Trivial Pursuits: Life’s moments in an Emergency Room

In one of those moments in time, I found myself sitting in the waiting area in a hospital emergency room. The specifics are unimportant.

While I sat there, watching the slowly moving second hand struggle to make one revolution, I realized the absurd amount of time we waste on trivialities.

Sitting there for those passing hours, I engaged in the mindlessness of Facebook and email. Alternating between a debate over Trump vs. Obama and sorting through nonsense mail.

A family arrived ahead of a rescue bringing a loved one. The hospital paging system bellowed “CPR team to the CPR room” drowning out the sobs, uncertainty, and fading hope.

I tried not to intrude, but in such a small environment, with all the growing evidence of an unhappy end to the rescue run, I couldn’t help but notice the tears, the hugs, the hopeful looks, and the ones who understood the reality.

What drove this home was a moment after the family had all gathered, accepted the news, and started discussing the next steps.

Two young brothers came in, running to their grandfather as he fought back the tears. He tried to soothe their baptism into the reality of death by saying she was in a better place.

I don’t know if this was sudden or expected. A drawn-out struggle to the end or a quick exit. What I know is it made all the nonsense we waste time on not just silly, but obscene.

It won’t matter what President turns out great. It won’t matter what political philosophy proves most useful. It won’t matter if whatever party occupies the White House is the cause of the end. What will be, will be.  Not one word in cyberspace will make any difference at the moment of one’s death.

What will matter, is the time we lost worrying about the trivial when the things that matter were right in front of us and we missed it.

All those moments lost to the dust of life can never be regained.

In the last moments before they left the hospital. One young boy sat next to his grandfather, holding his hand.

One young man learning to face the realities of life and death and one husband facing the specter of regret for lost time.

Think about it while the time is yours to spend.

The Cremation Button

We all gather the same list during our lifetime. A list of family and friends who pass on before us. We do this until we join the list gathered by those who survive us.

Not planning to die is the one big lie we all secretly embrace. We know it’s not true, we see proof of the death of others that show it is not true, yet most choose not to plan for it.

We decided to bite the bullet (figuratively) and plan for those moments after we shed this mortal coil. Planning for the final trip. And, like most travel deals, the bargain is in early planning. We have chosen the pay before you go plan.

When it comes to dying, it is the one thing where planning to fail makes sense.

My timing on some things in this life has been impeccable. I am no longer a Catholic (I never enlisted, it was more involuntary servitude.) A wise and timely choice since I plan to be cremated and do not want my ashes held in trust by the church. I prefer a scattering along a wooded trail or sunny Caribbean beach to the perpetual storage at the C.C.C.C.C. (Crematorily Combusted Catholics Container Central.)

And what about those faithful departed who are already blowin’ in the wind? Is it necessary to reassemble them before the Judgement Day Jesus Reunion Tour?

Talk about where’s Waldo, now what?

Just a quick note, crematorily is a legitimate adverb. I checked with Donald Trump and he said it was, bigly.

But I digress.

There are a lot of choices to post-dying relocation. We settled on what is considered waterfront. Who knew death would offer me the chance to have waterfront property, albeit 4 square feet?

On a positive note, the DOA (Dead Occupant Association) fees include landscaping so I do not have to worry about cutting the grass or raking leaves. All included.

I wanted to have a Viking style cremation, but that is no longer allowed. Local fire departments have a zero-tolerance policy for such things. But, just in case some of my enterprising friends want to experience it, there is an option.

At the Swan Point Crematorium, they have what I consider to be a final exit worthy of the gods.

Self-service cremation.

Family and friends gather for the brief ceremony. There’s a big screen TV to display images of the deceased or the Patriots game depending on the timing. After all the nice words are said, the tears are shed, and poems are read they proceed into a small parlor area with a smoked (no pun intended) glass wall.

The funeral director, under the watchful eye of the family, guides the recently deceased in the combustible container to the adjacent room.

The light comes on, the smoked glass clears, and the entourage watches as the cardboard encased deceased is placed on a conveyor belt.

Now, here’s the best part. There’s a button on the wall. A very special button. This button, once pressed, initiates the final journey into the flames of the crematorium.

It’s a Burger King flame-broiled style Disney ride to the ashes to ashes part of the circle of life. A window to passing on through a flame fueled final journey. Designed for those doubting Thomas’s who mistrust everyone, yet offering an amusing end for those with friends with senses of humor.

