Dealing with the Cycle of Life in the Physical Universe
Recently, my husband, Bill, and I spent an hour with his doctor talking about whether the time had come to consider hospice care for him. It is hard to explain the effect it had on us to catalog the many ways in which his body has entered the cycle of life where decay starts to take center stage. My husband participated in this discussion of the abilities he has lost, the bodily functions that are becoming difficult to control, the ways in which his brain can no longer keep up with the demands of living. It was a brutal but necessary discussion and it could have been held without Bill in the room but he chose to take part in it. Bill has an extraordinary ability to confront the parts of life that most of us avert our eyes to avoid seeing. But the time spent in that room did take a heavy toll on both of us and, after the discussion was over and the decisions had been made, we needed to find a way to return to a place where we could find some sense of fulfillment and peace in our lives. This story is about how we managed to do that in spite of the harsh realities we are facing.
My husband and I love to have philosophical discussions about why we are on Planet Earth at this time; what the purpose of our journey here is; whether we cease to exist or live on as spirits when our bodies die; and why this place, in so many ways, is a violent, unforgiving planet. I believe, for example, that love and compassion are extremely important qualities to focus on developing and yet, the needs of this body of mine dictate that I regularly have to eat other species to help my own body survive. (Yes, as the accompanying photo shows, I include vegetables as a species: just because I can’t hear a tomato scream when I eat it doesn’t mean it is happy to be served for lunch.)
All those nature shows on television are wonderful until they get to the scene where the lions start chowing down on Bambi or the industrious ant colony gets crushed under a falling rock. Then the true nature of the planet and its inhabitants becomes apparent: it is often a cold, seemingly cruel, and painful place to live. It is hard to reconcile stories about the loving God who cares for every living thing and stories about the vengeful God who appears to smite folks regularly. Especially if I, or a person I love, seem to be the person being smitten. Add that confusion to the fact that some days I feel like the rock (intentionally or unintentionally) and other days I feel like the ant (this last statement is probably influenced by the invasion of ants we had in our kitchen recently and the harsh but effective way I dealt with the problem).
Don’t even get me started on the hardship of living in a society where youth and beauty are worshiped and signs of aging are greeted with fear and disgust. Some cultures manage to show a little more respect for elders but our culture doesn’t excel at doing that. How can people feel a sense of fulfillment in the final fifteen percent of their lives when they reach the part of the cycle in a physical universe like ours where the periods of growth and maintenance are past and the beginnings of decay are approaching or are already here. Analytically I know that decay is a necessary and welcome part of the cycle if the planet is to be able to renew itself regularly. It’s a little harder to accept the fact that part of that renewal might include getting rid of me. Clearly some of the planet’s creatures don’t share our discomfort with the sight of decay. If certain insects and animals didn’t show up to feast on the remains of the dead, the planet would become horribly cluttered with decaying bodies. Thank goodness for the vultures in life. But when we identify only with our aging bodies, life can seem very grim indeed.
So there we were after that visit to the doctor, trying to come to terms with things like the estimate of the time Bill’s body might continue to live and how many new caregiving skills I might need to acquire. It seemed appropriate to spend a little time grieving. We might analytically know that no one lives forever but that doesn’t change the fact that getting an estimate of the remaining time (or the lack thereof) left on our warranty is a disturbing experience. After a few tears though, we started to see the humorous side of things too. Florence Nightingale I’m not. As a caregiver, I might rate a C+ at best; maybe a B- if the person judging is feeling generous. And as a patient, Bill leaves a lot to be desired too. He is often cranky and doesn’t follow his doctor’s orders very well (or my orders either, not that I’m bossy or anything). The mental picture of me kindly and competently tending to Bill’s every need was worthy of a few laughs.
The process of recovering from the shock so we could again focus on how to fit some fun into the final fifteen percent of our lives was made easier by the fact that we both have an advantage that not everyone does. When Bill was a young man just finishing his time in the Navy, he was in a motor vehicle accident. It was over 110 degrees in the shade that day as he was riding in a panel truck in Fresno, CA. Bill was thrown from the vehicle when it crashed and he landed more than 20 feet away on pavement hot enough that it left burn scars on the exposed portions of his body. A part of his skull was crushed by the impact and a serious brain injury was the result. For the next three weeks, Bill’s body was in a coma in the hospital hovering between life and death. But Bill himself was busy having a “wonderful near-death experience” during much of that time.
To this day, Bill has a vivid memory of the experiences he had while his body lay immobile. It left him with the absolute certainty that he is a spiritual being who will survive the death of the body. He awoke from the coma feeling refreshed and full of wonder (unlike his parents who were a bit stressed out by that time). He genuinely does not fear death although, not unlike me, he does have some concerns about the process of getting there. I haven’t had a near-death experience but, in the many years I worked as a trauma counselor, I heard many people describe their own experiences. Long before the wonderful books that have been written on the subject became available, I was hearing the most amazing tales from my clients. So while I don’t claim to know exactly what will happen when my body dies, like Bill, I don’t fear the death of the body, only the pain that might occur along the way to arriving at the pearly gates (or wherever it is I am destined to go).
Once we had discussed our upset over the fact that we might not get to celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary together, and our laughter over the picture of me becoming a first-class caregiver and Bill becoming a first-class patient, we naturally gravitated to a discussion of just who was going to be waiting to greet Bill when he made it to the other side. This was exactly the right topic for the two of us to talk about. It was important to focus on the fact that death is the end of a journey here on earth but just the beginning of an even more exciting journey. People’s religious beliefs might influence their opinions of just what that journey will involve but there are bound to be some similarities in what is discussed by anyone in our position. In my youth, I studied the world’s great religions extensively. What amazed me were the similarities, not the differences, in what was taught in each religion. My own personal opinion is that a loving higher power has repeatedly tried to help us out down here and that the message might have been altered a bit by the person delivering it, but the essence was the same. What we have done with the message since the original delivery is another story. Our ability to warp the message over time is amazing, but at the core of each set of beliefs, I saw strikingly similar concepts.
Bill’s older brother, Ben, died when he was only 38 years old. Bill was very close to his brother and he is convinced Ben will be first in line to greet him when he gets to the other side. Ben would be the perfect person to take Bill on a tour of the universe as seen from the other side. They shared mechanical talents and a strong interest in how everything works. Who better to explain to Bill the mysteries of the universe? The best part of our conversation is that it helped Bill focus on an exciting future that extended endlessly in front of him no matter what happened to his physical body. Talking about his excitement at seeing his brother again and at getting the grand tour effectively helped Bill recover from the events of that morning’s visit to the doctor more than any other subject could have. And I recovered by listening to his excitement and joy at what lay in his future.
Once Bill had exhausted that subject, we switched to talking about how we could cram all the fun we still intend to have in this stage of our lives into the time remaining. That conversation was surprisingly cheerful too. The day that had started out so stressfully ended up being wonderful. I’m not foolish enough to think we won’t need to cover the same ground again as life progresses. After all, Bill’s dementia guarantees he won’t remember everything we talked about for long although I have observed that discussions about spiritual topics tend to stick with him much longer than a memory of what he ate for lunch. I won’t mind at all discussing these subjects many times in the future however. It is therapeutic for me as well.
All of us have to face this kind of situation at some point in our lives, with parents, friends, partners, and other loved ones. I wonder how others have recovered from the kind of discussion we had with Bill’s doctor. I especially wonder how someone who feels the death of the body is the end of their existence recovers. I would love to hear about the experiences of anyone reading this post and how they managed to deal with the reality of the finite nature of physical bodies.