Life and Death

Earlier this month I wrote:

Humans – that is, the “being” part of the human – may arise out of the individual patterning of his or her biology and neurology. The “being’s” task is to remain aloft above the sum of his or her own parts, and not, through physical or neurological dysfunction or deficit sink back in to the morass of autonomic functioning unaware of anything beyond the instant.

I think that our lives – that is, whether we have life or are dead – don’t have much to do with our health.  They’re related but separate categories, if categories is the word I want.  People in terrible health seem to linger for months and, short of euthanasia or suicide, it doesn’t seem to matter much how how they feel about it.

For two weeks I’ve been thinking about human mortality and how to write about it.  My wife’s grandfather is in hospital and for several weeks has been expected to live no more than a few more days.  His brother died a few months ago, picking tomatoes.  My wife’s mother has spent almost every night in his hospital room with him because she does not want him to die alone.  Certainly he will never return to the home where he and his now three or so years deceased wife have lived since the 1940s.  For the first time this year as we drove by the old white farmhouse we didn’t honk the horn in greeting because there was no one in residence to hear it.


The man who married my late maternal grandmother in 1973 (I think it was that year), now 96, has seemed to be growing weaker over the past several months to a year.  About four, five weeks ago now, he fell for the second time, and because he was living independently and apparently lost consciousness, lay there for several hours until he was able to muster the strength to get to the telephone and call somebody, probably my mother, to help him.  Not long after that he agreed to daily help at home, and shortly after that determined it was time to hang up his car-keys.  Within a week or so afterward, he made some alteration to his medical regime without medical advice that seems to have altered his consciousness to such a degree he cannot remain at home at all.  Little likelihood remains that he will ever return to the home he built all those years ago for my grandmother.

A few days ago a man of my acquaintance died.  When we last spoke, he talked about how he wanted to reconnect with his son who’d been living homeless in a southwestern state suffering from pancreatitis attributable to chronic, long-term alcohol abuse.  He himself suffered from emphysema, but thought he had two or three years left to live.  A former high wage earner, this man had been reduced to a meager and fixed income.  He continued to find meaning in writing, recording, and performing music.  He said his father used to tell him, “You’ll never amount to anything.” 

After our parents die, the only people who have any idea who we are on the basis of who we were are our siblings, if we have any.  My son has no siblings, and as I think about my elders as they make their way through their final days, I think of my little boy as he wades into the first of his.  By the time my wife and I turn our toes skyward I hope our son will be happily established raising a family of his own.  Possibly these dolorous preoccupations are entirely my own and occur to no one else.

On the other hand, all this thought and feeling, much of it probably rooted in the experience and observations of fatherhood, motivates me to greater social interest and compassion for those who do not inhabit that little circle of caring made of wife, son, and a few others who comprise the people who matter most to me.

3 thoughts on “Life and Death

  1. Wow! What a post! I have tears in my eyes. So many things you have said here resonate with me. And please do not think for one minute that these “dolorous preoccupations are entirely [your] own and occur to no one else.” They certainly occur to me and many others I am sure and have been a preoccupation of mine for many months now too.

    I believe it is soooo healthy and fabulous that you put all this down and out there since it is the essence of finding meaning in life and yes, I agree, the almost unexpected repercussions of what becoming a parent does to us. I dare say even these thoughts are capturing a rite of passage. Like you, my husband & I have one child, a son, and since my father left this mortal world only 4 months ago (after a debilitating illness where he suffered greatly) so many ideas and thoughts that I read in your post have swum around in mind for many months…how our culture deals with the sick and dying, grief, bereavement, death, the impact our parents have on our lives, the death of a parent, the issue of letting go, etc etc. I am still a bit raw with grief and often wonder how my son will remember his adored poppy since they were very close.

    I have also worried that my son won’t have siblings to share the burden of his parents growing old with and will have to make difficult life-decisions without a sibling by his side. But the sad truth is that many people have siblings who are just so in a genealogical sense only. I know many grown, older, wiser adults who are actually very grateful and happy being only children. That is why being part of community and/or having friends and personal interests that you can really connect with, is so important – sometimes even more important than family.

    But I don’t agree with your statement that “after our parents die the only people who have any idea who we are on the basis of who we were, are our siblings, if we have any.” I’ve met people for only 30 minutes travelling on a train or bus who I think have understood me far better than my own family/sibling. Life is funny like that…so many mysteries and nonsensical things when it comes to human relationships.

    Life is short, we are all here on a little journey and have to make the most of every day and count our blessings no matter how little they may seem. I forget this some days, but I’m trying to keep reminding myself. The last few weeks of my father’s life, when he was in the hospice and nursing home was a big wake-up call for me. I realised how lucky I am and also how lucky my father was to have had so much love around him in his dying days.

    Thanks for your post. I will re-visit for sure.

    • Hi BondiMermaid,

      Thank you for commenting – lengthy, thoughtful comments are always welcome. Sorry it took me awhile to reply.

      What I meant about our siblings is that aside from our parents, they are probably the only ones who were with us every day when we were very young. When our parents are gone, the knowledge is lost of who we were as very young children as our characters formed during those early stages of development unless our siblings remember. Possibly one of the functions of the parent in the life of the child as the child grows older and into adulthood is to remember the child.

      Most people to some degree, I think, experience what is sometimes called “infant amnesia” – they don’t have any memories before a particular time in childhood, which varies from person to person. Our son used to be able to look at baby pictures and recognize the baby in them as himself up to about, I think it was, his 26th month. After that, he’d look at pictures of himself as a baby and say he didn’t know who the baby in the picture was. He’d lost that continuity of self awareness and I posit that maybe that is one of the features of “infant amnesia” or indicators it has or is occurring.

      When we’re old, there are fewer and fewer people who are able to remember us. From a philosophical perspective, however, I think that love, generally, and that of parents who actually do love their children, is something divine having its origin outside the created order of time/space and is therefore never subject to destruction as is everything else that exists within the creation-box. So something related to us and our first experience of relationship with our parents survives the passage of time.

      I agree with what you’re saying about some people we encounter in our circumstances who immediately seem to understand us and/or care about our best interests more than those in our biological families. In some instances, it may be possible to reconnect with our genealogy, but yeah, it may not always be advisable. And you are so right about the importance of being part of a community, which, of course, hopefully includes those people in our environment who “get” and value us.

      • Thanks for clarifying what you meant about our siblings Christov10. I understand what you are saying re siblings, and that sense of continuity and knowledge is important, even when the siblings don’t have a particularly close relationships in later life.

        You got me thinking about infant amnesia and my own memories (or lack thereof). I then did a bit of google research on it. An interesting area in psychology!

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