It probably happened outside a cave somewhere in France 30,000 years ago. Ig picked up a rock and cracked his neighbor Oog right in the forehead. Then it happened: the first time anyone contemplated their mortality.
The concept usually takes a more prominent place in one’s thoughts when presented with a sudden change in circumstance. Like a rock to the frontal lobe. Or being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Something I learned pretty quick in regard to my diagnosis: it’s useless to ask, "how long do I have?" The fact is, they don’t know and can’t predict how long you have. The only thing they can say with certainty is that I have pancreatic cancer. So, I don’t ask.
I also had no interest in knowing what stage it’s in. Why? The truth is, I could survive it even if it’s Stage 4. Average life expectancy with pancreatic cancer is 6-12 months. I’m in month 8, and still feel pretty good after 10 chemotherapy infusions, every two weeks for 48 hours at a time. I haven’t lost my hair. My appetite and energy levels are normal.
The big change has been my reaction any time I don’t feel 100%. Is this the beginning of a long, downward slope to the end? No symptom is ignored. Everything is a potential red flag. And I’ve learned not to ignore red flags.
After having lived with Type I diabetes since age 5, I had lived a reasonably stable life health-wise until late 2007. Diabetes doesn’t get anywhere near the level of public education and awareness it should. Diabetes is a death sentence, a terminal illness that takes you a piece at a time. It destroys blood vessels, destroys organs, can cause heart disease, blindness, makes you so susceptible to infection a paper cut could lead to major complications. It causes neuropathy, the restriction of blood flow to outer extremities which usually leads to amputations.
In 2007 I was told I had kidney disease. My renal function was down to 14%. I was told I needed a transplant. But first I had a triple-bypass which was made necessary by diabetic plaque buildup. Then I was on dialysis for 16 months. Then I had the transplant. I was lucky because my sister had a kidney she wasn’t using.
The next eight years included a total knee replacement in my right leg. That knee had been destroyed by a massive infection. Over the following two years, infections in my right foot resulted in 14 surgeries, the loss of 3 1/2 toes, and 20% of my foot.
When that all settled down, I raised my hand and asked for a pancreas transplant. That was a little harder to take, because there are no living donors of pancreases. Someone had to die so I could live a little longer. It’s not a thought you ever 'get used to.' In my case, the donor was a 15-year-old boy from New Orleans. That’s all I ever got to know.
After the pancreas transplant, I developed a small sore in the heel of my left foot. While I was now cured of diabetes thanks to the transplant, it got infected and I fought most of that year, including 5 surgeries. In November my leg was amputated below the knee. Fast forward to 2022. I have more scars than a shark-bite victim, and now my left leg is a piece of hardware.
I never got Covid, despite being in a high-risk demographic. In January of 2022 I got sick. Extreme fatigue. Loss of appetite. You know, flu symptoms. Or Covid symptoms. Something. At the time I was living in the Shenandoah Valley. Rural Virginia. The kind of place where some people pay for medical services with goats or chickens. The first diagnosis was flu. After failing to respond to medication, the next diagnosis was ‘Covid pneumonia.’ That was false too. I finally got myself to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., where I had almost all of my procedures performed.
One week after being admitted, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That was especially galling because it wasn’t my original equipment failing me, it was a replacement part. After relating the nutshell version of my medical history, one might conclude that I don’t shy from a fight. I also try not to engage in fights without the intention of winning. "Fall seven times. Rise up eight" is a Japanese saying I’ve taken to heart.
I learned early on that complaining is pointless. It’s not like any of this happened because of someone else’s actions, or because I engaged in some kind of risky behavior. It is the matter at hand, and I have grown very fond of sucking oxygen. Shaking your fist at the sky and screaming "WHY?!?" never helped anyone either.
The one thing I have maintained throughout all of this is a sense of Humor, no matter how dark or inappropriate. At least I still have a leg to stand on.
The one subject that is inescapable and ever-present now is that of mortality. Mine specifically but also how the subject is addressed in virtually every other aspect of life. So far, one of the most comforting things I’ve heard about death comes from Yoda, the Jedi Master in Star Wars. He said, "death is a natural part of life…rejoice for those who have passed into The Force." Granted, it’s a movie quote, but valid. Even if The Force isn’t real.
People sometimes make casual remarks about 'ways to go out,' as in "I wouldn’t want to go out like that" after witnessing a bus hit an old lady in a crosswalk. Some people get to choose the time and place of their death. Some people never see it coming. Some deaths are slow, lingering, painful. Some people go to sleep and never wake up. That’s said to be 'passing peacefully in your sleep.' Well, we hope it was peaceful.
In my case, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate it. I’ve been made hyper-aware of my now abbreviated time on this planet. The way I see it, it’s just another mental exercise. An opportunity to experience what happens next, if anything. Do we go to Heaven, and if so, which flavor of heaven will it be? Is it that place with all the virgins, or all the Mormons? Valhalla? Xanadu? Cleveland?
What about death rituals? A Viking funeral on the Potomac seems do-able, but not likely. Jedi funeral pyre? Mummification? The good old-fashioned 'buried in a box?' There really aren’t a lot of fun options that are also legal. Maybe interment in a mountain where I sleep until Earth needs me again. I’ve never been a 'religious person.' Never had any firm belief in an after-life.
In the TV series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the Captain of the Enterprise is confronted with his own mortality and mentions to a crew mate that all humans have one thing in common: they all believe that somehow, some way, in that last moment they will cheat death.
Literature is filled with references to death and mortality. Soldiers in the field, explorers, scientists, insurgents, philosophers. Everybody’s got something to say on the subject. Shakespeare took a few good whacks at death. Or life, being a 'brief candle, a poor player who frets and struts his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.' It IS a tale old by an idiot, and in the grand scheme of things it signifies nothing.
You can die, croak, expire, buy the farm, get your ticket punched, take the dirt nap, push up daisies, pass away, bite the big one, bite the dust, or kick the bucket. Although that last one is tougher when you only have one leg. Whatever term you choose, we all do it at some point. It really is the one and only thing we all have in common. I don’t fear it.
I’m also not trying to desperately complete a 'bucket list.' I’ve lived my life as I pleased; I heeded warnings and admonitions in literature and fairy tales which told us to smell the roses, walk in the rain, appreciate the real miracle of life in everything from bugs to puppies. I fell in love, became a father, and travelled far. I learned that the greatest reward is lifelong learning. I plan to keep learning as long as I can.
Now to get back to my list of 'cool final words.' - [ ]