Question. If you were told you are going to die in three months, what would you do? That’s a similar message I received twenty months ago. The March 2019 prognosis went something like this, “Subsequent diagnosis indicated cerebrovascular disease .. with proper medicine and dietary changes, maybe minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or a couple of years.” I’ve been living in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years since. In clinical terms, I met expectations, with some physicians claiming I even exceeded expectations. Tuesday, that “progress” was updated. ‘Years’ was removed. The subsequent redefinition becomes more impactful when life gets reduced to “minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months.”
Those in the medical profession (like me) talk about that one moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. Nessa Coyle summarized that the habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background suddenly becomes impossible when it can no longer be denied. Instantaneously, death is in your face.
Intellectually, I’ve had a long time to accept being terminal. And throughout the past twenty-months, I tirelessly treated (for lack of a better word at the moment) the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains of my soul. Even now, I feel neither feel depression nor anger. I am more horrified by death’s methodology than the literal act of dying. Monday morning’s episode revealed that the process of dying (for me) would either be long or swift. I fear the lengthy.
Clearly, I inherited my father’s computer wiring (brain schematic). For years he seemingly suffered endlessly with Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIA, a fancy name for short-term strokes) that arrive at night and leave by daybreak. Until it didn’t. Five years later, my father entered Hospice (a month ago). His demise has been slow, painful, and completely compromising, not only for me but also for my mother, who lived day and night by my father’s principal caretaker.
My TIA arrived like a freight train after midnight and departed before dawn. Similar to early 2019, this was another warning shot, only bigger. It was a massive detonation. Sure I survived, but I was assured Mr. TIA would reappear and probably won’t leave. Doctors experts ran the statistics. About 1 in 3 (some studies claim 1 in 5) who experience a TIA are likely to experience a stroke within six months. The odds of experiencing this within 90 days are 2%-17%. My thought after being told I was going to die in months? In the immortal words of Burn Notice character Michael Weston, my physicians were saying, “Don’t make retirement plans.”
One fortunate outcome (thus far) is that I’ve never lost control of who I was. This is an essential point for all facing death (or will face death). I may have lost control of the body, but I never lost control of me. Even during Monday’s TIA, I understood who I was, from where I came, the day, date, time, the problems facing me, the problematic discussion about whether one would find me with an unclean butt. Therefore, I hope that no matter how far I progress through this process, I believe there will be some part of me that will exist. It is a part I can knowingly take with me into the future to whatever lay beyond.
As stated in many spiritual teachings, helping another die with a peaceful, positive state of mind is one of the most extraordinary acts of kindness we can offer. I think that should be everyone’s focus. Indeed, this will not be easy. Just the physical aspect of dying will be challenging. My goal is to be treated with respect, kindness, and love; to talk and be listened to; or, at certain times, to be left alone and in silence. People like me have spiritual needs – to make sense of life, their suffering, their death, have hope for what lies beyond, feel that they will be cared for and guided by someone or something wiser and more powerful than themselves. I am fortunate, for I believe someone awaits me and will provide guidance.
After the doctors guided me through their updated prognosis, I momentarily reflected upon a recent Zoom business seminar. A seminar leader asked the roundtable of healthcare leaders what they had learned thus far through the pandemic. Most provided rather mundane versions of being a better spouse, parent, friend, or mentor. One person silenced the room. “I learned to humanize people and how not to be afraid of others, for everyone has value. It is a privilege to be a part of — even a small part of their life. And it’s a privilege to help them move on to wherever is beyond [death]. All of you inspired me to do that.”
And that’s been my goal. Hopefully, that’s what this blog has been about. May each of you be the part that helps people to move beyond. When things seem dark, find the power of love in those who surround you.