They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes.
This is not a column about taxes.
Recently our family experienced a tragedy when my brother-in-law’s wife died unexpectedly in her sleep at the age of 54.
We traveled to be with their family. It was as difficult as we thought it would be. Even when it’s expected, death’s finality is a shock. How much worse for the three young adults, along with their suddenly single-parent dad to wake up one morning to find the heart of their home stopped?
This kind of death leaves no time for preparation, no chance for final goodbyes, no tear-streaked last hugs, no time to say what should have been said, or perhaps unsay words unwisely spoken.
Yes, it was difficult. And yet I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: of all the ways to go, I hope that’s how it goes for me.
It seems to me that those who are young (which is to say under 40) have some funny ideas about death, especially as it relates to the old.
Here is their logic, and I can summarize it accurately because I was once that age myself. Dear Loved One: We love you and we don’t want you to go, and we would rather continue on indefinitely with whatever shrinking fraction of your former self still exists than lose you. Further, while we don’t mean to do so, we are not above piling on some guilt to get you to agree with us.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to live to 100—but I say that with disclaimers. With apologies to all those who love me and will mourn my eventual and inevitable passing, I don’t want to spend my last years stuck in a bed with my physical and mental capacities circling away down life’s drain. I don’t want to slowly waste away in pain or a drug-induced fog. It seems to me that suffering through long-term incapacity would be of very little final value to you or to me. Sure, it’s closure, but that kind of closure strikes me as overrated. And I would hate the knowledge that the expenses related to my long-term care were steadily draining away what little bit I hope to pass along to my survivors. I’d rather see the fruits of my life’s work go to the family I love than to doctors I barely know.
Perhaps you think the amount of pondering I’m giving this subject is a little morbid or creepy. It’s not. I’ve just finally gained enough maturity (and you will too one day) to pull my head out of the sand about the inevitable. I’m not looking forward to it, but I’d be pretty dumb if I didn’t acknowledge that ready or not, it’ll catch up to me eventually.
But I admit that there is some hypocrisy here. What I’d prefer for myself I would instantly reject for my wife, for whom I would fight like a tiger to preserve for as long as possible. I’m certain she would do the same for me.
So I guess it’s a good thing that we don’t get to choose whether our final exits will be sudden or slow. If I end up taking the slow boat to China when the time comes, so be it. I’m just saying that if life’s exit ramp takes me by surprise, in some ways it might be a bit of a blessing. Yes, there would be pain for those left behind. But whether it comes early or later, the pain felt at the loss of a loved one is a bittersweet inevitability. It is the human price we pay for the privilege of loving. Sooner or later, the price will be paid.
So in closing, please consider a modest suggestion. Do you remember all those things you plan to say one day to Mom or Dad? Those I love you’s and I’m sorry’s? Why not say it now even though they’re still alive and kicking? You never know.