By: L.D. Russell
What do you do when you receive word out of the blue that a part of your body is failing, and unless fixed, will kill you? Do you freak out? Do you pray? Do you call your family or a friend? Whatever else you might do, I suspect you will spend many long hours thinking, wondering, pondering deep down – whether at a conscious level or in your subterranean depths – the question, “Why are we here if we’re going to disappear?”
Last October, after having an echocardiogram and watching, as if by some dark technological sorcery, the fragile inner workings of my own heart, I sat in the office of a cardiologist, listening to her discuss the findings. Despite a series of earlier ECG referrals by my general practitioner, I should have known something was amiss as soon as I had walked into the clinic. There I was met by a woman in one of those pristine lab coats, bleached white as dried bones as if starch-ironed cleanliness could keep death at bay. Wearing a most compassionate, almost pitying smile, she gripped my hand and asked in what seemed an undertaker’s unctuous tone, “Are you alright?” Flummoxed, I stammered, “Well, yes.” She turned me over to the technician, and as we walked down the hallway toward the room where the ECG machine awaited, again came the query, though with a little less solemnity, “Are you alright?” “Yes,” I said, “is there any reason why I shouldn’t be?” Never expect a straight answer to such a question, at least not up front.
So there I was 45 minutes later with the cardiologist, who was doing her best to explain the technical details of the test results and even offered a standard illustration of the human heart, like a page from an introductory anatomy textbook, showing both a full-color rendition and a cross-section revealing the fleshy valves inside, as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the nave of a gothic cathedral. There was something about her grave tone of voice and the intensity in her eyes that hinted she was building toward an unhappy climax, but still, once she spoke the words “failing valve” and “heart surgery,” the rest was all just verbiage, sounds with little or no meaning. I felt my soul slip away from my body and slowly rise to a far corner of the room, and the rest of her diagnosis was heard from a short distance away, as if I were eavesdropping on a conversation between two strangers.
These past months have left me no choice but to wrestle with the reality that awaits. Believe me, I have freaked out, I have prayed, I have reached out to family and friends, but in the end and throughout, whether awake or sleeping, the question remains: why are we here if we’re going to disappear? Have you ever walked this dark valley of the shadow? No doubt some of you have. If not, just stick around – it’s only a matter of time. As poor, doomed Jim Morrison of the Doors sang years ago, “No one here gets out alive.”
It’s easy for most of us to ignore or even tempt death while we’re young. Some, however, feel its cold kiss early on through the loss of a pet, a grandparent, a mother or father, sibling, or friend. Yeah, it sucks at the time, but valuable lessons may be learned. My mother’s suicide attempt when I was only eight years old threw a pall over my life that would never again allow me the sense of security so many seem to take for granted. Yet it is this very vulnerability that has opened up deeply meaningful worlds of experience and thought. Though I never asked for it, I have been granted the troubled and troubling gift of experiencing each day as though it might be the last. Over the years and decades, what has grown in me is the certainty that every single person I meet, each friend, stranger or foe, faces the same stark reality of limited time. Even those who drive me to distraction, who fray my last nerve, are every bit as mortal as I. At the end of the day, we are all in this thing together. What possible response can one offer but compassion?
Still, this latest news, even though the prognosis is good, has rocked me to my core. Once again, the question comes. Why are we here if we’re going to disappear? Does this certainty not suck every ounce of meaning out of life? We get up in the morning and live as if what is happening each day is important. We work, we play, we laugh, sometimes we cry, but it seems we go on as if life will last always. Think about all those countless billions who have lived before, each one an individual with hopes and fears just as real as ours. Who were they? What did they accomplish, what other lives did they touch for good and ill? 500 years from now, who will even remember that you lived a life? Will anyone recall you fondly after you are gone, or will there be bitterness, or worse yet, oblivion? What, if anything, will be your lasting legacy?