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)

8 comments… add one
  • I’m 76, and every day I notice how beartiful the world is.  I didn’t remember to do that when I was 25.  I’ll be sorry to leave it.

  • My heart goes out to you, Ruth. 

  • Donna Meadows Link

    Thank you for sharing these moments with us .   What a gutsy and  cool person Alana is.  I remember meeting her once and your words help me feel the loss of not having that experience again. 
    For me a poignant aspect of getting older is understanding clearly that this moment is all any of us have and that it could be the last and wanting to hold on, but understanding that holding on doesn’t work well either.

    Have a grand road trip!


  • Early seventies sounds young to me now.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I’m thinking about much of this while driving to California with our daughter.  This moment is all we have — and aren’t we fortunate to have it?  I think you can’t remind yourself of that too often.

  • M A Link

    I agree about older friends teaching you how to age.  I have several friends who are 30-40 years older than I am and I’ve said that about them many times, “They are teaching me how to grow older.”

    It is also true that the people who we are with when they pass on teach us how to die.  I’ve only had a couple of friends who have died and a few family members but as a nurse I’ve been with many people when they died and I’ve helped their family members through the transition.  The memories of these people have stayed with me over the years, too & I have learned much from them.  I have always felt that it was an honor to share these moments with people.  

    And that’s the thing, all we really have on this Earth are moments.  So taking the time to notice the sun, sky, & the sound of rustling leaves is what is important in a life.  That and loving the people who one feels closest to. 

    Oh yes, it is true that just as there are many ways to live a life, there are also multiple ways to pass from this life…

  • Ruth, I think of Warren Zevon’s advice, which was succinct: Enjoy every sandwich. 

  • You made me think of my Mom, who is now gone more than 6 years. I have only one regret – she wanted to talk about her impending death and I wouldn’t let her. We are very closed about the subject of death in this country. I wish I could do that one thing over, but I am grateful I have no other regrets where Mom is concerned.

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