I awoke on a Saturday morning to an email message from a friend telling me that a mutual friend was beginning hospice care. He had been released from the hospital a few days earlier after a hospitalization of a month, following strokes and other complications, and now his kidneys were failing. It was the final insult, or assault, on a being who’d spent too many years dancing with alcoholism. He is in his early sixties. There would be an open house at his home on Sunday for friends to come and say goodbye. This was a man I associated with for several years, and dated off and on. He had wanted more from the relationship. I knew it would not be a “good fit” as they say, not the right match. So I pulled away. I have not seen him for several years, though friends have kept me up on his decline.
On Monday I learned that my friend was now having a morphine drip, the beginning of the end. He is expected to die very soon. The friend who has been sending the emails has visited and writes “He drifts in and out of consciousness but knew who I was and thanked me for coming. His breathing had become quite labored since I saw him in the hospital. I kissed his forehead and remembered how we often said we were brothers from different mothers!” I responded to his email, and said that I appreciated the updates and that he was a kind soul to pay that visit.
So instead of attending the gathering at this friend’s home, I attended my usual Unitarian service and listened to a chaplain talk about the magic and wonder he has been gifted with while ministering to the dying in an oncology ward at a major university hospital. An odd juxtaposition of reveries and images swirled as I contemplated the fate of my friend and the message of the presentation.
A statistic on the internet tells me that the baby boomers are dying early (perhaps due to life style and other factors), earlier than the statistics generally given for life expectancy, and predicts that the boomer “die-off” will accelerate around 2015 and the majority of boomers will be dead by 2025. And then the same internet site tells me that the early boomer die-off is a precursor to the second coming of Christ. Well I am skeptical of the conclusions drawn by whoever is making these blog posts, and I’m pretty sure his prognostications are not scientifically based. And I know he has no crystal ball. Yet, there are certainly signs and symptoms all around me, a reminder that aging is not for wimps, nor for the faint of heart. Wusses, take cover and/or gird your loins!
It is a daily occurrence now that I am reminded of the death of cousins, friends, business colleagues and work associates. Or learn that someone has a breast lump, metastasized ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, is having a bypass, a stent placement, has been recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes, has kidney stones, or has dropped dead of a heart attack. Or is scheduled for a hip replacement, a knee replacement, removal of multiple skin cancers, or has early onset of dementia or Parkinson’s. Or a friend who has long been in remission from cancer beyond the five year benchmark has now had a recurrence. New technologies and new drugs make some cancers treatable for years, and certain malignancies have become chronic diseases to be “managed” but are not the speedy killers they once were. Hooray for modern medicine. I hear acquaintances and colleagues talk about rearranging their priorities, declining some invitations to meetings and social events, and accepting others in order to focus on activities that are genuinely meaningful in the time they have left. In my twenties and thirties there was a huge flurry of wedding showers and baby showers. And now there is a more regular flow of email notifications like the one I recently received, and memorial services and funerals dot my BlackBerry’s calendar like staccato notes on a musical score. And this year I removed several more names from my list of Christmas card labels, because some people had died.
So I plod on. I write. I try not to take each day for granted. I remind myself during the day of the things I am grateful for. I am lucky to have a good group of congregational friends. As an “orphan,” I find that comforting. When might I need them for more than social companions? “Live each day with purpose,” the ministers and spiritual advisors say. And the little existentialist devil sits nearby and whispers “What purpose? What meaning?” And I plod on so I won’t be aware of the niggling, pestering, annoying reminder that one day soon it might be my turn. And I obsess. I remember my father dying at sixty eight. But wait, my mother lived to be ninety two! And then I wonder which parent I am more likely to take after based on genetics and life style. I come from hearty German stock and many relatives, like my mother, have lived long lives. And modern medicine is advancing by leaps and bounds. So the odds are in my favor I keep telling myself.
It is Tuesday now, as I continue writing and pondering. I learn that my friend died this morning. I remember he used to say that he wanted his friends to gather round his grave site when he died and play Grateful Dead songs. He was a devoted Dead Head and a big Jerry Garcia fan. I wonder if that request will be honored? I remember a photograph he bought at the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach several years ago – a photo of a human skeleton propped on a bench, wearing a hat with a marigold adorning one eye socket (in Mexico, the marigold is the traditional flower used to pay homage to the dead). The photo was taken by an artist/photographer during the Dia de Las Muertos celebration in Mexico. I rather like the way the Mexicans celebrate life in death and death in life. And maybe he did too, and maybe that is why the photograph caught his fancy.
I think too of that line from Blowin in the Wind by Bob Dylan – “how many deaths will it take til he knows, that too many people have died?” Dylan might have had different specifics in mind for those lyrics, but I think of them anyway. I guess the answer really is blowing in the wind – the answer that would finally bring perspective, answer the big question, shed light on what it all means – and though you want to think it might be real and that there surely is an answer floating, hovering there, it can’t be fathomed just as air can’t be grasped in the hand. How many people will stop and remember? Or will they just go on with meetings and business lunches and planned trips and coaching the grandsons’ little league games? How does one balance paying homage to the dead while still plodding on with life? And once again, I remember the line from Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”
It is getting to be that time now, that time when attention must be paid. It is time for tackling the bucket list with zeal, engaging in purposeful pursuits, and savoring the sumptuous, or creating it when necessary lest you fall into a funk. I have just booked a trip to Botswana which I hope will be terrific. It is seven months away and I hope that will keep me focused on the splendor of life, the endless cycle of nature, even though I am acutely aware that, yes, the boomers are dying.