A famous quote from MIT professor Alan Lightman states that: “The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.” Lightman is unusually unique in that he is proficient in and teaches both physics and the humanities. There is, therefore, an element of quantum mechanics in his statement. Whatever great joy or elation one may have experienced in the past cannot be to transposed to to ease a particularly painful situation in the present. One, by him or herself, must singularly go through such an experience, basically, in lonely solitude.
I was thinking of this quote because of a particular situation we are currently going through. A woman we know (with her husband) from almost the beginning of our nearly 20 stint here in Las Vegas is in the final stages of cancer. The end game, so to speak, when it is deemed that no further cancer treatments will be of benefit, and therefore, will not provided. Nasty business, cancer, brought on primarily by growing old. It’s not her real name, but we’ll call her Ellen, to protect the guilty. In any event, the wife and I went to visit Ellen yesterday, probably for the last time. Ellen currently has a one-way ticket to and resides in a local hospice, where people go in, but like that old commercial for mouse traps, they don’t come out. Unless it’s feet first.
The hospice is Nathan Adelson, which has an excellent reputation for being a particularly caring and benevolent institution for both patients and their families and loved ones in the end stages of life. Yada, yada. It’s still a storage facility to house people that are too sick to be taken care of anywhere else, and especially not at home. This particular chapter is located in one of the local, nearby hospitals. So as I’ve said, we went yesterday to see Ellen, for almost certainly, the last time. I hadn’t been inside of a hospital for several years, so I forgot that the first thing that hits you, when you enter, is the smell of chemicals. Disinfectants, antiseptics, perhaps various medications, but the odor is overpowering. By the smell alone, you know you’ve entered a parallel universe whose theme is primarily sickness, pain and suffering. The tone has been set, almost in concrete, as it were.
We were shown to Ellen’s room by a very courteous and empathetic nurse on duty at the time. The room itself was airy and large enough to accommodate not only the patient, but several visitors that may come by to pay their respects. It even had a TV for those still conscious enough to be able to watch. The walls were painted in a pale, sort of pastel-colored green, which was certainly pleasant an soothing. The chairs were a somewhat darker shade of green and blended in perfectly with the wall-coloring. Even the patient’s smock was in green. I never knew that the color green was the best way to exit this dimension.
Now, in real life, Ellen was an extremely extraverted and out-going person who loved to dominate the conversation. We used to joke that when going out to dinner with her and her husband, all we had to to was sit back and let Ellen talk on endlessly. Having a vibrant and enthusiastic personality, Ellen was more than up to the task. Some years back, Ellen had a bout with breast cancer, but had apparently, successfully defeated it. Her health, until very recently, appeared to have been as strong as ever. But the nasty thing about cancer is that, more often than not, it likes to make an encore presentation. Ellen’s cancer came back with a vengeance, in the form of bone cancer, which is especially painful. So when we arrived in her room Ellen was so doped up with morphine or other pain-killers, that, for the most part, she was unconscious. It’s doubtful that she even recognized our presence.
You should know that my wife has been extremely stressed out by her friend’s situation. To say that she has been overtly upset would be an understatement. Nevertheless, once inside Ellen’s room, my wife was suddenly the epitome of composure. She held Ellen’s hand, kept talking to her in the most soothing tones, and kissed her on the cheek. (I was too freaked out by Ellen’s appearance, which fully displayed the ravages of stage four cancer, to be of any use.) My wife’s calm and composed demeanor under fire was certainly something to be proud of. After some time we finally left this very sad setting.
One must consider, however, that the process of dying begins the moment we are born. Perhaps the entire panorama of one’s life’s events is merely the prelude to the biggest event of them all, which is one’s death. Perhaps the short time we spend on this planet is, as various religions would suggest, merely to prepare us for an eternal life in a different dimension. I used to lean toward that thinking based on near-death-experiences reported by those that had been clinically dead for several minutes. But then I found out that such experiences occurred in less than 20% of NDE victims. For the other 80% plus, there was just the black hole of nothingness. Nobody knows for sure, and even the most determined religionist is afraid of dying. Look at Billy Graham, the most ardent of evangelicals, hanging on for dear life at age 95, even with a bucketful of maladies. In either event though, it’s just as Alan Lightman wrote. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone- and most especially when undergoing the process we call dying.