December 11, 2012
Admittedly at age 75 I think from time to time about dying, not about its mechanics, not about the challenges of slow deterioration nor the potential surprise of sudden demise, but rather on what it says to me about yesterday, today and tomorrow. When the topic comes up, I am reminded about how I enjoyed the film "The Bucket List" a couple years ago, but neither then nor now have I been moved to start my own (nor do I have a friend with all the enabling resources to do it with).
Perhaps I am relatively happy as I am. Yet, I struggle with finding the time to do all the things that I already like to do, let alone find new ones. My friend Walt hit the nail on the head the other day, when he suggested that what aging needs is not so much a bucket list, but we need to have a good look at and list what kinds of things we need to stop doing, so that we can be be more present to doing the things that we love, with people we love.
While reflecting on his insight, I was invited, out of the blue, (special delivery via LinkedIn) to review Eighteen Months to Live. Fundamentally it is a journal, with prologue, epilogue and narrative annotations by the journal keeper's daughter. Eighteen Months to Live tells the story of a woman's remaining days after a cancer diagnosis that issued a stay of execution of but 18 months. It is a very corporeal account of the continuation of life, set in the frequency of pains and pills and dialogues with medical practitioners. It sends you looking for unidentified lumps in your body and in your soul - things you start to feel and can't get over.
The diarist reflects on what the science knows and doesn't know, set in the shape of current culture of medicine à la USA takes, It shows how it can live in our consciousness, tells of hopeful reliance on it, and, ultimately, how it becomes a dead-end on the way to becoming dead. This journal does not present itself as a heroic epic adventure--though in fact it is one, but rather sets itself in the bonds and bounds the writer has with everyday life and those close to her in it. It shows how they eventually turn to whisper but never quite totally disappear until we bid them goodbye. Midge is a US American who, unlike so many, was privileged to have access to what the medical system has to offer, in some respects a frighteningly prosaic way to die!
Death is described as a leveler, but it is in fact the awareness of death that makes us realize that we are like everybody else, neither superior nor inferior, neither more or less worthy of what life promises us. And it is this, more than anything that brings the world's ubiquitous inequities to the foreground of consciousness. It makes me wonder on cold cloudy days if the world is any better off for my having been here, and whether my efforts to make it better have been in vain. In sunnier moments at least I harbor the hope that what I have been about has kept it in some minuscule way from being worse than it actually is.
Asked to review this book, I am at a loss. One does not critique another's experience, but rather tries to let it sink in, or in some panicked moments resist it, but, in the end the only possible response is to describe what goes on in one's heart clicking through the pages, then, in a few words, inviting others to share that experience. That is what I've tried to do in these scant lines. I believe this is what the author ultimately does as well.