Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A HOLE IN TOMORROW – Seeing Right Through Mortality

You may have noticed the gradually increasing frequency of my posts touching on aging, death and dying. This is partly due to my perspective, which I can no longer pretend is anything but that of a senior citizen. It’s also inspired by my experiences as a hospice volunteer. (I spend a few hours every week with people whose days are numbered.)

Despite my long predisposition to the present moment, the older I get, the more often I seem to stray to thoughts of the ever-more-precious future. Like imagining how, when the time comes for me to face my own life’s end, I might do so with half as much grace as my patients do.

       In just the past couple of years, five of my 
       family members and friends have faced a 
       cancer diagnosis.

I know, I know…worrying about tomorrow is pointless. While it’s probably more useful than worrying about the past, either way there’s little any of us can do to affect the consequences of time.

But there’s tomorrow…and then there’s TOMORROW. For someone simply living out their last days or one facing a grave health crisis, the term could mean, literally, the next day; one might not dare look ahead much further.

But for those of us still fortunate enough to still gaze out on an indeterminate horizon, the view is quite different.

Yes, there’s still that sense—especially if gratitude is part of your daily spiritual practice—of each tomorrow being a precious gift, one you should appreciate as if it were your last. But even that self-imposed filter doesn’t keep those of us in reasonably good health from fully expecting another tomorrow after that…and another…and another...

How cruelly that expectation must change when one receives, say, a cancer diagnosis. These days, I find myself thinking about that all the time, because in just the past couple of years five of my family members and friends have faced that reality.
        It’s an opportunity to introduce ourselves 
        to our faith—or at least an aspect of that 
        faith we may never have been in the same 
        room with before.

Even as I’ve been writing this post, one of those loved ones dealing with cancer—a dear old friend—has experienced a dramatic change in his condition. Steve had been responding quite well to cutting-edge treatment which aimed to seek out and destroy cancer cells no matter where in his body they lurked.

But now, quite suddenly, the cancer has gained the upper hand throughout his body. There’s nothing left to do for him—at least in terms of cure-oriented medical treatment. He’s entered hospice, and doctors advise him and his family not to think in terms of months, but weeks…or maybe even days.

What a fickle friend hope can be. I can only imagine what he and his family must be going through, given that initial ebbing of the disease’s leaden horizon and then its abrupt rushing in and imminently crashing over them.


I guess this is one positive effect of death—a silver lining, if one thinks broadly enough—in the whole human scheme of things. It causes those left behind to confront the reality of our own mortality.

It’s also an opportunity to introduce ourselves to our faith—or at least an aspect of that faith we may never have been in the same room with before.

It’s that faith that renders the dreadful, absolute finality of death somewhat more forgiving. As if that barrier to yet another tomorrow becomes, rather than a dark, impenetrable, tombstone-granite wall, perhaps more like a fine-mesh screen which, while it certainly inhibits our free, physical movement from one dimension to the other, at least allows the free flow of air and sunshine and spirit between the two.

As death becomes an ever-more-frequent visitor to my aging circle of loved ones, I’m asking myself if my faith is up to the task. Can I, as with any other aspect of wonder, learn to be fully present with my mortality? Might I, if faced with a terminal diagnosis, be able somehow to see beyond—if not right through—death’s dark curtain?

Could you?


jean said...

Jeff, I am 71 and realize, more and more, that I have only a few "good" years left (if I am lucky) and if I am going to teach, I need to teach as much as possible to make my contribution to people who are budding artists, in the tradition of my wonderful teacher, Morton P. Traylor, without whom I would not be a professional artist today. So that is one thought. The other is that I am just hitting my stride as an artist and need LOTS more time to do what I am doing right now :), not so much for the world who does not really care what I am doing personally, but for me :).
I read so many NDE books that death looks like a great and exciting adventure to me, but I do NOT like the prospect of losing friends and family to death and possible pain and suffering before it happens. I guess I want to skip the process of dying and just get on to the good stuff that I have heard about so much and totally and convinced awaits! Looking forward to being free on the physical to being pure, unencumbered spirit! Great post!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jean, thanks for sharing your thoughts about aging and dying. I guess I believe, as you do, that death might launch one into a miraculous new realm of consciousness, but I find it hard to get around the notion of the separation (at least the earthly understanding of it -- as in being able to talk with them, touch them, etc.-- from loved ones. This would be especially sad for me if I were to die from anything other than gradual old age. Many of my very old hospice patients are ready -- some anxious -- to die.

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