We laughed a lot the first time I saw her after her diagnosis.
“I just got a reminder card from the dentist,” she said. “And I realized I’ll never have to go to the dentist again!”
She had also lived long enough to see Obama elected — but probably wouldn’t be around long enough to witness his inevitably disappointing us, I pointed out.
Her name is Alana and she’s 12 or 15 years older than I am, in her early seventies. I’ve known her for 10 years. Often, when we had lunch together, I’d think to myself that she was teaching me how to age well. She stayed intellectually engaged, well-read and sharply opinionated. She had health problems, but she rarely complained about them. She lived as well and fully as anyone could have, fiercely devoted to her husband, sons and their families. She was always well-dressed, with manicured hands. (That’s it, I thought. When the face gets a little rough, concentrate on the hands.)
“I’ve had a great life,” she said after the doctor delivered his grim diagnosis. “I’ve always had everything I wanted in life. And now I’m going to die.”
It was such a bittersweet relief to me that she talked openly and freely about her death. Of my friends who have died, many of them could never bear to talk about it. We always pretended time was limitless and modern-day medicine could still work its miracles — even though we knew that wasn’t true. In my experience, I’ve seen that people die as individually and idiosyncratically as they live; who knows, maybe even more so.
Alana had already had a stroke that had destroyed her lower field of vision. She tired easily and her hearing had deteriorated. When I saw her two weeks ago, I mentioned that maybe it was better to leave this life too early, rather than too late. I was thinking, then, of my father, who’s lived in a facility for almost nine years, his mind destroyed by Alzheimer’s. I was thinking, too, that I’d rather leave too early than too late. Or at least so I tell myself.
Today, when I saw her, Alana was alert, but incoherent. She’d already begun taking her leave from the people who love her. So we sat and held hands and I tried to tell her, again, how much I’d loved her and treasured our friendship. I knew I wouldn’t see her again, since my daughter and I are leaving tomorrow to drive to her new job and residence in Palo Alto, California.
Driving home, I looked out on a day that was beautiful, with a bright sun and brilliant blue sky. I thought of my usual stark, irresolvable confusion when it comes to death: How can a person simply disappear? And yet and yet — I noticed the beauty of the world around me much more acutely than I do ordinarily.
How to get around it? Oh, hell, you can’t. Death makes our lives more precious.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)