Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Spring Day's Thoughts About Death

Today I accompanied my spouse to have one of those tests that, according to the medical establishment, ensures that adults of a certain age will stave off death until...whenever.

In the waiting room, I thought about the situation.  Here I was, sitting comfortably and assuming that after the procedure we would drive home and have lunch and a nap and then get on with our lives.  But what if the procedure took longer than expected, and then I was called into another room, and had to wait for the doctor, and he finally came and made sure I was sitting down before he said the unthinkable?  It was entirely possible.  After all, that is what these tests on asymptomatic people are for.

Year after year, as I tie on the soft cotton gown in preparation for my regular mammogram, the same thoughts run through my head:  this is no big deal;  on the other hand....

We carry the seeds of our own death inside our body.  They are waiting for the right combination of light, temperature, hormones and whatever else to put out their malignant rootlets and cotyledons and eventually bloom and destroy us.  And all that doctors can do is to try their best to uproot these sprouts before they do us in, the way I pull up garden weeds in the spring before they get big.

Meditations on mortality are not new to me.  Decades before I qualified for a mammogram I would kneel at the altar rail once a year to hear the priest mutter "pulvus eris, et pulvus reverteris" ("thou art dust...") as he traced an ashen cross on my forehead.  In school, beginning at age twelve, we had annual spiritual retreats whose purpose was to remind us that, despite our surging hormones, we were vowed to death.  And before that, shortly after I learned to speak, I was taught to ask the Mother of God morning and night to pray for me now, and at the hour of my death, amen.

In this secular age, it is up to the medical establishment to remind us, through their choreography of blood tests, colonoscopies, EEGs, mammograms and sonograms, that we are dust.  They don't put it that way, of course, it being their purpose to stave off as long as possible the dwindling into dust.  But as we sit in waiting rooms reading cheery articles about eating healthy and staying young through exercise, the hour of dust grows closer every day.

The problem with the medical approach is that it doesn't tell us what to do about the eventual turning into dust--it just tries to postpone it for as long as possible.  But we all know that one day, no matter how carefully we have exercised, eaten anti-oxidants, and gone for check-ups, the doctor will call us in and make sure we're sitting down before he speaks.

The approach I knew in my early years, on the other hand, was full of helpful hints.  No matter how young you were, you became aware of the inevitability of death.  Having done that, you could devote yourself to ensuring that what came after death would be as good as possible (and it could, you were told, be very good).  And at any moment you could pray for assistance, as in "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and in the hour of our death.  Amen."

We  are in such an in-between era.  The old solutions are gone, for the most part, and what do we have in their stead?  Tests and more tests, and an anti-oxidant-rich diet, and lots of exercise....

BTW, my spouse is fine.  Or I wouldn't be writing this.

4 comments :

  1. Just to argue, I think some of the testing has to do with quality of life while we are still living breathing dust (or, from the star trek episode, "ugly bags of mostly water"). The EEG they did to Maeve, for instance, looking for suspicious brain activity (and didn't find it, thank God).

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  2. And Dog likes this , especially the next to last paragraph!

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  3. This is very thought-provoking. I have these thoughts most frequently now about my mother, and my in-laws. But I also have them about my husband, and myself as I get mammograms and mole checks and other tests that I know are important given genetics etc. I think these thoughts kick in sometime during our 40s, then just get louder each year.

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  4. Bridgett, yes, that's why I keep having the tests. "Ugly bag[s]of mostly water"--that's how I feel sometimes.

    mrb, you mean the exercise part?

    Mali, sometimes I think it must have been easier in the pre-test era, when people just went along unsuspectingly until they died.

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