Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Pondering Death and Its Options

Intellectually, I know that I will eventually die. However, there is this little part of me that wonders if I might be that special someone who somehow defies death. If you will excuse the source if it bothers you, Woody Allen said it best: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying." It is natural to feel that way because of our basic instinct for survival, but it is also intellectually dishonest to hold onto the thought for anything other than fantasy.

While we hold onto those thoughts in one part of our minds, another part of us wants to be adventurous and to live life to the fullest. James Dean's self-fulfilling quote, "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse," takes the idea to the opposite end of the spectrum of life and death from immortality. While most of us don't go anywhere near that far in our pursuit of adventure, we tend to tie the will to live to having a life worth living.

Many of us have said that we don't want to live a life dependent upon machines that breathe for us. Many of us are also concerned about the number of ventilators that are available to breathe for people who suffer the worst symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. Obviously, with the death rate at 20%, or so, of the people who need this treatment, there is a four-out-of-five chance of surviving the virus with the treatment.

That isn't what we meant, anyway. We were talking about needing a machine to breathe because we are in a vegetative state. However, we don't really mean only to that level. The most common trips I made with regular passengers while driving non-emergency medical transport were the thrice-weekly trips to the dialysis centers for those who rely on that technology for life due to kidney failure. Most of the people who get the treatment are able to lead relatively productive lives as a result. Some people getting the treatment, however, were so close to death that we were not surprised when we found out that they had died when we arrived to take them to their next treatments.

With six trips each week per dialysis patient, we, as drivers, would get to know many of them. We often became one of the main social outlets for our passengers. We got to share the hope for our younger, healthier passengers to find a matching donor, and we got to talk about the important things in life with wise older passengers who had life experiences that were going to soon end. We also had to transport people who either were hoping to die from choking on food with their "Do Not Resuscitate" orders than to die from renal failure, or who were too far from being of sound mind to make the choice to stop getting treatments.

I almost quit the job over the death of a passenger. Everyone who knew Catalina loved her. She was a happy child who was about eleven or twelve when I first met her. She was thirteen when she died from cancer. I was able to convince myself to keep the job by reconciling that she was dead whether I had met her or not, and that in order to avoid knowing she died I also had to sacrifice meeting her. I decided the happiness we brought each other was worth the pain of losing her. I remember she was excited to show me her power wheelchair when she got it. I also remember her guessing "100" when I told her it was my birthday and she wanted to guess how old I was.

I am writing this as my mother lies in a hospital room with an infection from a complication from a surgery. We are not allowed to visit. We haven't seen her in a month. It is possible that we will never see her again. Life is not being fair to her. She feared lingering in a bed with no one coming to see her. At the time, she imagined it was because no one cared any longer. She didn't imagine it would be the result of a pandemic restricting visitors from patients in hospitals and nursing homes. None of us did.

As unfair as life is being to my mom, death is being even more unfair. She worked tirelessly to give both her husband and her mom dignified deaths with family at the bedside. She has been supportive of friends and family through times of loss. Having to bury her child is the most significant unfairness death has cast upon her. 

Perhaps, that is only until now. Now she is lying in bed wanting her children by her side. Her children also want to be by her side.

This is the result of a series of decisions regarding medical treatments she has chosen to defy death. This isn't fate; it's the cost for those decisions.

The price we all are paying now could only be avoided by mom dying at a time when we could all gather for her. Now that is only an option if she survives long enough for the visitation ban to be lifted. I don't know what to wish for, except for her to have some peace knowing that we would be there if we could be there.

The only option to paying this price for the decisions she made for medical treatments is for her to have already died. Though we would already have lost her, we could have been by her side. Is that a fair trade off? That is for each person to decide for themselves. I hate the price we are paying, but the decisions to prolong her life were hers to make. I support her decisions, but I wonder if her decisions would be the same if she knew what was awaiting her.

Maybe she will wake up, and all of this seeming reality to all of us will have just been a nightmare. I've wondered before if we "wake up dead." I still do.

Is it part of a social contract? Are we to drink our hemlock when told to, or do we run into the death we fear trying to escape execution? Do we carry only the weight we add to our own crosses, or do we carry the sins others cast upon us that go away when we die?

None of us have those answers. If there are answers, which I prefer to believe there are, only death will reveal the answers to us. Perhaps there is a sub-physical alternate universe that we are born into. Perhaps it is that the wavelength changes and brings forth a different reality. If it is the wavelength, then we are truly spirits of light and time doesn't actually exist. Each moment is a snapshot in which the entirety of time, from beginning to end, only appears to exist - including now.

Am I part of her nightmare? Is her situation part of my nightmare? Are we both just getting what we each deserve, and, if so, why do we deserve this? I don't want my mom to die, but I don't want her to hang on only so we can gather to watch her die in a month or two. I feel terribly conflicted about the situation.

I felt conflicted, too, when Ms. P, one of my all-time favorite passengers, decided to stop her dialysis treatments. She went in for a surgery, and came out weakened. It was noticeable enough to me that I notified the broker for the ride about my concern. She grew weaker over the next week or so. I was told by the staff at her facility that she had decided to stop treatment and transferred to hospice. She died within a week.

Ms. P's death was sad, but it was not tragic like Catalina's. My mom's situation is somehow both sad and tragic. I wonder if she wants to live long enough for us to be by her side when she dies. I know she did not want her current reality, but I don't know which decisions she would have changed to avoid it.

When it gets right down to it, it seems the options in death are sad, tragic, and sad and tragic.

I need to go do some chores that life requires of me, one of which will be to call my mom and tell her that I love her! 

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