I've started listening to NPR again on my mornings into work. In Oklahoma, NPR was the only radio I could tolerate. I have a radio station here that plays music I listen too, but I was missing the stories so I turned it back over to NPR. I don't get to hear much. My morning commute is short, ten to fifteen minutes depending on the street lights, but that's enough time for one or two stories. Last week I caught this story on Morning Edition. Bud Hammes, a medical ethicist at a local hospital in La Crosse Wisconsin, started a campaign a few years ago to teach area nurses to ask people ahead of time about filling out an advance directive. As a result, the whole town has become very open about talking about death. During the story they did an interview with an older couple. He had reached the stage with his prostate cancer where chemo therapy was no longer helping. The nurse sat down with him and his wife to fill out his advance directive. As the nurse began asking the necessary questions, the wife began to cry. And so did I. I remember those questions and I know what it's like to be in her chair. Part of me was sympathetic. It's really double edged. The questions are difficult. "If you reach a point where treatments will extend your life by a few months and side effects are pretty serious, would you want doctors to stop, or continue to do all that could be done?". The answers feel like hot lava. This is where you have to relinquish all hope that the person you love will get better. This is where you surrender to the inevitability of life's end. The other part of me was jealous of this woman. She has had a whole life with this man. They had children and grandchildren together. So much time. I was jealous of her time. I was jealous that she got to be so much older before having to deal with this hard part. That feeble line "it's not fair!" entered my head, a phrase I never said when dealing with my loss. It's not fair. What a ridiculous turn of words. As if I ever in my life expected fair. Fair is where you go for corn dogs and cotton candy and dangerous carnival rides. It is not for expectations on how life should go.
Friday night Chris and I would be celebrating sixteen years together. Would I say that woman is lucky because she's celebrated more than twice that many anniversaries? Maybe. Lucky is just as double edged as those advance directive questions. The lucky part is not having to deal with that side of things at all. The lucky part is not even knowing those questions exist. Admitting that she's lucky kind of says that I think I am unlucky. I have a wall of pictures at my desk that show me just how lucky I am. The pictures are blend of the life I had before. Chris and his Calvin like messy hair. Hooper fat and happy sitting in a puddle with his tongue hanging out like a lunatic. Our friends' kids in various stages. Todd's Lio, brand new with his hand smashed against one side of his little face and looking at us with one eye. JR sound asleep in Pepaw's lap. Chris and I on our wedding day. All of these are mixed in with the life I have now. The Cabbage smirking from the backseat of my car. Michael and the Cabbage planting seeds in the garden. Me and Mom on a castle in Ireland. Michael, The Cabbage and I, the three of us laughing. I am lucky in the life I had before and I am lucky in this new one. I've always recognized that, how lucky I was to have the time I did have. Not once have I pined for the time I didn't have.
That NPR story starts a very important discussion that many of us are leery to have. Of course no one expects to even think about their mortality when they are young, let alone be forced to answer such questions by surprise when you've just been hit with the news that this is the end. You haven't even had time to adjust to this new dilemma and someone wants to know your thoughts on resuscitation. It brings to mind the old adage "always be prepared". Maybe I'm lucky to know these things now. I was asked a couple of weeks ago by mom how I felt about a feeding tube. I was relieved that I was not alone in my views, that we all felt the same way about it. Did my previous experience help me approach the conversation in a calm easy manner? Sure. Would it have been easier to know what dad's thoughts were on the subject. Most definitely. Knowing the answers to those questions well before things actually get hard, frees up brain space for the things that are important when it gets closer to that time to say goodbye. There's a relief in knowing you are doing the right thing for that person. Sometimes you need to talk about death so that you can enjoy the life.