This is the first of a four-part series on death, and life, and decisions we face going forward into our final 20 or so years. As Baby Boomers we have led the way all of our lives. Now we will lead each other to the end of our days, like it or not. We need to talk about it, hard as it is, because talking together may help us to become enlightened as we head into the tunnel.
I find myself grappling more and more with the prospect of death. Mine, yours, his, hers, all of ours, in this land of over 50. To tell you the truth I should say, the land of late sixties, because that's where I am now.
I want to add quickly that I have no apparent serious illness, horrible diagnosis, or life-threatening issue with my health. In fact, I take just one gentle blood pressure pill every morning, and other than that, my health seems to be just fine. I eat well, have a glass of wine at night, and walk three miles around the lake, seven days a week, with our two dogs. I am comfortably bionic with my new knee and hip, and find myself feeling as if I were 40 again -- well, at least in my knees and hips. With a healthy husband, family, friends, and work I love, my life is pretty darn good in all ways.
And yet, I am beginning to think about death, my death, for the first time in my life. It feels strange because I've never been particularly thoughtful about dying. That's not to say I haven't spent years reading and thinking about what other people think about dying, and particularly about after-death, near-death, the next life, our past lives, and the next dimension -- in other words, what happens after this dance. But even after decades of exploring ideas, I remain unclear about how all of that will go. It was as if the study was a curious intellectual exercise that had nothing to do with me personally. Until now.
Today I think about it happening to me. Edward Young may have been taking my pulse when he wrote, "All men think all men mortal but themselves." Not anymore, Edward. I'm right in the thick of my mortality these days. Here are three things I know about my relationship with death so far, and why it is changing:
• I suspect the longevity in my family history lulled me into a sense of thinking death would not come to me until my late eighties, at the earliest, and probably not until my mid-nineties. In my genetic tree people grew old with relatively good health, until they just plain wore out, and had a big bang heart attack or stroke. More than once Alzheimer's finally shut down my loved ones organs. But in general, everyone did pretty well until they hit their late eighties. So I allowed myself to table the discussion.
• I am increasingly aware each day that my final twenty is suddenly here. I will be sixty-eight next month and that has me staring into the haunting eyes of seventy. And I realize that in ten short years, I'll be staring eighty in the face and it doesn't look pretty to me with its floppy chins, yellowing teeth, and fear of falling. (Nonetheless, I imagine I'll be delighted to use a walker and white strip those teeth when the time comes). The frank reality is, my dance card has only a couple of dozen blank spaces left to fill, and that both awakens and surprises me.
• What surprises me more is the number of people I know these days when I read the obituaries in the morning newspaper. I find myself first scanning the index of names on the left so that I won't be shocked when I see the beautiful or handsome face of someone I knew along the way looking back at me, dead and gone, at my age or younger. I think the volume of those deaths in the past year has put me squarely in this mortality mood. As it should, I am coming to know. I could be next.
Which leads me to stop now and knead the minutes and hours of my days into a ball on my lap, so that I can get a good look at my own life, and maybe, for the very first time, decide how I want to live it. Boom along with me as we face the tunnel. No fear, no denial, no panic. Just a good compassionate look at ourselves and the lives we live in our particular concerto, emphasis on adagio.
Coming in Part II: Look into your own life ball: Why aren't you thrilled with every sunrise? What choices and chances do you have left? Is it possible to be happy making end of life decisions? Is it possible to be very old and very happy at the same time?
Martha Nelson is an award-winning journalist and a former educator, nonprofit executive, chef, and musician. Her first novel, Black Chokeberry, was published in April 2012 and is available on Amazon.com. She currently is at work on a collection of short, and short-short stories, a children's series about the adventures of Lulu, Bart, and Charlie, her beloved dogs, and has started a new novel.