“This is probably the disease that’s going to take you out.” I heard those words from my doctor a couple weeks ago.
Of course, life itself is a fatal condition. None of us gets out of here alive.
But having recently retired, I was looking forward to spending a decade or two painting and writing newspaper columns. I wasn’t planning an imminent tête-à-tête
with the Grim Reaper.
So my question is, “How soon?”
Answers are in short supply. Medical literature says two to 20 years. Twenty is more than the U.S. Census Bureau expects for someone of my vintage. Ten would be okay. But two years? Two years?
An email meltdown about that prompted my minister, the Reverend Shawna Foster of Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation, to come visit me. She came bearing a pink carnations and a story: Some years ago, Shawna attended the wake given by a woman who had been diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer. The woman had 18 months to live. She responded by throwing a gala “living wake” to celebrate her life and say goodbye to friends and loved ones.
But the gala that Rev. Shawna attended was the woman’s 23rd wake!
This story, in combination with advice my doctor gave me, has prompted me to announce my upcoming demise.
Dr. Katy Rieves (I cannot sing her praises, or those of Mountain Family Health loudly enough) told me that I should manage an upcoming trip to a specialist by assuming the very best outcome I can imagine. Dr. Katy told me to keep imagining the best right up to 24 hours before the visit. But on the last day, I should begin to assume the worst.
This is medically sound advice. Clinical studies show that patients who are optimistic have the best outcomes. And it’s very likely that what the specialist will tell me will fall short of the horrors I envision for that 24-hour period, so I won’t be blown away by bad news.
Mashing up my physician’s and my minister’s sage advice, I’m hereby announcing my death, in January, 2020. When I’m gone, I’d like those who cared about me to scatter my ashes on Mt. Sopris.
Meanwhile, I’ll try to make every day count. I will be working hard on a retrospective show of my artwork. I’m going to spend more time admiring the transitive beauty of hummingbirds, autumn leaves and snowflakes. Beginning with this column, I plan to begin wrestling with the topic of “memento mori”.
That Latin phrase roughly translates to “remember that you have to die.” In this culture, we don’t talk much about death, and our physicians are acculturated to ward it off and hence, skirt the issue. (Rev. Shawna says that’s what keeps ministers in business.)
But historically, Christians wove the mememto mori theme into life in many ways: Our Puritan forebears ornamented headstones with winged skulls and angels snuffing out candles. On Christian Gebhard’s huge, 1895 public mechanical clock, a skeleton appears to strike the hour. On Ash Wednesday, the words, “Remember, Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” are intoned as worshipers are marked with ash.
Life, and all the works of man, are so fragile.
When I lived in San Francisco, I used to stand before a display case in the Legion of Honor museum and marvel at a 3-inch-high, cobalt blue flask. It dated from the first century. How could that fragile, Roman artwork survive wars, floods, earthquakes and the frailties of human error to be transported across the oceans and so many centuries intact?
Ah, but how many of its fellows perished? Glass-making began about 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. How many millions of beautiful vessels have been dashed to pieces? How many hours of artistry perished? How many artisans have been forgotten?
The Buddhists teach that everything is already broken.
Thai Buddhist master Achaan Cha was said to have held up a favorite tumbler and said, “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns… But when I put this glass on the shelf, when the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
So it is for me, for you, for all of us.
Perhaps my glass is half-full. Perhaps I will plan a living wake. Perhaps more than one wake. Time will tell.
This Seeking Higher Ground column was originally published in the Sopris Sun newspaper on January 17, 2018.