Posts Tagged With: cancer

DEATH COMES IN GREEN PASTELS

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.

 

 

 

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VULNERABILITY

Whoever said that old age was not for sissies hit the nail right on the head. As one ages, inevitable aches and pains start creeping into one’s muscles, joints, knees, ankles, necks, shoulders and other parts of what’s left of your body. You slowly but surely begin accepting these pains as they become interwoven into into your daily life routines. After awhile, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine life without them. They become your constant companion, almost certainly for the rest of your life. Although I am generally considered to be in good health, unquestionably, I have my share of maladies. Among my list of ailments are asthma, allergies, arthritis, and that’s just the A’s. If I went through the whole alphabet, I would need a blog longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Along with the physical ailments comes a mental degradation, as you realize you’re no longer strong enough to take on various physical challenges or threats. Thus, as one ages, invariably, a foreboding sense of vulnerability continues to creep into one’s psyche and grows in strength. All part of the fearfulness you often see in seniors’ behavior.

One of my chief physical impairments is a loss of hearing, or as they called it back in the day, deafness. Yes, I have to wear hearing aids, which are not only obscenely expensive, but of marginal effectiveness. People with normal hearing capabilities usually don’t realize that hearing aids come nowhere close to restoring ones hearing capabilities to what they once were before hearing loss began to set in. In a crowded restaurant or other similar environment, they are practically useless. That’s because hearing aids magnify noises indiscriminately. So dishes clattering, conversations of people across the room, and all other sounds are magnified to the same degree as the words being spoken by the person sitting next to you. It’s your demanding job to try to hear the conversations of the people at your table, above the interference from the other sounds emanating in the room, and being picked up by your hearing aids. Often, an impossible task. But like everything else, you muddle through and rationalize. After all, it’s a lot better to have hearing loss than blindness. But, like all other disabilities, it feeds one’s sense of growing vulnerability.

Since we have lived in a seniors community, we have seen much disease and death over the years. Just a couple of days ago, the obits in our local paper carried the news that one of our residents had just died of lung cancer. He was 10 years my junior; so I figure that as long as I’m looking at the green side of the lawn every day, I’m ahead of the game. A few years back, a man we knew quite well, developed liver cancer in his early 60s. He was a really good guy, well-liked by everyone, and had a strong thirst for life. Hence he decided to fight the cancer tooth and nail. This meant heavy doses of chemo, with all its debilitating effects, being in and out of the hospital almost every week, and an array of non-ending surgical procedures. It did extend his life by a few months, but at an enormous cost as to the quality of that life. In the end, the inevitable occurred. I think if I were put in similar circumstances, at my age, I would opt not to undergo the chemo or any other therapy, and just let nature take its course.

This man, after he was diagnosed, told me that no one in his family had ever made it past 60. Bad genes, apparently. The fact that he had made it into his early 60s, was for him, something of a triumph. But as I get older, I see more clearly the role that genetic inheritance plays in determining one’s longevity. We know people well into their 80s, who seem to plow through life with little physical difficulty. Others have aged well before their time. It’s all in the genes. As for myself, I feel that I have a lousy genetic inheritance, (to say nothing of an even worse financial inheritance) since everyone in my family history died young, save for my father. I try to compensate by going to the gym every day and working out like a dog, but I think, in the end, poor genes will trump exercise. In the meantime, I just take it one day at a time, and continue to look for the green side of the grass.

The fact that seniors instinctively know they have far more mileage behind them than in front of them, is often what makes them so fearful and oblivious to all but their own needs. Many spend most of their remaining lives going from the doctors offices (they usually see a multitude of doctors) to the dentist office. Most cling to life with every ounce of their remaining strength. In Las Vegas, It’s not uncommon to see seniors dragging along oxygen tanks as the come to play the slots in smoke filled casinos. Some are in wheel chairs, or can only get around with walkers or canes. But they come because it gives them some form of entertainment, to say nothing of the casino noises and hordes of people throwing their money away on the machines or the craps tables. At least it gives them a chance to get out of the house.

I believe the fear of death is mostly rooted in the fear of the unknown. What is on the other side, if anything. Anecdotal evidence from those that have undergone near-death- experiences would indicate that the soul does enter a different dimension, one usually described as being  paradise. But there is obviously no sex, no food, no drink, no TV. So I’m thinking-how much of a paradise can it be? You would think that by now, some sort of a skype-like arrangement would have been set up between us and the departed, so we could know exactly what to expect. And your mother could continue to nag you from beyond the grave. In the meantime, I, along with a bunch of other seniors, will continue to value the time we have left above ground in this dimension.

 

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