Although I grew up in a family where two of my siblings had died before I was 5, it was the deaths of movie stars that first shocked and dismayed me. Learning of the suicides of Marilyn Monroe and the actor who played Superman on TV left me dumbfounded. How could people who appeared to have so much be dead? It was as though their lofty status should have protected them from the vulnerability of us lesser beings.
In my 20s, I worked as a nurse’s aide. On several occasions, I was in the room when a patient passed. One second the person was alive and the next second, dead. In that brief instant, there was no doubt that the life had gone out of him/her. How could it be so complete and final? What a concept.
The next big impact came when I was in my 30s and was jaywalking across a busy highway at night. As I was climbing the fence in the middle, I happened to look to my right just in time to see a semi-trailer truck smash into another jaywalker about a hundred feet away. The body was knocked up against the fence and bounced back against the trailer. There was no doubt the man was dead. So near to me and doing the exact same thing I was. Bad luck or bad timing and death was upon him.
Through all of this and the passing of my parents, death continued to be something that happened to others. Beyond my understanding, yes, but it happened to others. My expectations continued to be that I was alive and that was how I was supposed to be.
Approaching 65 has started to change my view of things. Now, I find myself contemplating the concept of death on more personal terms. Not fearing it so much as trying to comprehend the idea that a perfectly normal part of the system of life is that at some point I will cease to be alive. Nothing personal about it; no, just one moment I will be here and the next I will be gone -- forever.
Whether there is a "here-after" or reincarnation doesn’t really matter because "I" will be gone. Wow! That level of "you can’t change your mind about it later," is jaw-dropping. What if you try it but don’t like it?
This is not morbid stuff so much as it is a part of reflection many people go through as they reach what we call "old age." It is about forming our life view and understanding who we are in the place in time we get to occupy. Appreciating there is an end can give us greater clarity now.
Life is good. I always have believed it to be a gift, but now I’m starting to comprehend it is not a gift, it is a loan. Ours for a while and then back it goes. We don’t earn life, we just receive it. We don’t deserve death, we just get it. Since death is a part of life, it must be good too, although I’m getting fuzzier on that part.
Phew, death! What a concept! Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t go on for every.
Scott Funk is Vermont’s leading Aging in Place advocate, writing and speaking around the state on issues of concern to retirees and their families. Access previous Aging in Place columns and Scott’s blogs at scottfunk.org.