Death and the future have been much on my mind lately.
My uncle died last year, after a very long battle with diabetes and kidney problems. Part of me wants to say it's his own fault. He spent something like a decade after he was diagnosed completely refusing to stick to a sensible diet. He ate all the candy he wanted. He'd come over to my grandmother's house, and she'd bake him a pie, and he'd eat it. My grandmother knew he wasn't supposed to eat it, but she'd make it anyway -- for decades, she's defined her self-worth by how many people ate her cooking, and she knew he loved to eat pie. So she'd bake pies, and he'd eat them.
On the other hand, I don't think it's his fault so much. It's a fucking pancreas. It doesn't have to pump blood, it doesn't have to think deep thoughts, it doesn't have to take in oxygen, it doesn't have to digest food. All it has to do is produce insulin, and it falls down on the job? That's a shitty pancreas, and my uncle should've demanded a new one. And any god worth his essential saltes woulda snapped to it, given him a new pancreas, and a coupon for a free steak dinner to make up for the trouble.
But it doesn't matter whose fault it is. My uncle died short a leg and a few fingers. He fell asleep one day and woke up dead a month later.
My grandmother knew it was coming, but knowing it's coming doesn't really prepare you. The word came, and she cried like a lost, wounded puppy. She'd outlived her only son.
The moment her tears came, my father and brother actually fled the room. They were afraid of an old woman's tears, and I still haven't forgiven them for that.
My grandmother had a thing on New Year's Day. Woke up in the night, short of breath, pain in her chest when she tried to take a full breath, nauseous. Waited 'til morning to call anyone because she didn't want to bother us. I went over, sat with her for a bit, called an ambulance. She was good as gold when we got to the hospital, felt fairly good, got to go home after a couple of days of observation. The doctor said she had a heart like a hammer, better than some people half her age, a quarter her age.
On December 31, she was getting around fine with a cane, had a loud laugh, spent her days working harder than she needed to. She didn't go driving around town, but she couldn't stand lazing around all day. Now she whispers when she talks, won't get out of her bathrobe, sleeps through the day. She wants my parents to abandon their home and move in with her, so someone can help her out of bed and cook her food and help her make it to the bathroom. I don't think she's sick, but she's scared -- scared of being sick, of hurting herself, of dying, of being alone. She wants someone to comfort her and get rid of the fear. But I don't think anyone can banish those fears, ever.
On December 31, she still acted like she was in her 70s; now, she seems to finally feel every one of her 96 years.
My dad had a thing, too. He's diabetic also, but he's always been very good about taking care of his health. He eats right, exercises, checks his blood sugar daily, takes his medicine, listens to his doctor. It'll be decades before diabetes negatively impacts his health.
My dad has always been a bit of a health nut -- he used to swim laps at the local pool when I was a kid, and I think he swam over a thousand miles in only a few short years -- he's got the Red Cross patches to prove it. And if his doctor told him to improve his diet, he'd do it without hesitation. He was eating a low-fat, low-salt diet years before it was popular. But he's still had to have two angioplasties to take care of heart trouble. You can't stop genetics, and my dad's genes seem to think that gunk in your arteries is the hip happening thing.
He's started having trouble lately with racing heartbeat and arrhythmia. He'll wake up in the night, heart rushing wildly. The docs don't have a good idea what's up, or what they can do to get it under control. More medications? Pacemaker? Something else? No one has any idea.
My brother and sister both have dogs, very nice dogs. But you know the thing with dogs, right? They don't live for 70-90 years. They live about 14. My brother's dog is a rat terrier, and she's pretty likely to make it to the max. My sister's dog is a lab, and they only tend to have about a decade in them.
I love both of them, and right now, they both have about six to seven years left. Six or seven summers, six or seven Christmases, and then nothing. I love them, they're part of my family, and I don't want anything to happen to them.
I kept a diary from 1985 'til last year. Over 20 years. I finally quit because I got tired of writing "Went to work, came home, played on the computer" every night. I used those diaries to make my own calendar every year -- a page-a-day listing of the important dates of my life, people I knew, the things I did. But it had gotten to the point where the only things I had to add to the calendar every year was the death dates of celebrities. I no longer had accomplishments; all I had were reactions.
Sometime in December, I flipped a page on the calendar to see that it was the anniversary of the day I bought and mailed a scarf anonymously to a girl I liked in college. I used to do that sort of thing all the time -- it appealed to the bookish, romantic, nostalgic -- and very shy -- side of me. Everyone loved getting presents from secret admirers, right? I quit when I finally realized that secret admirers are really pretty creepy.
But the date on the calendar was 1987. Over 20 years ago. College -- the happiest time of my life -- was two decades ago? It can't be -- that would mean I was almost 40. That's middle age.
Twenty years. Everyone I knew back then is pushing 40, worrying about their kids, the mortgage, their health, their weight. They belong to clubs, churches, PTAs. If I ever saw the Great Love of My Life from back in college, it's doubtful she'd even recognize me, much less remember me. Even if she did, we'd have about ten minutes' worth of chatting to do before we exhausted the last remnants of anything we still had in common. Twenty years is a long, long time to grow past someone, and for someone to grow past you.
Twenty years is a long time, and I still haven't managed to do all the stuff I thought I'd do in those two decades.
Even before now, I'd stopped trying to contact people I knew in high school and college. I knew, at the very least, that I'd be a colossal disappointment to them, even if the vice versa weren't the case.
But 20 years... 20 years gone, and nothing to show for it.
So more and more often, I get in bed every night and lie awake for an hour or two. I worry about my grandmother, about my parents, about my brother, my sister, and their dogs. And I worry about me.
I've always figured I'd never make it to old age. When I was a kid, I was sure I'd be dead before 18. After 18, I was sure I'd be gone by 21, then 25, then 30. A few years ago, I tried to figure my chances to live through another few decades. I figured I had (at the time) a 50% chance of living to 30, 15% of making it to 40, only 5% of getting to 50. I didn't give myself any chance at all of living to 60.
So I lie awake at night and worry -- is this the night for me? Have I done enough? Have I left too much undone? Will my family be pissed at having to clean up my pigsty of a home?
Sometimes, I'm ready to go, just so I can quit waiting in suspense for the axe to fall. Usually, I lie awake and worry, and wish I wasn't so scared.
Today's obits page in the paper includes a woman who lived to 101, a two-day-old child, a teenager who died in a car accident, and various people who had died at age 34, or 47, or 51, or 64, or 84.
Any of us could go at any time. There's no real way to prepare, no real way to be ready, no real way to make sure you've said and done the right things for the people who'll have to clean up your bed, arrange funerals, read wills, dispose of your clothing and books and furniture and photos.
Any of us could go at any time.