Before Your Time

Everyone goes through times when they fear death. I just saw an article in one of this morning's papers about the actor Patrick Swayze's fight with pancreatic cancer. He talks about the fear. Then I read another article by Jim Atkinson in the Times, in the Alcohol and American Life series. Atkinson recalls the epiphany he had his third day in rehab. He asked about a fellow rehabber who had disappeared and the therapist explained that he had just died as a result of complications from his heroin addiction. The therapist told him, "This business about this stuff killing you is not just a slogan." How true. Atkinson decided he didn't want to die. I am reminded this morning, with a mixture of sadness and affection, of a friend and an acquaintance who have died in recent years, Mary and Stoney. Stoney was an alcoholic. He was a little younger than me. A very nice guy, but with some serious demons. I remember him talking real nonsense and sometimes it was scary. There were times when he seemed to be doing real well and in those periods he was a sweet guy with a gentle touch. He hadn't been successful with formal schooling but he was smart. Then one day he snapped and put an end to his life with a gun. He had appeared to become isolated in the days and weeks before that, so maybe it's true that people do die of loneliness. (It requires an effort to attend to others with the respect and dignity they deserve. It's easy to be dismissive - I don't know you, I'm not interested, you're full of shit, I don't care... How often we fail. I'd better stay connected. That, of course, is my true good fortune-the human connectedness. Save the physical suffering of a child, I can think of nothing sadder than a disconnected individual. No doubt that is why Goya's incredible painting of the semi-buried dog sends such a chill through me.) Mary was a good friend and a dear soul with a tremendous sense of humor and an infectious laugh. I can hear it perfectly as I write this. She maintained a tough exterior and had a strong independent streak. Stubborn. She had been sober for several years, but her distinguished drinking career took a deep toll. Cirrhosis of the liver is not a pretty sight. I admire her dignity in those final weeks. To know what's happening to you and to deal with it with poise and grace, that's a lesson to be treasured. Thanks to Mary, to her friendship and encouragement, I feel a little less afraid. Maybe fear is like a pest, it's there but you have to be somewhat dismissive. It can't be all about introspection, we'd go crazy and wouldn't be able to function. (Thank you Hubble telescope and science reporters! I like being reminded of the true scope of things. We just aren't a big deal. Wow, our little solar system is spinning around the center of the milky way much, much faster than previously thought. Someone get me a new seat belt!) So I can identify with Atkinson. None of us know when our time is. (Thank God-wouldn't that be a nightmare!) I feel that were I to go kaput today it would be before my time. Not an outcome I'm enthusiastic about. Hell, my desk is a mess. But I like my chances for today, and given that I don't have this all figured out, I'd rather not die. Not yet, anyway.

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