Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Stayin' Alive

A few years ago there was quite an uproar when an elderly man died while running a marathon. Race organizers were roundly criticized for allowing such an old man to run. Media pundits quickly picked up on the controversy and offered up their feigned outrage.

Finally the deceased man's widow spoke up and essentially told all of these busybodies to clam up. The man had lived a full life, she said. He loved to run and was aware of the risks. Although she was grieving, she was comforted knowing that her husband had died doing something that he enjoyed.

We have all known and admired people that seemed to approach life with all of the gusto they had right up until the very end. (Consider, for example, Gordon B. Hinckley.) Part of the reason we admire these people is that they are somewhat unusual. We also probably think that we'd like to follow their example—at least if we're willing to face the fact of our own mortality, something many wish to ignore or deny.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Rex E. Lee was diagnosed with cancer at age 51. He recovered following treatment and successfully served as a university president. But the cancer later returned. While in the hospital Lee was actively preparing to argue his 60th case before the U.S. Supreme Court when cancer claimed him at age 61.

Each of us has likely also known people that seemed to be dead long before their physical bodies finally gave out. A relative recently remarked on the passing of an elderly relative, saying that it was as if she simply gave up after breaking a bone in a bad fall. A woman I know related how her grandmother spent the last 20 years of her life so angry at still being alive that she made life miserable for everyone around her.

Some are not offered much of a choice. The mother of a friend of mine was finally transferred to a nursing home when her dementia became so severe that the family could not adequately care for her. She could no longer recognize herself, let alone others, and she lost the ability to relate to people. Though unrecognized, my friend spent time with her mother daily for nine years until her mother's passing.

My father-in-law spent his final months in painful decline as he died from lung cancer. My father spent his final months slowly dying of heart failure, having been robbed of his prized analytic abilities following a stroke. Neither of these once vibrant men had any gusto left during those awful months.

I don't necessarily criticize those that simply seem to lose interest in life during their final weeks. There is a reason that a verse in the hymn Abide With Me begins:
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away
For many people, the time comes that the trappings of this life lose significance. One of my uncles spent the last three weeks of his life seeming to split his time between this life and the life beyond. This life became less interesting as the next became more compelling.

On the other hand, I do not want to ever be among the real living dead—those who unnecessarily spend their final years living a dead existence. They are physically alive, but live their lives simply waiting for death.

I do understand that age often exacts a terrible toll. An older relative is happy to still be able to live independently. Yet she finds that it takes hours to handle regular daily necessities—tasks she used to be able to do fairly rapidly just a few months ago. Activities like running a race (even walking a block) or preparing a law case are simply outside the realm of possibilities at this point.

It is possible that my health condition (Multiple Sclerosis) may incapacitate me at some future point. I still hope to live with everything I've got as long as I can. I really hope to avoid bitterness, regardless of what hand I'm dealt. Each of us has hopes and dreams. Some pan out; some don't. I'll have to see how it goes when I actually face the inevitable challenges that lie ahead.

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