Thursday, January 31, 2008
My Uncle Mike passed away last Sunday, January 27th, from cancer. It was almost six years to the day after his son died from cancer. At the age of 20, my cousin, Chris, died January 28, 2002. Uncle Mike was in his early sixties. Both died before their time, if you ask me.
Uncle Mike had always been healthy and full of life. He was a physical therapist who ran marathons. In fact, he was so passionate about running that he ran nearly every day of his life. He also loved cars, football, wind surfing, camping, and the outdoors, so you can imagine how devestating it was for him to have the tumors in his spine paralyze him.
It's difficult to make sense of his death, although I wouldn't be surprised if the death of his only son was a contributing factor. Chris's death was such a severe blow to the whole family. Coping with the death of a loved one seems to be a skill that escapes most of us. We all die. It's part of life. Logically, you would think that because of familiarity, eventually coping and accepting death would get easier as we get older. Instead it's the other way around. The longer we live, the harder it is, because our bonds grow deeper, and our appreciation for life grows stronger. It seems to go against the very nature of our own survival instinct to accept the death of a loved one. Yet, if we don't find a way to cope and move on, we put our own lives in peril.
I am speaking from my own pain, and my inability to let go of guilt stemming from my husband's death. I don't want to let go of the guilt, because I feel like it's the only way to hold on to him, even though reason dictates that's insane. It goes deeper than conscious reason to a subconscious level. It's affecting my health, and I'm not the first to have this battle.
I watched Uncle Mike struggle with his own mortality as I helped with his care during his final days. He would say to me, "I just need to get to where I can stand and pivot for transfer." This is a physical therapist's term for what a patient needed to be able to do before going home. To me, his words are so poetic. He needed to find his own way to prepare for his death. He needed to stand and fight it in order to prepare for it.
Of course, all that we, his family, wanted was for him to be able to go peacefully without a lot of suffering. We didn't want him to have to struggle and fight, because we couldn't stand to see him in pain. Death was inevitable for him at this point, and he knew it, but still he fought it. We tried to do everything we could so that he wouldn't have this struggle, like pain medication, moving him, stretching his legs, and emotional support. I know that he deeply appreciated everything we did for him, but he wanted to fight. He wanted to "stand and pivot for transfer".
One day while he lay sleeping, I tried to imagine myself in his place. What would it be like to know that I'd never be able to do what I love most [in his case, run], or to know that everything I spent my whole life working for would soon just be a memory in the hearts of those who loved me? The feeling of hopelessness that suddenly overwhelmed me was too acute to fathom. Like a reflex reaction when touching a flame, I pushed the thought as far away from me as possible. I wondered, "by wanting him to be peaceful and without pain, are we asking him to give up?" Sometime after getting home here in Houston, I thought, "I'd rather die fighting, than give up."
Everything about death and dying is contrary to life, yet it's part of life. Reconciling the two is very complex. I don't know how it can be done without some kind of spiritual belief. Uncle Mike had his faith, and I don't think he had any fears about what was going to happen to him after his death. It went against his nature, though, to give up, and it went against ours to watch him suffer or let him go. There's a desperate need to reconcile the two.
Today, my family will be celebrating his life with a memorial service complete with Jimmy Buffet music [he was a "parrot head"], Badger paraphernalia [University of Wisconsin], and photos of him. I won't be able to be there, because I live so far away, but it sounds like a good way to start the coping process.
This is how I want to remember you, Uncle Mike.