During my first big job during my 20’s, I overheard my coworker Jamie crying two cuticles away. I could only hear one side of the conversation, his. From the nature of his tears, his father had been diagnosed ‘terminal.’ The same scene repeated over several days, to which, at one point, I thought, “Get over it. Everyone dies.”
I wasn’t as appalled at myself then as I am now. Being ‘terminal’ tends to alter one’s perspective significantly. after surviving life in a military rescue squad, I arrogantly grew to believe I could live forever, that I was invincible. Rescue that person from the edge of a cliff? Sure. No problem. Deactivate that a piece of unexploded World War II ordinance without blowing oneself to bits? Sure. No problem.
The arrogance I presented to my coworker belongs only to a younger asshole I no longer recognize. After living with the label ‘terminal‘ for several years, I remain unconcerned about living solely for the sake of earning a decent living. Luxury goods are no longer on my ‘must-have’ list. In essence, I changed. Osteoarthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and cardiomyopathy burrowed even deeper. I no longer care for such luxuries. If anything, I would like to get in that Recreational Vehicle and travel to Bryce, Canyon, camp for a month, and head onto the next.
I dreamed of seeing the world. As a consultant, I lived it. Being ‘terminal’ forces the soul to recomposes, to realign to a better’ true north.’ Days of stressing over projects, key business deliverables, stressors about attaining CPE, exams, and dramas no longer bear witness to overdraught sighs, dismay, or anger. I appreciate what my coworker thought, his fears, his family’s fears, and lost dreams that may never get reclaimed. If I have to answer to God today, I would say, “I never understood such emotional pain then, but I understand them today.”
Jaime’s tragic loss colored his life for decades. I envy him. Yes, I lost my father recently, but I have little time to focus on his death. I am dealing with my own. ‘Terminal’ forces more immediate needs, not that which was lost months prior. Drawing from my younger self, “Dude. Get over it. You have a sequence of 13 different medications required to make it through the day, each of which requires some form of elaborate choreography with another. Your hip and knee pain isn’t getting any better. That ‘pins and needles’ feeling you get when bending is either coming from that cervical tumor, osteoarthritis, or Parkinson’s. So, sucks to be you.” You have to check on your mother (who lost a spouse of 50 years), there’s a hot shower that must be taken, consoling a friend who wants to bitch about this, that, or another, and preheating the bed’s electric blanket. Maybe then, maybe then, all this crap will subside enough to achieve more than a few hours of sleep. Perhaps if I’m lucky, sometime between 2:00 – 3:30 AM, when Parkinson’s cramps interrupt the night, I can stumble to a recliner and meditate upon loss, whether mine or that I’ve caused.
Doctors are great at classifying diseases. There are stages for almost everything. Cancer has four stages, while Parkinson’s has five. However, the most critical ‘stage’ of any disease is that ‘stage’ one assigns and believes. It’s one thing for a clinician to ascertain the patient has is in Stage 4 cancer; it’s entirely another when the patient accepts it. Several years ago, I was informed, “… you have several good years left.” I thought about the significance of those words. Did the clinician mean I could die in two years? Yes. Or does it mean I will have two relatively good years of living, followed by several crappy years? Again, yes. Regardless, that was the day I assigned myself as being ‘terminal.’
Being ‘terminal’ is just a transition for me, same as when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 35 years ago. “Just a transition,” I said—just another ballet movement in life, as a dancer would to music. The truth is, in all those 35 years, I believe there were only a handful of days without pain. So, I embraced life’s cadence, knowing all too well that any given year could be my final recital.
Being ‘terminal’ is about maintaining normalcy. I still cook (although my hands erratically shake when holding a knife). I can clean the house, can bathe, and even walk upstairs (albeit some days are better than others). Bills must be paid; laundry must be picked up; projects must be completed, phone calls answered, and appointments created. There will be tears, fears, and laughter. God will be there in the extraordinary and the awful.
Being ‘terminal’ means I must remember that everything transient. There is no ‘going back.’ We can only move forward. And knowing that others have gone before us and are likely to meet us at the finish line is being ‘terminal’ to being ‘normal.’ As the world changes, we are assured the spirit of our father and forefathers will accompany us.