When we started planning the trip to Colorado in spring 2021, we had no idea of the road ahead.* We expected our reliably good health would continue. A diagnosis had suddenly created uncertainty – Would my health be stable enough to make the trip, especially since we were traveling to an area where the nearest major medical center was hours away?
Because this trip was important to people who are important to me, I did everything I could to prepare for this significant event. Multiple doctors prescribed different medicines for an ICE (In Case of Emergency) kit. Because of hospital chaplain experiences and research about chest compressions (CPR), I wanted to carry a durable DNR (Do Not Resuscitate). Doctors were of little help, so I had to figure it out and get the right signatures on the medical order.**
The time spent with family was wonderful. We had adventures with the grandkids while their parents were seeking elk. Each night, we gave thanks for sleeping in a warm, dry cabin rather than freezing in a tent in the snow with temperatures as low as 0°. And the hunters didn’t even have the comfort of fire for fear of spooking the animals.
When my son and daughter-in-law finally broke camp and emerged at the trailhead, everyone was ecstatic to see them. We looked forward to the next couple of days together before flying home.
But from that night on, I was like a human representation of Pagosa’s famous springs – except bubbling with tears. With the kids safely off the mountain, I faced the realization that these might be the last two days I ever see them in the flesh. Every time I woke up, I was crying. It felt a bit like “dead man walking” with less than 48 hours to make sure that I said the forever things that needed to be said. Like many people, I thought I had decades ahead.
While doctors’ crystal balls aren’t accurately calibrated, they can cite statistics and ranges: “Maybe less than a year. About 2 to 9% of patients with this cancer make it to five years. The cancer is treatable, not curable. It depends – on how the tumor reacts to chemo.”
Most people don’t even like to think about the topic of dying theoretically, let alone the effect their personal death will have on the people they love. My fears fell into three buckets: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), FOU (Fear of the unknown), and FoLAMB (Fear of Leaving a Mess Behind).
Fear of Missing Out: People use FOMO as a means of comparison. Others are having more fun and better experiences. I was suffering from an existential version of FOMO – comparing my past and future. When the kids talked about coming back for elk camp next year or requesting a follow-on assignment to Kodiak Island, I realized that I might not be around. I thought of the places we had gone and the things we had done and recognized that I may have already experienced doing those things for the last time. It wasn’t fear so much as sadness. And when I chased down that feeling of sadness, I realized at the root was love… Faith may lead to a belief that love never ends, but there will come a time when the love can’t be expressed with hugs and kisses.
Fear of the unknown: Every person faces a threshold ahead when we cross from mortal existence to spirit. Will there be a benign presence waiting? Will we see loved ones who have gone before? No one knows for sure. But between now and then, there will be an unknown amount of time, treatments, and possibly pain. Pain episodes can erupt suddenly. I’ve already discovered there are no guarantees that anyone or anything will be available to alleviate discomfort when pain is topping out.
Fear of Leaving a Mess Behind: We already had most of our estate documents assembled. But, there were loose ends. When we moved into this house, my husband was in Afghanistan. The utility and county tax payments were linked to my accounts. Did he have access? I didn’t want to think he might suddenly have to scramble because electricity or gas was shut off for non-payment.
I wouldn’t exchange taking the time to be with family, but this week is payback – three days of medical appointments and two procedures, followed by chemo and its unknown effects starting in the next week or so. Fullness of life means acknowledging that rainbows are connected to rain and sunshine and nightfall are linked. Sometimes we will be the ones leaving; other times, we will be left behind. I hope that facing this time of life consciously will make it a softer landing for the ones I love and leave.
© Joan S Grey, 26 OCT 2021 ∞
IndexCardCure™: Hoping to be like an autumn leaf…
* We never really know what lies ahead. Living like that can be immobilizing.
** Without a DNR, if 911 is called, EMTs are legally required to start chest compressions if needed. A living will is insufficient in this case.