life (before) deathEssays, Featured — By Sarah Thebarge on August 25, 2011 at 8:00 am
One Saturday evening several weeks ago, I heard that 27-year-old Amy Winehouse had died, and even though I’m not familiar with much of her music, the news hit me hard. I stayed up past 2 a.m. crying for the troubled soul that was too fragile to withstand the angst of an artists’ creative process and too weak to resist the temptations that offered to numb that psychological pain.
I also cried for my grandpa who has end-stage COPD and just got out of the hospital, and for my grandma who had a stroke that week. I cried for the young man in my parents’ church who died of pancreatic cancer, leaving a wife and two little girls behind.
I cried because I understand the will to live that made me defiant through eight debilitating rounds of chemo and, when I was in the ICU with sepsis a few months later, threaten to make a rope out of my bed sheets and escape through the window of my ninth-floor hospital room if my pulmonologist didn’t discharge me in time to celebrate my birthday at home.
I also cried because of the deep depression that came after the cancer, causing so much emotional pain and spiritual desperation that I prayed every night before I went to sleep, “God, if life doesn’t get any better than this, take me Home to be with you. I just want to come Home.”
Having cancer at a young age makes you grapple with your mortality much earlier than most people. In an afternoon, I went from being a healthy 20-something-year-old to being a cancer patient who required “extensive surgery” that would leave me “tragically disfigured,” as my surgeon so tactlessly put it.
My parents flew to Connecticut the day before my mastectomy. I picked them up at the airport, and then took them to lunch at a nice restaurant. I knew it was literally my last supper before surgery, since I couldn’t eat or drink anything that evening in preparation for next day’s procedure, so I went overboard. My parents and I shared lobster, steak, salad, mashed potatoes, and cheesecake.
After the waiter cleared the table, we sat there sipping our coffees, having exhausted all the easy topics of conversation. I cleared my throat and began talking.
“Just so you know…” I started awkwardly, faltering to find the right words. “If something happens to me tomorrow during the surgery-” my mom started crying, so I made eye contact with my dad instead, “-my bank statements and investment papers are in the bottom drawer of my desk. My passport, my birth certificate, and the title to my car are in the fireproof metal box in my closet.”
My dad nodded calmly.
“And I also wanted to tell you –” I introduced the next topic just as awkwardly. My mom was crying harder, “-if something goes wrong and I don’t wake up from surgery, make them check an EEG. If I don’t have brain waves, I don’t want to be kept on life support. Just let me go.” I looked deeply into my dad’s teary eyes to make sure he understood.
“It’s okay to let me go.”
Last week I told my friend Alex that I was planning a trip to Seattle to visit The Invisible Girls, the Somali refugee family I befriended in Portland last fall. He asked if the apartment complex they live in is safe.
“Be careful, okay?” he asked.
I nodded. “I have pepper spray in the glove box of my car, just in case,” I said.
“And if someone attacked you, you would use it, right?” he asked. He knows my pacifist tendencies too well.
I contemplated my physical safety and said, “That would be a great way to die, wouldn’t it? “
He looked horrified.
“I mean, I have to die of something at some point,” I continued. “What a great way to go out, standing between evil and an innocent life.” It sounds crazy to say it, but I actually pray for a death like that. I tell God that I only owe Him one death, so He’d better make good use of it.
While I was musing about all the interesting ways I could die, Alex repeated his question. “If someone attacked you, you would use your pepper spray, right?”
“Yes, I would use it,” I promised. “But if it didn’t work, I would gladly give my life for those girls.”
As I was crying, and thinking, and crying some more on Saturday night for the pain death inflicts on all of us, I thought about how consumed our culture is with our mortality.
We plan our funerals, buy prime cemetery real estate, and draft legal documents that detail our end-of-life wishes. The time we don’t spend planning for death, we spend plotting to thwart it.
The money our youth-obsessed culture invests in Botox injections, liposuction, plastic surgery, and toupees depicts a peculiar form of denial. Maybe some people truly don’t realize that improvements made to external appearances don’t increase the longevity of internal organs. And maybe for others it’s a form of magical thinking – as if Death might come for you one day but, after noticing your wrinkle-free nasolabial folds, decide he’s got the wrong woman and take someone who’s horribly shriveled instead.
I wondered what would happen if we took all the money and energy we spend on alternately accommodating and cheating death, and diverted our efforts into a quality life?
What if, instead of eulogizing loved ones after they’re gone, we called them every now and then while they’re still alive? What if, instead of paying for cosmetic procedures that give us the façade of time we don’t have, we made better use of the time we do have by logging out of Facebook, turning off the TV, and powering down the Wii so we can be more aware of God and the people around us?
Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of money on cancer treatments that kept me from dying, and a lot of energy on emotional and spiritual growth that kept me from wanting to die.
During the first year after my cancer diagnosis, I prayed every night for God to take me Home to be with Him if it wasn’t going to get any better, and I felt like my prayer had gone unnoticed or unanswered because I had to keep praying it. It finally dawned on me that I’d received His response, because morning after morning, I kept waking up.
It’s true, as Shakespeare said, that we all owe God a death.
But for now, until God cashes out our chip, each of us owes Him a well-lived life.