Mine will fight for the chance.

Imagine the soundtrack possibilities. Highway to Hell, Fire and Rain, Light My Fire

I bet I could sell tickets for the opportunity to push the button. Might help defray the cost of the post-death open bar.

We have finalized the final plan. Set up the passing on ceremony. Memorialized our last choices so those whose list we join won’t have to.

With the plan in place, family and friends can gather together, warm themselves by the fire (I have no objections to marshmallow roasting), raise a Guinness, and say a few last words about me, such as;

Thank goodness, I hope the blog died with him.

Requiescat in flambé

 

 

The Inconvenience of Death

As a writer, I often cannot control the voices in my head. They run Helter-Skelter from one thought to another. When one strives to write, you often find yourself more a spectator or passenger. Rare to have any control at all.

It was thus that, amid writing a piece for a weekly blog called the Heretic and the Holy Man, I started thinking about how inconvenient most deaths are.

It is not often that a death occurs without interrupting someone’s plans, altering the course of one or more days, or disrupting the general pattern of living. This is never inconvenient for the deceased. His part is over. The inconvenience, no matter how unintentional, is with those left behind. My parents taught me to be considerate of others, I thought it appropriate that I leave a message for those who survive me.

I do not want to cause any inconvenience.

Now, do not read anything into this. I have not received any dire medical news, I am not clinically depressed, I have no omens of my death, I just do not want to inconvenience anyone once I do leave this mortal coil.

I have a goal for a long life. I plan to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest living human. If successful, I will achieve this goal sometime in the year 2079. The current record is a French woman who lived to be 122 years and 194 days.

Even that may not be long enough to read all the books on my Kindle or work on the thousands of ideas I have for stories to write.

I have often said I want to die on my birthday, for no particular reason other than symmetry. If I achieve both goals my memorial will read;

Born July 25, 1956
Died July 25, 2079

It’s good to have a goal, but I also know reality may intrude. In the event I don’t beat the odds, no matter how unlikely, I’d like to leave some rules behind for family and friends after my death.

1.           If you are on a Caribbean beach when you hear the news, DO NOT LEAVE. There is no need to rush home. I am already dead. (A more important point is, if you are on a Caribbean Beach WHY are you getting messages?)  Order another drink, lie in the sun, and enjoy life.

2.           If you are at work when the news arrives. Notify a co-worker that you have to leave immediately. Tears would be helpful in convincing them of the urgency. Then, fly to a Caribbean Beach and refer to #1.

3.           If you are at home and the news arrives, there is no need to change whatever plans you might have. Since the instigating incident (Mortem meam, my death for those of you who didn’t benefit from five years of Latin) is a fait accompli, there is nothing you can do about it. Go out to dinner, meet with your remaining living friends, go on with life.

Dying is an inconvenient aspect of life. It rarely occurs with any consideration for the living. Sometimes death poses a threat to others. If it occurs, say, while you are driving a car or school bus (just picture the look on all those little faces as the bus careens along without a living operator.)

It would seem if intelligent design was responsible for our existence, there is a design flaw.

Death should always occur during sleep, preferably while sleeping alone or  when your sleeping companion is already awake (but hasn’t started breakfast, no need to waste food.)

Death comes with the timing of an uncontrollable fart in polite company. It sneaks up on you, rudely announces its presence, and then you begin to stink.

Our world of instant communication complicates the problem. Between Tweets and Facebook and Instagram the last breath has barely escaped and notices are flying around the world.  It was better when it took years for the news to spread, less intrusive to life.

Here’s another of those random thoughts. Someone needs to come up with an icon for a Facebook status of croaked.  But I digress. (The voices just won’t stop.)

So as a favor to the (at the moment) still living me, take this request to heart. To those of you whom, in some small measure, I have made your life more enjoyable, continue to enjoy that life. Altering plans due to an inevitable element of existence makes little sense. Mourn if you must, but do it for the briefest of moments.

There’s no time to waste. Everyone’s death is imminent in a relative sort of way.

Embrace the living, walk in the rain, lay on a Caribbean beach absorbing the warm sun. The most touching thing you can do to remember those who are no longer here to share life is embracing your own.

In mortem, et finem. In vitae, spem. (You’re still alive. Look it up.)

Appreciating the Magic of Memory

Most people misunderstand how memory works. We think of it as a recording of our daily lives. It is not. It is a compendium of images, sounds, smells, and tastes; voices, conversations, laughter, and feelings; moments of ecstasy and sorrow, joy and tears, the common and the unique.

