When someone is the same age as me and dying, their situation has a heartache inducing fascination for me, a kind of ghost visiting from another realm telling me about time running out and asking me what I’m doing with my life. This has been the case no matter what age I have been, its not about the actual age I am, its about the reality of spending time with a person of my age who is dying and, more importantly, knows they are dying. I am curious about the experience, the emotional response and the emotional journey, the reflections and the regret and the making peace with the situation or, conversely, fighting the situation and screaming in rage at god or the universe or whatever you believe has put you in the situation you find yourself in.
This is different to my spending time with people who are younger than me and are dying, this causes a sadness which combines a maternal feeling of love and a sense of injustice. When I’m working with older people I tend to feel a little more comfortable with their dying the older they are. I know that there is a natural order to the life cycle and its one on which old people die after having had a long life, young people have a life ahead of them and people with young children shouldn’t die. That doesn’t mean I am unaffected by the death of anyone, young or old I am touched by the loss for them and for their family but each loss, each experience of death touches me in a different way, death is unique and so is our response to it.
I recently worked with a woman who was my age. Her illness was complex and there was no further treatment available for her. She had children the same age as my own and she had a husband and a cat and she had an average, ordinary life very much like mine. She had some of the same interests and hobbies as me, we liked some of the same music and films and we had passed some of the same milestones in life, in another setting we might have struck up a friendship but, we were brought together in a situation in which she was dying and I was one of her palliative care team.
When she was given her prognosis it came as a shock to her and her family, they had hoped that there would be treatment options, there were none and so the count down to death began. She was give facts about the prognosis of her disease and the effect it would have on her physical being and on her quality of life.
When we talked about what she wanted for her final months she had a “bucket list”, it included all manner of things, big and small, mundane and ambitious, a recurring theme on the list was visiting places she had always wanted to travel to but she was now too ill to travel, too dependent on small machines keeping her pain free and alive and too ill for travel insurance and so half of the bucket list plans were wiped out in an instant. She hadn’t travelled before because life got in the way, there was always some other demand on the money she was saving or she couldn’t get the time off work or one of her parents or children were ill, all manner of reasons why she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do at some other stage in life and so she put them off, she opted to do them “later”. We all have these things on lists, whether an actual list pinned to the fridge or a list in our heads, we all have stuff we want to do, stuff we thinks/hope/say/expect we will get round to doing but we don’t.
I’m not writing this to advocate that you seize the day and live your dreams nor am I writing it to tell you that I have been prompted into action and am working through a bucket list. Nothing life affirming happened and that’s the bit I find most interesting, I’m working with someone of my age, she’s got unfinished business, an incomplete list, a list she will never be able to complete and I can identify massively with that and I feel very emotional about the unfulfilled aspect of it all and the belief that the clock is ticking but it doesn’t prompt me to action, it doesn’t prompt me to change, why would that be?
I can only conclude at this moment that the reason I’m not prompted is the same reason every one of us isn’t prompted to live their lives more fully: we are surrounded by death and we don’t necessarily think death is coming for us, we think we will have time, we think time runs out for other people, we don’t think its coming today and we think there’s some kind of rational or logical process to death in that it comes when the time is right but what we think is the right time isn’t necessarily the right time for other people or the world or the Grim Reaper or who ever comes for us.
But, if we are doing it right we should have an incomplete list, not because we haven’t had chance to do things but because we want to do so very much that we don’t have time to cram it all in and we have a list of incomplete things because we have plans and hold onto at least a gram of optimism and because we are engaged in the world, filling life with the big and the small: running down hills, riding a bike, admiring art, reading books, eating cake, falling in love, finding the perfect t-shirt, dancing to The Damned, laying in the grass looking up at the sky, holding a tiny hand, laughing until you cry, forgiving, being warmed by the sun and drenched by the rain, wandering round the supermarket, shopping for records, talking about the new things in the world and looking at old buildings and watching cheesy American comedies and knowing that these things are at the core of living every day right up until we die.