Death will not escape us, any of us. Though it seems that death has a fond proclivity for me, it has followed me throughout my life thus far. Case-in-point, I started writing this from a room in a hospice center, watching as my father-in-law took some of what were his last breaths.
When I was young I had many a relative die (grandparents, aunts, great-uncles etc.). It was sad, but it was also formative. I learned a lot about how to, and how not to, deal with death thanks in part to my Italian family! In my late teens I began volunteering with the organization that produced the Philadelphia AIDS Walk and during those years befriended many people who today are no longer among us. I watched as some died from AIDS-related complications, some from old age, some from violent crime, and some by their own hand. In my early twenties I worked at a residential home for people with HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and addiction, and again I watched as some would go on to die from AIDS-related complications, some from violent crime, and some by their own hand. Later, I had the privilege and honor of caring for the mother of one of my best friend's while she was dying from cancer -- something that neither of us will ever forget and which has bonded us together to this day.
Today, after working as a nurse in the medical ICU, watching more people succumb to death than I care to remember, I am now a cardiac arrest researcher and clinician, doing what I can to bring people back from death. Coincidence?
I was with my father-in-law when he passed away. It was just me and two of his hospice nurses. At some point in the haze of the night one of the nurses stated that he was "actively dying." I inadvertently laughed to myself and wanted to say to her, "lady we are all actively dying, from the day we are born," referring more to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. What she meant however, was that he was taking his last breaths and would soon cease breathing at all. It was an incredible experience being there with him, one that I felt honored to have been a part of, as I know many others were sad that they were not.
As he lay there, unaware, taking those last breaths, I played him an audio recording of my daughter, his only grandchild, the "love of his life and light in his day", as he would always tell her. She had recorded a message for him and as soon as the recording ended, so did his life... a moment I will be hard-pressed to ever forget.
After his death I pondered the questions I always ponder, "what did his life mean" and "what do any of our lives mean?". I think about this often, probably too often if I am being honest. We come and go in the blink of an eye, on average humans in this country live to the ripe old age of 85 years. My father-in-law lived to 81 years. I often joke that I will meet an early demise as my physiologic makeup is not of hearty stock, and my people, we don't live very long -- my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather both died at very early ages, long before I was born.
In the relatively brief history of human existence on this earth -- humans have occupied this planet for a little over 100,000 years versus the 4.5 billion years the earth has actually been a planet -- 85 years would seem like an infinitesimally short time. Yet in less universal terms, 85 years is, well, a lifetime. For my part, I worry incessantly about the lack of hours in each day to accomplish all that needs to be done in this short time we each have.
My father-in-law made the most of his time on this planet. He traveled the world, sometimes reluctantly and without the knowledge of his destination (his loving wife always one step ahead), raised a family, worked extremely hard, played hard and was genuinely loved by all who knew him. Maybe that is enough.
I don't believe in a higher power that controls all things, I don't believe I will see my father-in-law again, or any of the people I cared about who no longer walk among us. I don't believe they are above the atmosphere or up in the clouds hanging out together like the old Meryl Streep and Al Brooks movie Defending Your Life, though I wouldn't complain if it turned out to be the case (wink, wink, big guy). Oddly enough, I do tend to believe in the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, maybe that is just because the thought of being able to come back, to do more, to continue to improve upon oneself, is an intriguing proposition for someone who wants to do it all.
But for now, I will live in the present, make the most of every minute I have on this earth, for as long as it lasts. I will be kind. I will be a good wife. A good mother. A good friend. I will go where the road (or my wife) takes me (within reason). And I will always do good. As much as I can, in the time that I have. For as the wise man Benjamin Franklin stated, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." I urge you to do the same.