Some Thoughts on Death

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  I don’t intend to; it just comes upon me, unbidden (much like actual death might do).  The recent losses of Bowie and countless celebrities, my friend Rhonda, hundreds of regular people killed by cars and gunmen and falling trees – it’s all around, every minute of every day.

By now I’ve outlived my father, who died at age 49 from the last of multiple heart attacks.  In fact, no man on the Lucas side of the family had lived past the age of 50.  I think his mother also died relatively young, and also from a heart attack.  I don’t have many memories of Grandma Mary from Bayonne, New Jersey, which must have meant I was pretty young when she passed away.  My mother and her mother both died in their early 70s, but aside from them (and my maternal uncle, who not only was the lone boy among four sisters and the youngest but also died in his 40s from complications of diabetes, which afflicts many members of my mother’s side of the family, me included), the bulk of my maternal relatives was pretty long-lived.  My great grandmother Petronella Albino lived to be 102, although by the time she passed away she was almost completely bent in half due to severe osteoporosis.  So I console myself that at least half of my genes hint at longevity, although my mother’s sister died in her 50s from cancer (the only one among my immediate family to do so, interestingly enough).

But healthy genes are one thing.  Death could also be immediate and unexpected, like the folks who go to work or school one day and then never come home, felled by a madman with an assault weapon on a vendetta.  Or like the family coming home from a wedding in a limo on the Meadowbrook Parkway here on Long Island a few years ago, mowed down by a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road.  Or the four ladies, smart enough to hire a driver on a winery tour on Long Island’s East End, murdered by a guy in a pickup who’d had a few too many.

My biggest fear of death (other than some terrible accident) is having a heart attack, primarily because of my family history but also because I have a chronic musculoskeletal condition called costochondritis, which originates in my back but radiates to my ribs on my left side.  Every time I feel a painful twinge there, I think, “This is it.  Now what?”  My other big fear is a sudden brain aneurysm, which killed my college friend, Martha Brochin, herself a doctor, quite suddenly, about 15 years ago.  Every time I have a particularly severe headache, my first thought is immediately, “Is this a brain aneurysm?”  Although it might not seem so based on my prior statements, generally speaking, I’m not much of a hypochondriac – in fact, quite the opposite:  I will try to explain away every twinge or feeling of light-headedness as something innocuous – but specifically as to heart attacks and brain aneurysms, they DO cross my mind.

With my daughter away at college, I live alone with a bunch of companion animals, but they would be of little use if, like those white-haired ladies in the Life Alert commercials, I fall and I can’t get up.  There’s that morbid joke about cat ladies becoming nothing more than cat food if they happen to pass away and no one discovers them for a few days or weeks.  That might be me.  I’m so much of a hermit that, apart from my daughter, not many people call me on a regular basis.  So it could be WEEKS before anyone found me, like that man George Bell in the article by N.R. Kleinfield in the New York Times [“The Lonely Death of George Bell, New York Times, 10/18/15, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html?ref=topics&_r=0%5D ],whose death inspired Kleinfield’s investigation into what happens when people die alone in New York City.  Unlike George Bell, however, I do have a family ready to deal with my funeral and estate when I’m gone, although I don’t yet have a formal will.  (It’s on my perpetual “to do” list.)

I am only 56, and I would hope to be able to enjoy a nice long life in retirement (if you’re at all familiar with this blog, you have probably – and correctly – assumed that I intend to retire as early as I possibly can, even if that means having to get a part-time job at the local CVS to supplement my meager Social Security income), but hey, you never know what’s around the corner, which is one of the reasons I am trying hard to be joyful every day rather than wasting valuable hours lamenting my current lack of fulfillment in my work and life.

I saw an episode of the cutting-edge news series VICE the other day about assisted suicide and the “right to die” movement [Season 4 Episode 3].  It is a multi-layered topic, to be sure, but as an overarching concept, I fully support people choosing when and how they die, especially if they are dealing with chronic, painful and debilitating conditions, or even severe depression.  There is a certain dignity to being able to make the most significant choice in one’s life – to bring about its end; to be here, and then NOT here.  And this is regardless of whatever you may believe about what happens to us after we die – and frankly, this is something that we will never know UNTIL WE ACTUALLY DIE.  As far as I am aware, no one has definitively and “officially” (i.e., with empirical proof) come back from the dead to tell us about the experience except to say that it involves rising out of one’s body and moving toward a white light.  But THEN WHAT?

The last thing I want to do is to die right now.  I don’t want to leave this earthly plane until I’m well into my 90s and I just plain run out of gas.  Perhaps I should make the effort to take a little better care of myself:  stop drinking so much diet soda (which is literally poisoning me, I am certain, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from doing it), eat healthy foods, exercise and lose some weight.  Do yoga and meditate.  Maintain a more positive outlook.

But I also should do more things I love rather than spending so much time chasing the almighty dollar (despite how unfortunately NECESSARY that is, as I’ve complained about often in my blog posts), because no matter how healthy I strive to be, today – or any day – could be my last day on earth.

Such a Debbie Downer post this week – [insert sliding trombone wah-wah sound effect here] – sorry!  In order to counteract the melancholy vibe, here’s a happy little quote posted by a guy named Robert Westerburg, who describes himself as a “world class coach,” that I found on Facebook back in October 2015 [https://www.facebook.com/robert.westerburg/posts/10208175960103122], although I note that a comment to Westerburg’s post attributes the quote to someone named Crystal Boyd, who had originally published it in a piece called “Happiness is a Journey” in her book, Midnight Muse, in 2000, and reprinted on her website [http://happinessisajourney.com]:

“We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, have a baby, then another.  Then we are frustrated that the kids aren’t old enough, and we’ll be more content when they are.  After that, we’re frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with.  We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage.

“We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our partner gets his or her act together when we get a nicer car, are able to go on a nice holiday, when we retire.

“The truth is, there’s no better time to be happy than right now. If not now, when?

“Your life will always be filled with challenges.

“It’s best to admit this to yourself and decide to be happy anyway.

“A quote comes from Alfred D. Souza. He said, ‘For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.’

“This perspective has helped me to see that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.

“So, treasure every moment that you have and treasure it more because you shared it with someone special, special enough to spend your time . . . and remember that time waits for no one.

“So, stop waiting until you lose ten pounds, until you gain ten pounds, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, until you start work, until you retire, until you get married, until you get divorced, until Friday night, until Sunday morning, until you get a new car or home, until your car or home is paid off, until spring, until summer, until winter, until your song comes on, until you’ve had a drink . . . there is no better time than right now to be happy.

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

“Work like you don’t need money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one’s watching.”

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