“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
I was a child the first time I saw a man die. I don’t remember the event as particularly traumatic. The man was a stranger and I watched the tragedy unfold through a window, the glass glaring the line between reality and fantasy and giving the sensation of watching a particularly disturbing television program. While swimming in the basement pool of our apartment block my father, sister and I noticed a group of 3 people sleeping on the private dock outside the building. We saw the beer bottles and noted that all three were in their underwear and figured they were just “sleeping it off”. My father ran outside after one man got up, stumbled to the end of the dock and got into the quickly moving river, but it was too late. He went under the water and never came up again. By this time another man who had been watching from his balcony had joined my father outside and when my dad started towards the water he held him back. The current was too strong to try to go in after him. He was gone. When the search and rescue team finally arrived at the scene a policeman spoke to my sister and I and gave us each a card for a local Victim Services program. I was old enough to know what a ‘victim’ was, but I wasn’t old enough to understand how I could be one in this situation. I looked over at one of the deceased’s two companions, a woman, likely his partner, who seemed to be sobering up quickly. How did she feel? The dead man was a victim. She was a victim. Did they have children? If so, they were victims. I felt sadness for their loss and for the senselessness of it all. But as for me, I was fine. I’m not sure what that says about me, if anything. I don’t think about that day often. The dock itself is even gone now, washed away by a flood years ago. Every so often I think about those people and how by some twist of fate I was a part of an event that changed their lives forever. Sometimes I feel like it should mean more to me.
The second time I saw a man die I was in high school. The man was my grandfather. He passed away at an old age, in the hospital, after a struggle with leukemia. I was in the room with the rest of my family when he took his last breath, I heard his labored breathing become silent and stillness overtake him. In the room there was a sense of pain and peace at the same time. His last words to me were I love you. I did love my grandfather and I felt sadness when he died. My grandparents were a very large presence in my life as I was growing up, their home was a second home to me and their other grandchildren. But my grandpa was an old man and no one expected him to live forever. He had lived many great years, had lived to see his children grow up and have families of their own, and had met his grandchildren and seen them become young adults. He was relatively lucky in that his illness came on quickly and did not bring him very much pain until the very end. It was hard to watch my grandmother’s pain, to see the man she loved and her life’s companion. I mourned for her more than for myself. Through hearing stories from his friends and family members, reading his obituary and hearing his eulogy it was clear my grandfather had a full life that was to be celebrated and not grieved. In terms of sentences dealt by the universe his death felt fair and the sadness I felt as a result was endurable.
This is not always the case. I will never forget the Easter Sunday that I got the phone call from a friend to tell me the news: “Jay’s dead.” I had been walking to my car on the way to a family dinner and I felt my knees buckle underneath me. Dead. Gone. This was a man who I had loved, who I had lived with for almost 2 years. A person who I watched transform from a man happy, loving and full of life to someone who was jealous, suspicious, paranoid and scary. I watched helpless as his mind, personality and body were ruined by drugs and was helpless to stop it. The news left me empty. I wasn’t shocked; he was gone a long time ago. I felt angry. I hated him for what he did to himself and what he did to me. I felt guilty. He asked me for help so many times and nothing I did could save him. I had to leave. He literally drove me to it, in his car at 200 km an hour, threatening to kill me. We brought out the worst in each other. A part of me felt relieved. Relieved for him. He wasn’t in any more pain. Relieved for me. The darkest side of me was dead and buried with him. But mostly, I felt so sad. I felt sad for myself, for his family, for the world. For every person who once knew him and would never see him as he used to be. And for everyone who would never get to meet him.
Some say that when someone close to you dies it makes you examine your own mortality. I’m sure this is true for most people. Myself, I think about my mortality all the time. This is because I suffer from an anxiety disorder and I’m a hypochondriac, a double whammy. The first major health scare I had was a few years back when I thought I had a lump in my breast. When I went to my doctor, it turned out it was just a rib. Oops. Then I started having heart palpitations. Apparently these are a symptom of anxiety but I was convinced that I had a deadly heart condition. After wearing a heart monitor for 24 hours, a referral to a cardiologist, several ECG’s and an echocardiogram I am finally convinced (mostly) that in fact I am just crazy. If I have heartburn I think I am having a GI bleed. If my arm is numb it’s not because I was lying on it for an hour, it’s because I’m having a stroke. A headache means I’m bleeding into my brain. A neck ache means uncontrolled high blood pressure. The fact that I am in the medical profession does nothing to abate my fear, it just means that I know of more rare diseases that I could potentially have. My fear of dying also extends to activities. I have a crippling fear of highway driving. Deer crossing signs cause me the most distress as I become convinced of an impending antler coming through the windshield and spearing me through the heart, which would likely be the most painful way to die on the road. But my visions of head-on-collisions with semi trucks are also frightening. I also have a recurring image of the floor of the car coming off followed by me falling out of the bottom and being run over by my own back tires. Yes, I’m serious. When I say this out loud I can laugh at myself, but it’s through tears.
Working at a hospital I see tragedy every day. Whether it is a person learning of a devastating diagnosis, suffering from disease or ultimately succumbing to their condition, many of the people I deal with are dying in some way or another. It would be a heartbreaking job if it weren’t for rare moments of inspiration. A few days ago I had one such moment. Tasked with educating an 85 year-old man newly diagnosed with a serious heart condition on his new medications I went into his room to find him crying. Admittedly, my first instinct was to leave, but he had already seen me and was gesturing for me to come over. As I introduced myself he wiped away his tears and told me: “Please help me, I don’t want to die. I love my life!” For the next 45 minutes he proceeded to tell me why he loved life, namely his entire life’s story. Now generally I would stop someone after about 2 minutes of this, but something in the animation and urgency in his voice gave me pause and I actually started to listen. And then I was hooked. The man had the most amazing life. Born in Italy, studied in Germany, worked all over the world, professional hockey player son, divorced three times, owned a vineyard, the list went on and on. We bonded as we spoke German together, discussed restaurants in New York, talked about our favorite wine, and he gave me advice about my marriage. He had all of his faculties, up until this point he felt physically well and had close friends and family who visited him frequently. He enjoyed good food and good wine and entertained often. He said: “I’m 85 years old, and I love life. I’m not scared to die, but I enjoy my life, and I have a good life. When my life is no longer good, then I will be ready to die.”
The unfortunate thing for this 85 year-old man is that to prolong his life he will likely have to give up some of the things he enjoys so much. A healthy heart diet is pretty low on red meat and foie gras (although he can probably still have some red wine in moderation). He will have to make some hard choices. Will he be willing to give up some of the things that make his life so enjoyable in order to live a longer life that may not be as worth living?
I tried to put myself in his shoes, what would I do? It was then that the parallels of our situations hit me. Was I allowing my fears and anxieties prevent me from fully enjoying my life? A little bit of healthy fear of death is a good thing. It shows you cherish life. Act too recklessly and you prove nothing but a blatant disregard for your own mortality. However it’s important that you don’t let your worries about life’s inherent dangers prevent you from enjoying your days on this earth. I can’t know whether I will lead a long and full life like my grandfather or whether it will be cut short like that man on the dock or my former love but I do know that I want to live my life like I have something to lose.