We don’t record our memories, we ingest them. They become the spark that lights up the synapses and neurons of our brain.

It is why the smell of freshly mowed grass sparks a memory of Little League baseball game from long ago.

It is why the sight of a school bus triggers the echoes of a loud end-of-school song sung endlessly home on the last day of fourth grade.

It is how the taste of cranberry sauce ignites the memory of a conversation with a long dead grandfather.

It is why we recall all the words of a song we haven’t heard in years when we see the ocean.

It is how we remember voices of friends and the experiences we shared.

Our memories aren’t part of us. Our memories are us. They make us what we are today and how we will change tomorrow.

It is one of the things which defines our individuality. Even those seemingly shared experiences; first love, graduation, flying on a plane, catching the final out of a championship game are seen in our own unique way.

I had a moment today to lie in the grass with my daughter’s dog and just watch the clouds wink in and out of formation. Taking on shapes. Morphing into creatures or food or faces.

Something I recall doing often in my youth.

With all the distractions in the world, I do not think we take enough time to simply look up at the clouds. To watch a wind-blown spider web jump in and out of visibility. To see sunlight catching the needles of a pine tree, changing the hue through the whole spectrum of green.

When was the last time you took a moment to lie in the grass and look at the sky?

When was the last time you listened to the memories in your mind as they linked and jumped and danced in your brain?

When was the last time you took a moment to listen to yourself breath? Let the sun warm your face? Felt the breeze wash over you?

Don’t think you have time for such things? All too soon, you may find you were right.

The Border of Innocence

The other day, we were moving some things around in our condo. One of the tasks involved emptying a chest full of photo albums, relocating the chest, and then placing the albums back inside. There wasn’t any time for reminiscing, but one picture caught my eye.

A solitary color photo of a 12-year old me slipped from whatever album it was in.

For those of us from the pre-digital image age, the familiar date stamp is visible on the left of the photo in the surrounding white border.

August 1968.photo

The picture captured me standing alongside a river in New Hampshire proudly holding up a fish.  The fish is barely bigger than my hand. Nevertheless, I was proud of my angling abilities.

My father took the picture. It was during a family vacation, staying in a cabin in the White Mountains near Lake Chocorua New Hampshire.

One of the first of many days I would spend over my lifetime there. A glimpse of the early moments of my explorations in those mountains, rivers, and lakes.

Yet, when I saw the picture, I realized it also captured the last moments of my innocence. My last few moments before I faced the reality of life’s fleeting and fickle ways.

Mere moments after that image was taken, we heard a loud crash. The sounds of shattering glass and twisting, crushing metal filled the air.

My father took off running toward the sound, me behind him trying to keep up. A short distance away, around a slight bend in the road, we came upon the source of the noise.

A small car rammed into a tree, angled up. There was glass everywhere, steam rose from the ruptured radiator, the smell of hot oil and gasoline permeated the air.

I didn’t notice any of this until much later. My eyes focused on the two young girls, not much younger than me, splayed on the hood.

Pale skin contrasted against the blood. It was an unfamiliar skin tone, yet I knew instinctively this was a sign of impending death.

One of the girls was partially through the windshield, her momentum arrested by the sharp glass.  The other was on the hood, arms and legs bent in unnatural shapes.

My father called me over, taking my hand and showing me how to put pressure on the area of blood pumping from the leg of the girl on the hood. I did as I was told, oblivious to the other things happening.

Then, I heard the screams.  I turned to look. A woman, pinned by the steering wheel, reaching for her girls, looked at me from a blood-covered face.

Much of the memory is clouded and faded. It is said each time we recall a memory we change it a bit. I don’t recall I ever found out what happened to them.  I don’t recall leaving the scene. I don’t recall ever even speaking about it again with anyone.

When I saw the picture, I remembered the feeling of things changing. I knew that image captured a moment in time. Those last moments before my loss of innocence.

Focusing on Death: Missing an Opportunity

It is the most common of human experiences, dealing with the death of a family member, friend, or others who affected your life.

I think we make a mistake when we focus on the tragedy of death. Death is one of two things every human being shares. Better that we come to accept this.

Since we all die, and none of us knows what the experience entails, I think we miss an opportunity to gain something positive from death.

It does not matter how one dies. The manner of death is like the weather, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Why rage against something so outside our ability to change?

