Are You Ready?
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
Life was going along just fine. There were the usual bumps in the road that one can expect from being in life, but nothing catastrophic. Lots to keep me busy. Events to prepare for. Meals to plan. Support groups to facilitate. Grandkids to corral. Meetings to attend.
Then my right hand helper and close friend Tom suddenly has major arrhythmia issues that put him in the hospital. The same week Jim, my brother-in-law, has heart issues that land him in the ER. And my son-in-law Dave, husband to my daughter and father of two of my grandchildren, has a heart attack at the age of 51, repairable, it turned out, by emergency surgery.
I know Jim and Tom are old enough to die, according to our assumptive belief that when you are over 70 it can happen at any time. But not Dave, with two young kids and a thriving house inspection business.
It is quite humbling to realize the truth that “If you are old enough to be alive you are old enough to die” is correct.
We have conditioned ourselves to rely on doctors to fix us. If you have a cold, or the flu someone will surely ask if you have seen the doctor. Dave had been in the ER for five hours the Saturday before with chest pain. The conclusion then was muscle pain. Both Jim and Tom still have undiagnosed issues. We want to know. We assume our care providers can tell us what’s wrong.
Knowing gives us some sense of control. If I know what the problem is I assume I can prevent anything bad from happening. But many of us have come to a realization that control is an illusion. The best we can get from doing everything right is to not feel guilty when well meaning people quiz us on what we did to cause ourselves harm.
I don’t spend a lot of my time worrying about my loved ones dying. I certainly do not fit the definition of helicopter parent or grandparent, but it does cross my mind from time to time that the loves of my life could be taken from me in an instant. One can’t sit in bereaved parent support groups for 40 years without remembering that no one is immune from death.
We were planning on going to the beach with Dave before his heart attack. The doctor said that was a great idea to continue with those plans to assure Dave gets some “down” time. So we went—BP cuff in hand and directions to the closest hospital, just in case.
While on vacation I’m playing soccer at a nearby school yard with my grandson and I hear a siren in the distance. My mind immediately goes to Dave. Is he okay? Did he just have another heart attack? Being a medical professional doesn’t protect me from irrational thoughts. I don’t get hysterical, but I note that I am just as capable of getting triggered by something as those I sit with in support groups. I don’t get a phone call from my daughter so I allow myself to go back to soccer and getting creamed by my grandson.
Two days before our vacation last year I broke my foot. A few days into that vacation, my sister-in-law, who was with us, died suddenly.
This year, two days before we are to leave on vacation Dave has a heart attack. So of course, this is the question that’s on our mind. Who’s going to die this time? I wasn’t the only one to wonder this. Our minds do that sort of processing. We look for sequences. Will history repeat itself? It can be considered silly or ridiculous thinking, but we do it just the same.
Everyone will die. The remainder of our life span is decreasing continually. Human life expectancy is uncertain. Our money cannot help us. An outpouring of love or determination from loved ones can’t keep us alive forever. Death will come regardless of whether or not we are ready.
I watched my daughter and son-in-law interact. It seemed like they were loving each other a little more, laughing more fully, and caring for each other in a new way. Looking at death can be a gift. It can help us to see that we shouldn’t take life for granted and that this may be all we have--this very moment.
Denial works until it doesn’t. It can seemingly be our best friend for awhile, or until we are ready to accept life on its terms. But denial doesn’t prepare us for what will inevitably come. It actually robs us of precious time. And it robs us of living a life of gratitude and an opportunity for a deeper awareness and appreciation of the life we’ve been given.
On the other side of denial is fear. Fear shuts us down and closes us off from truth. Love opens us up and allows us take risks. Being willing to love no matter what can give us an enormous sense of freedom.
Some people scoff at others when they add the words “I love you” as a salutation at the closing of every phone call. Maybe it’s our way of being prepared. Maybe saying “Thank you, or I’m sorry, or I love you” are ways for us to try a little harder in our relationships, to be kinder, and to have fewer regrets in the end. We can look back and say with assurance, “He knew I loved him”.
Are you ready? I’m not. But I’m working at it.