Wednesday, January 31, 2024

How We End

Someone I love has been told they only have a matter of months to live. It is unlikely they will see the year 2025. They may not even see summer.

Many of us have played the hypothetical game in our head of what we would do if we were presented with such news. I have a feeling it's one of those scenarios that is not what we imagine. I remember thinking vaguely long ago that if I ever had a miscarriage that I would probably accept it logically and move on. Two miscarriages taught me otherwise. I also remember being in a gut wrenching situation with one of my kids where I pictured myself at one point being a weepy mess over a particularly hard decision, but when the time came I was simply relieved. When my grandmother died, I was incredibly sad, but I was also surprised to discover that I was set free from holding onto the idea of her as someone crippled by dementia. Since all of her lived in memory I could remember her at her best without betraying reality, and there was joy in that. So I have no idea what it really is to be told you have little time left on this earth.

My first thought about what I would do if given only months to live, has always been something like "Stop doing dishes." But maybe not. Maybe in reality I would embrace the ability to do that while I could. 

Would I focus on myself or others?

It seems like the most appropriate time to be selfish because who would judge you negatively for it? And yet the first thing that pops into my head would be to finish projects for my kids while I could. I've made a violin for both of my older girls, but the one for the last daughter is still in pieces on my bench. I think I would feel desperate to get that done. Along with photo projects, and letters, and making sure they knew the stories behind things I want to leave them. But maybe those pursuits are selfish in their own way.

In the past, I would have said the thought of being faced with a terminal diagnosis would inspire me to travel somewhere. To see something I've put off and always wanted to see. I've never been south of the equator. I've never been to Africa. But would I want to use a small amount of time to do something new or something I already know I love? I think I might resent every minute that I'm stuck in a plane on a runway if I could just be home.

I suppose that's a good measure of how well you're living your life, if you'd be happy with an average day as your last.

I love my life. I like the house we live in, even though there are still a million projects to do in it. I'm happy crawling into bed every night between my husband and my dog. I think at this stage in my life, I would be content to spend my last days at home, or maybe at our cottage my grandparents built. I know my grandfather in his final months spent as much of it at the cottage as he could. My grandmother died in a nursing home, but the last time I spoke to her, in her mind we were having that conversation on the cottage porch. It's a peaceful place.

I've often thought that if we won the lottery (somehow without playing) that I would keep my job. I love my job. I think I might stop doing cello work or bow rehairs, though, since those things tend to provide me with more frustration than joy. (Not because I don't enjoy doing them, they just both take up all my bench surface, which I can't stand. If I had a dedicated cello workspace, and a bow bench where I didn't have to put all those supplies away each time I switched back to instrument work, then I wouldn't mind it. So maybe I should be doing that now somehow?) If I were dying, would I keep working? Possibly. Some of my happiest moments have been spent sipping a cup of hot cocoa on a cold morning while sitting alone at my bench, looking out the windows, and deciding which repairs to tackle first. But maybe I wouldn't get that anymore even if I wanted it. I'd have to help figure out how to shut it all down or pass it on.

Part of me thinks I would like to scramble to put out whatever novel I'm working on. But I also know how much that takes me away from time with other people. That would probably be too big a sacrifice, unless I could convince people I love to hang out near me while I do it. I would hate to leave my books unfinished.

I know sometimes when you're sick, it can actually be harder on the people worried about you. No one likes to feel helpless. No one enjoys survivor guilt. How much would I get to selfishly be as angry and in pain as I really feel, and how much would I choose to spend my time and energy comforting my family and friends instead?

I think about how much it would mean to me to see this person one more time, and accept that the situation is complicated enough that such a visit may be too much of an imposition. They are not obligated to accommodate anyone at this time. I just want them to have whatever brings them comfort.

I like to think it's better to be given time to say goodbye and wrap up any loose ends that need tending. An unexpected end seems crueler. I remember when I was in violin making school, and I had a long commute every day, seeing a story about another driver dying on the freeway, his car crushed between two trucks. It really shook me. I kept thinking about how he likely had food in his fridge he had planned to eat, and maybe a book on his nightstand he'd never know the end to. What if you die wearing an outfit you can't stand? Sounds stupid, but I'd rather go in my favorite cozy sweater.

Contemplating death is very different now than it once was for me. There's something alluring about flirting with ideas of death when you're a teenager that doesn't have the same appeal once you have more days behind you than ahead. The list of people I've lost at this point is getting long. There is weight to those losses somehow. There are days I feel that weight, and it's all I can do not to cry at any given moment.

I dread the losses that are still to come. I feel like they haunt me on the periphery of my daily life. 

Because I think often of the days almost nine years ago when my dad was in hospice. There was so much love and laughter and sorrow and grief all tightly woven together, and we all said we would learn from it. I knew better. I wanted it to be true that we would make more time for each other, and not let the days slip by so easily that years could pass without being able to hug the people that matter, but I knew real life wouldn't allow for that. We get distracted. We get busy.

And in some ways that's all right. That's what life is, the day to day bits and pieces. Being able to make your own breakfast and walk the dog and hang out with someone in front of the TV and wearing a favorite shirt and anticipating the comfort of the pillow you like at the end of the day. 

Hug people while you can. Love them while you can. And remember that the little things are actually the greatest things. If tears are how we know we care, at least I know I care a lot.