Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Disconnect

I'm sure we all have had experiences where our thinking was disconnected from, say, common sense and reality. Much of this involves risks and consequences. When you're young and want a tan, you have a disconnect about melanoma and wrinkles. When you avoid brushing and flossing your teeth, you have a disconnect about how unappealing it is to see the dentist. People who smoke and drink excessively have temporary memory loss of what it means to get lung cancer, liver disease, or a ticket for OUI. You know that eating junk is going to lead to ill health and will eventually show up on the scale, but you focus on the immediate pleasure. For some reason, human logic and calculation is undermined when the temptation of the moment is strong.

Some of this, I think, ironically is just self preservation and protection. If you really and truly realized the risks and consequences of what you were doing, your emotions would probably explode with the horrible understanding. It is also human nature to want to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, concentrating on the here-and-now pleasure as opposed to future pain.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we talk about death - or don't talk about it. I was listening to a financial show on public radio a few weeks ago in which some experts were debating the necessity of buying long-term health care insurance, e.g., nursing home insurance. After much discussion, basically the recommendation came down to this: How long do you think you will live and how healthy do you think you will be?

I don't know a whole lot of people who like to sit around and wonder at what age they will die. It's not something high on the "feel good" list of things to daydream about. We don't like to think about our own deaths and we certainly don't like to think about deaths of those we love. And there's the disconnect. Our brains tell us that these things will happen, but if we seriously thought about the reality of it, our emotions would overpower us and we would end up angry, depressed, anxious, or even emotionally paralyzed.

I remember when Ed was at the bed of a dying AIDS patient in Tennessee. They had several discussions about what was to come, what to expect, fear, loss, pain, disappointment - the works. I remember Ed telling the young man, "You know, I'm going to die too. The only difference is, you know when it's coming for you."

It seems in the last few years, I've had some female friends die who I thought would be here forever. You know the kind - independent, sassy, overcoming-all-odds people. You can't imagine the world without their presence. These were strong women, all involved in music and highly talented, who would, I thought, would just each shake their fist at Death and say, "Not for me, buddy!" But it didn't happen. They lived long, productive lives (in one case, however, cut short), made so much a difference in their world, but Death finally took them and never once asked me for my opinion about the matter.

This week, my daughter-in-law's Gram died, and also my sister's dog Abbey died. Both were old, both had long, energetic, fruitful lives surrounded by people who loved them, and both were such presences that their families can't fathom a world without them. I remember I felt that way when my best friend, Bernie, died at age 49. I remember thinking several times that I needed to call her to tell her something, then it crushed me to remember she had passed on. Same thing with my wonderful dad - your parents gave you life and love - they will always be here....won't they? People (and pets) like these are so much a part of us that you just know they will be here forever. You've never known life without their love and care, and you can't imagine how empty and useless life will seem without their physical being here to hug and touch and talk to.

Death has been called The Great Equalizer, but it can also be called The Great Disconnect - and not because it disconnects us from our loved ones, but because when viewing death, we have a habit of disconnecting our brains from reality. But in my heart, I believe there is another reality. I believe that the souls of these people and pets live on, that Death is not the final answer, and that that love cannot die, even when the physical body has left us. Sure, it hurts to love when things like this happen, but this is the way life works. Memories are precious and healing. I think that is one of the cruelties of Alzheimer's and other dementias: They take away the victim's ability to recognize loved ones, and they erase all their beautiful memories that make her/him a human being.

I wish somehow as a society we could look upon Death as something natural, not necessarily welcome (but in some cases, it is), but inevitable. Death gives us a great gift. Knowing it will come, it makes life all the more precious, gives us realization that life itself is a fragile commodity, gives us the desire to define our legacy, and give us an opportunity to form and cherish the belief that it doesn't have the last word.

No comments: