Life and death are strange things. Or maybe it’s death that’s strange, at least to those of us who are still alive. A wise friend keeps saying we have to just accept the way things are, that we could go nuts trying to figure out the whys of it all, but since I seem to live on the edge of death (other people’s deaths, not mine), death and the process of getting there are often on my mind.
We start out as miniscule bits and pieces of two people, are born, grow from helpless infants to independent-minded children to independent and autonomous adults, finally ending up helpless again as our bodies deteriorate.
A few friends were talking the other day about all the nonagenarians in our lives, and someone asked what use they were. This is a question many of these aged folks themselves ask, so it’s not an insensitive question by any means. When there is nothing left to accomplish, when you can’t move about freely either mentally or physically, when you can no longer enjoy anything, not even your food because your taste buds have decamped, what use is there in living?
My 97-year-old father is “declining” as the doctors say, which is a cute euphemism for “slowly dying”. He could live a year or more, but still, everything is breaking down, even his normally sharp mind. He hates that he can’t think, hates that he can’t make instantaneous decisions, hates even more to have others make decisions for him. Even worse, he finds the situation embarrassing. I tell him, of course, that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, that it’s part of the process, but my words don’t make him feel any better about himself.
I don’t want to live to such a great age, and especially I don’t want to wind up helpless and dependent on strangers (I won’t have the benefit my father has of a caregiving daughter). My wise friend reminds me we have no choice in the matter, which is true. The only real choice we have is to live as well as we can as long as we can.
For a long time I’ve thought that if God is Everything, then we are the sensory cells of the Everything, feeling, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting life. And the poet Rilke seems to agree. He wrote, “It is our task to imprint this temporary perishable earth into ourselves, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again ‘invisibly’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
Maybe these nonagenarians are still gathering their invisible honey as best as they can, but even so, it doesn’t make it any easier watching the old get even older and feebler, gradually losing their touch on life.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.