When you’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you realize there are two different groups of people in the world. There are the sick and the healthy.
You already know about the healthy. (After all, you are a formerly healthy person yourself!) But, the longer you are sick, the more you learn about the healthy — and it isn’t good. They are so heedless, so superficial, so carefree. Since they are so ignorant of their own good fortune in being healthy, they don’t recognize their appalling arrogance in assuming they will always be healthy.
You don’t want to be too hard on them — even if they do say the stupidest things to you, like how your attitude is the most important thing, blah, blah, blah. You can remember how it was to be that foolish.
But now, being sick, you have been enlightened. You realize how precious and finite and delicate life is. Your eyes have been permanently opened. You take nothing for granted — not a minute, a breath, a smile. If only the healthy could understand what you understand. But, of course, they cannot.
There is a problem with your permanent enlightenment, though. If you are fortunate enough to become healthy again, it slowly begins to fade. You become — sadly! — similar to the blithe, thoughtless, healthy person you used to be.
Your old enlightenment returns at odd occasions, though, like checkups at the doctor’s office. It lasts long enough to give you a tantalizing glimpse of what you have lost — the vivid emotions, the fevered embrace of life, the gratitude for normalcy. But, if your news is good, it vanishes once again. You have returned to the other side, to life among the healthy. And do you really appreciate it? No, of course, you don’t.
The old enlightenment flares up at other times, too. You feel it when you have news of an old friend’s critical illness. How random and heartbreaking life is, you think. You will yourself to remember that, but you know you won’t succeed.
Instead, what you remember is your old friend and how you were young together when you were in grad school. Scenes shift through your mind — the country and western bar, where you all danced to Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, laughing and sweating and throwing back golden rivers of beer. The holiday break, the trip in an old green Volkswagen bug. Oh, yes.
You, the person who fails again and again at permanent enlightenment, know those days are long past, no matter what. But at least you’re finally smart enough to realize that a small piece of you and your memories and your hold on life will be extinguished by his death.
Is this another lesson — that there are only two groups of people, the quick and the dead? Hell if you know.
Godspeed is all you can think, even if you don’t believe in much of anything. You know this one is going to hurt.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about plan now for your ultimate sendoff