What does matter is how one lived. Focusing on their death masks the real loss; the missed opportunities when they were alive. That is not to say we should not mourn, but we can give the natural state of mourning a purpose.

When someone dies, the living bear the loss. For those who have passed on, all opportunities are gone. The greatest lesson we can learn from someone’s death is to appreciate the living. To focus the time you have on things that really matter.

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that people could survive the most horrendous conditions if they have a reason to live. Focusing on things beyond their control is useless.

Frankl’s experience in the camps taught him this; the one thing that no one can take from you is your choice of how you respond to the course of your life.

This would include dealing with death.

Most of the things we focus on, the material things, are secondary to living. Finding meaning is the key to life. Meaning cannot come from death. Yet a reason to bring something more into your own life, and the life of others, can.

Death in inevitable. Raging against such a certainty is folly. Deriving something good from it is enpowering.

In the wake of someone’s death, we need to focus our efforts on finding meaning in our lives and to give meaning to those we hold dear.

Death should remind us to live, not waste time raging against it. The sadness that comes with someone dying lies not in mourning the death but in mourning the missed opportunities when they lived.

Sometimes our blind trudging through our day overshadows the days of our life. Often our focus on the things of this world, jobs, money, the accumulation of things, detours us from living. The things we accumulate are nothing but the dust of life. They are the flotsam and jetsam of existence.

Lost opportunities are what death so starkly points out. Therein lies the sadness, and hope.

Imagine the important, breathtaking moments of our lives are like the stars on a crisp dark night. The enormity of the vision is powerful and vibrant.

Now picture the stars on a bright sunny blue-sky day. They are all still there, still amazing. Yet we cannot see them. Blinded by what seems to be a beautiful day.

Such are the many things we do in our lives. They may bring us some sense of satisfaction, some sense of value. Give us some measure of self-worth. Nevertheless, when the light fades and the stars show themselves, those bright things of the day pale in comparison.

When someone dies, we should celebrate their life, learn from those missed opportunities, and resolve to embrace those moments still left to you.

Frankl also wrote, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.” Choosing to find meaning in our lives, through the things we do and the people we touch, is what matters.

There is no greater memorial to those who have died than embracing the living. To find meaning in our lives and to share that with others.

When I die, if those who remember me say that I learned to do just that. That I tried to embrace my time as best I could. That I found meaning in my life and shared it with others. Then that is a life worth celebrating. Death is simply part of the process. Rather than something we mourn, death should remind us to live.

 

I was Just Wondering

Did you ever wonder at what point you will realize you’re dead, or if there even is such a realization.

Some people see their imminent demise.

Some are looking in the opposite direction.

Some try everything to avoid the inevitable.

Some try to hasten it.

So what does one think about?

Regrets?

Joys?

Lost opportunities?

Successes?

Failures?

Vodka?

Or some combination thereof?

I believe it likely that most people in the “civilized” countries think,

“Now?”

“Really?”

“I just (fill in the blank)”

or

“But I just got (fill in the blank again)”.

And most people in those “third-world” areas think

“Finally”

I would like to die on my birthday. Not a specific birthday, preferably one in the distant future.

And not to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It would also make the Date of Birth and Date of Death symmetrical, at least the first two designators.

I would like this for no reason other than it allows me to live 364 days a year without considering Death in my daily list concerns.

No fear of not waking up, being trampled, struck by lightning, head ballet on a windshield, infections, heart attacks, shark attacks, bears, alligators, spider bites, food poisoning, or the several billion other ways to die.

Why do I suggest there are billions of ways?

Every person who ever lived, did, and every person alive, will. It is a reasonable conclusion that, absent evidence to the contrary, regardless how long life expectancy increases, everyone yet to be born, will as well.

If everyone died at the moment I finished this sentence it would be 7,023,088,208 deaths (June 29, 2012 21:05 UTC). All would be unique in time and space (well in space at least).

While there may be general similarities, accidental or on purpose, personal or random, public or private, each will be different.

The difference, other than the mechanics of death, is some are celebrated, some are mourned, some are ignored, and a very few are remembered.

Unfortunately, we tend to remember the death of those who embodied evil, rather than those who died at the hands of the evil.

So, if all goes well. I can write another 26 days worth of blogs, pause for 24 hours on July 25, just in case, and resume for another year.

Or I could write on the 25th, assuming I wake up, and hopefully it won’t end like thi……………………………..

Requiesecat in Pace