“I envy you that your mother is dead”. On it’s own, that statement seems cold, perhaps even somewhat weird. Let me explain the context…
Kathleen Saul: Niall Saul has been a solid friend over many years. His mother Kathleen died recently. She was 89. While I never met her, from a distance she seemed like quite a character. In Ireland, if you’re over 70, you have to get a medical certificate before a 3-year driving license is issued. On her last medical visit, the doctor suggested that, given Kathleen’s advanced years, it might be judicious to issue the ‘cert’ for just 1 year. Her response: “There are 2 options here. You can issue me with a 3-year cert. Or I can find a new doctor”. He wrote the note. Brilliant. Niall is an expert in industrial relations and can sometimes be assertive. He didn’t ‘lick it off the stones’.
Quick Exit: A little while later, Kathleen suddenly became very ill and died within two days. The previous week she’d taken a holiday break to Sligo and apparently had a great time. There’s something wonderful about getting the grace to live life to the full, right up to the end. Kathleen’s sudden death was a shock for everyone around her. But a blessing for a woman who hated the thought of becoming a nuisance or regressing to a childlike state. I understand the concern. One of my brothers, Peter, has been hospitalised for several years. Now 70, he was diagnosed with dementia in his early 60s. For almost a decade, he’s been living in hospitals and care homes. It’s a long, slow, awful exit. There’s no upside to a long goodbye and, yes, the alternative is better. With dementia, our hope is that he doesn’t fully understand his condition or circumstances. But, sometimes, he’s very alert and ‘with it’. We knock a bit of black humour out of the visits, but overall it’s very sad.
Right to Life: I’m well aware that this is a sensitive topic alive with a range of ethical issues – the ‘right to life’, the dangers of playing ‘God’, concerns that venal financial interests would override compassion and so on. The guy who said: “I envy you that your mother is dead” had a particular viewpoint. The comment was made to Niall around the time of Kathleen’s death by a very sincere man who visits his mother regularly. For the last two years she’s been in a nursing home struggling with Alzheimer’s. They have a 5-minute conversation that gets repeated verbatim for the remaining 2 hours of the visit. Being a witness to the demise of someone you love is one of life’s toughest challenges.
Adult Conversations: Last year, when our dog Louie became really ill, we were able to take him to the vet and put him out of his misery. It’s not a perfect analogy, perhaps even offensive to some. The human condition is much more complex and requires many more safeguards. But, that said, as a society we need to face up to this difficult issue. Actuaries confirm that the average lifespan is increasing (in Ireland, 78 years for a man; 83 for a woman). Advances in pharmacology and medical interventions allow us to ‘coffin dodge’ for longer. It’s led to a group of older people suffering from a range of non-life-threatening conditions – but sometimes leading a life which offers very little quality.
Perhaps when it comes to my own time, as I shuffle close to the exit sign, my thinking on this subject will change. I will cling to life, ‘hanging on’ by my fingertips. Perhaps. But I hope not. During my life, I’ve been fearful of many things. But I hope to be brave in dying. To be able to have real, authentic conversations with people I love – even where those conversations are brutally awkward.
That’s going to be a big call somewhere down the road. The poet W.H. Auden said: “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic”. I haven’t heard it yet and am still enjoying the day out. Undoubtedly, it will be a heavy weight to lift at that time. But, the great news is that I don’t actually have to wait until then. I can start practicing being brave right away. Facing up to tough decisions in my current life. By lifting smaller weights now, we all get ‘ready’ for a time when some of those decisions become tougher.
A sober thought this week, but the passing of a great lady deserves a somber reflection.
PS True Story: I was watching TV during the week – a programme about the criminally insane – based on a secure unit in Ohio. The central diagnosis in most of the cases seemed to be schizophrenia. The next morning I was telling my son Cillian about this and he asked me to define schizophrenia. I told him it was ‘delusional and disordered thinking’. He asked for an example. I said that ‘some people think they are God’. He asked me whether I was ever formally diagnosed…
PS Lighter Note: From John McGlynn (you’d need to smile after that topic).
- Paddy decides to take up boxing and goes for the required medical. A few days later the doctor ‘phones and says “Paddy, you realise you’ve got sugar diabetes.” Paddy says, “Nice one. When do I fight him?”
- Police have just released details of a drug craze operating in Yorkshire nightclubs. Apparently, Yorkshire club goers have started injecting Ecstasy just above their front teeth. Police say the dangerous practice is called “E by gum”.
And, my favourite…
- It was really hard overcoming my addiction to the Hokey Cokey. But I’ve turned myself around and that’s what it’s all about!
Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.