Grieving the Past and Future
This body of mine has always been a pretty good one: I have enjoyed good health and good intelligence. I have kept the body in good condition over the years through a variety of physical activities--bicycling, hiking, and contra-dancing among others. I remain as intellectually active now as ever. I started learning Russian at age 50, so I could become a translator, and I still accept translation assignments. I authored and published a book when I was 67.
Thus, as my 70th birthday came and went, I could still keep up on the bicycling and on the dance floor with most guys in their 40s. The only giveaway of my true chronological age is my skin, which shows the wrinkles and spots typical for a person who's spent much of a long life exposed to sunlight. I'm also more bald than not-- but my hair started thinning noticeably when I was 18, and had progressed to a substantial bald spot by the time I was 30, so perhaps that does not count.
When I was 73 (a year and half ago), I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The doctor giving me the diagnosis pointed out that the word “chronic” in the name is the “good news”; that because the disease progresses slowly, something else is likely to carry me off before the CLL does, in view of my age.
Okay, no big deal, I felt.
Then I found myself unable to bicycle up moderate hills that previously were not a challenge for me. I could no longer manage the rather aerobic contra-dancing, which I could previously do all evening without a break. I was often too tired for sex in the evening, although previously I had continued to enjoy an active sex life with both my wife and (being polyamorous) with a secondary lover.
CLL introduces faulty red blood cells into the blood stream, crowding out the healthy cells, which are the carriers of oxygen to the muscles, organs, and other tissues. In spite of a lifetime of cardiovascular and pulmonary conditioning, I found myself panting for breath after only modest exertion. More recently, I have often been short of breath for a number of minutes after no exertion at all or after a meal, as blood and oxygen are diverted to the stomach. I must now sleep or otherwise be resting in bed from 10 to 13 hours out of 24, usually. My body weight has dropped more than 10 kilos in recent months--without my trying. Much of that, I'm sure, has been muscle mass, although my belt cinches to a tighter
hole now, reflecting some welcome loss of my modest paunch.
CLL also damages the immune system, making me more vulnerable to infectious diseases. In December 2014, I developed a cold--rare for me in itself. The cold did not clear up, but deepened into a more substantial respiratory distress. I ended up spending eleven days in the hospital in January, where the respiratory distress was diagnosed as
pneumonia. It nearly killed me at one point.
I should note in passing that there is a glimmer of light in this picture: My oncologist has promised to put me on a recently developed new pharmaceutical for CLL chemotherapy, which he says has shown very encouraging results in its initial clinical trials. He tells me the odds 12 are quite good that within six months I'll be feeling the way I did 3 years ago--i.e.
I am also watching my partner and wife, Deborah, as she slides downhill in her own health. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease seven years ago (at age 54, rather younger than usual for that disease). She now walks with very slow, short steps with a cane (the “Parkinson's shuffle”) and has constant generalized pain and progressing numbness in some extremities. She also tires quickly.
My grief is therefore primarily for my lost vigor, and loss of the things that I have most enjoyed in my life, and for the loss of much of what I have enjoyed sharing with Deborah. There is also a prospective grief, as Deborah and I both realistically anticipate the end of this physical life for both of us, probably in the nearer rather than more remote future, and prepare for it by getting our advance directives and testamentary wills in order, getting rid of many of our possessions and other things.
Deborah and I both know (don't just “believe in,” but know) that consciousness is the basic reality of the universe and that our existence will continue in another realm after these physical bodies (designed to cease functioning after some time, after all) have served their purpose and have been sloughed off. So there is no fear of physical death, nor even trepidation or anxiety. Indeed, we have already visited these realms during this physical lifetime as part of some shamanic training that we both received, as well as other experiences.
The feeling is perhaps comparable to that of college seniors as graduation time approaches, knowing that they will never again see most of their friends and lovers even as they excitedly look forward to their adult lives out in the general world following graduation. Their knowledge and anticipation of what is to come does little to lessen the poignancy of the
impending loss of their life as students.