good life—blessed beyond any expectations I ever had! Now, in my early 70s, I have begun to face the challenges of old age. I recall when this happened to my parents. Joints weakened and hurt, falls broke bones that required surgeries and physical therapy, prostate cancer struck my dad, breast cancer visited my mom, and then their minds began to fail as ordinary chores in life began to frighten them. They no longer understood the world around them.
The progression to a nursing home was heart-wrenching. As they lost their ability to manage even the smallest details of their lives, they resented their situations. They had often said they never wanted to become burdens to their children—and they truly did not. The problem arises if we live beyond our capacity for independence; then, we will become burdens to someone, usually our children.
Because my parents had not considered the ramifications of living a long life, they pursued every medical option available to them in their 70s. Those measures added another decade to their lives, but the cost of that (besides monetary) decade resulted in senility, incontinence, constant pain, limited mobility, and loss of independence and friendship. Even their long-time friends from church gradually stopped visiting. Loneliness and depression filled their last few years.
I do not want to live my last years as they did. Since I would not put my family through the grief of a suicide, I have considered how to accomplish the goal of dying while those I love still recognize me in my relationships to them. After discussing this with my doctors, who agree with the general premise of this article, I have decided to “let nature take its course.”
I still get vaccinations and have surgery for broken bones and other emergency situations. I have chosen, however, to avoid preventive testing. I hope that one of the maladies that visit most people during their 70s will allow me to retain my independence and dignity and die quietly and without fanfare.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing