Last week my dad asked me to do a favor for him. The favor seemed simple, go in to a doctor’s appointment with my granddad. The doc had requested a family member be there to hear the results of an MRI. I was the only family in town and was happy to go. But what I heard, what I felt was not what I expected at all. My granddad is on the downhill. The MRI showed several strokes and severe brain shrinkage. I carried this information, this weight and passed it on to my dad. Three of my grandparents are dead, two when I was really young, and the other was sudden. To carry this weight, to get some idea of the future was heavy for me. In the room I felt my eyes water but I maintained composure. Driving straight to work afterwards, I couldn’t do anything to hold the tears back. It was heavy, it was real. It was a feeling that goes beyond the capacity of my words, almost untouchable. Life is no joke, no game and this was the first step in a cascade of realizations that hit me in the past few days.
I’m not telling you this to look for sympathy. I’m telling you this simply to share some experiences, things everyone will have to witness in their lives. We often use simple words like sad and bad to describe these things. Someone dies and it is “sad”, especially if they are young. When someone gets MRI results it could be “bad” news. I know these words are attempts at explaining, at connecting, and I probably can’t do much better. But they have always seemed to limit the feeling, always seemed to diminish it, cage it, reduce it to experiences of a normal day. I would feel sad if I don’t get into medical school. I would feel sad if I sprained my ankle and couldn’t run for a few weeks. I would feel sad if I lost my job. But death and the dysphoria associated with it extend far beyond the grasp of those words. With my granddad I said to my mom “it just is.” I left it at that, feeling that we connected with the knowledge itself, that there was no need to put it into words.
Last night a friend and I sat by a hotel pool in a valley of the Blue Ridge mountains, peaks towering up on all sides, the moon dimly shining through gently moving clouds. We talked for hours about very real things, very intense things. I told him about a conversation I had with my girlfriend a few days ago. She asked me to please not die. I laughed at first but it wasn’t a joke and I realized shortly after that it wasn’t funny. She was very serious in her request and I could hear the sadness and fear in her voice. My friend, when I told him this, told me about some of his adventures and his wife’s struggle with them. We both acknowledged that the consequences, however intangible as emotions can be, did not solely fall on us. And because of that, we thought we should be more careful. I had thought before that seeing as my life was my own, I could do with it what I want and other people would learn to cope if something did happen. But where I was wrong is that my life is not my own. It is the universe’s and it will take back the privilege of this observation when it sees fit. I am part of the environment just like everything else, shaped by everything else, not existing in a vacuum or on an island. My friends, my family, strangers, and my girlfriend are all just as much my life as I am theirs. It is an interconnected existence, not independent and to look at it from any other perspective is myopic and naive. I was myopic and naive. The one who suffers from death very apparently is not the one who drifts off.
Having worked in the medical field the last few months I have witnessed situations that bordered closer to the line of life and death than I have ever seen before. I knew if I wanted to go into this field I would eventually deal with this transition, face it, and overcome it. But I thought my work in the medical field would bring me my first observation of this transition, but I was mistaken. It would be a stranger in a strange setting who I would watch go.
I had no idea what to expect. To be so close, to watch the life dissipate was overwhelming. I was helpless to do anything, we were all helpless. I felt a flood of dysphoria. I felt scared. I felt shocked. I felt wonder and curiosity. I felt fragile. I felt awe. What I saw was the transition from life to not life. To call it death would be to make it something, to cite it as an entity itself, comparable to life. That is not to say what I saw was a disappearance, a mysterious vanishing. It was anything but. It was a gentle sleep. A child may wonder why all those people were trying to wake that man up when he was sleeping so soundly. It was intense and real. “He woke up this morning just like me,” I thought.
I won’t pretend to know what any of this is like from any other perspective. All I can know is how I feel. All I can do is humbly admit to my own fragility and naivete and embrace it and express what it means to me. I am not sad about these observations and realizations. Certainly sometimes I feel dysphoria, especially for those of his family and friends, but I cannot reject the most consistent thing of human existence. I crave reality on all ends of the spectrum and in the past few days there certainly has been no shortage of deep, intense, real experience. I’ll leave this post unsealed with no conclusion and let my thoughts continue. With something so intense as this, so fascinating as life itself, I’m sure there will be more posts to come. With respect to my granddad, I can’t help but embrace every day he is with us after what I saw earlier with the death of this other man. I imagine witnessing the transition with someone closer to me, not a stranger, someone I know, someone I love, it will be tremendously more difficult.