I felt it when I was a child; and that feeling still won’t escape me.
My great anxiety comes over me when I’m around very sick or old people. I cringe inside with fear. When I was young, I didn’t want to be near these people; I didn’t understand why, but as I grew up, I realized that I felt melancholy when around the aged or sick. I felt sad for them because they were no longer young and agile, or felt well enough to be free from their afflictions of old age and/or sickness because they were being held back from the things they once loved to do.
I got too familiar with death and saying good-bye to loved ones by the age of sixteen. Since I was sixteen, for the next fourteen years, sporadically, the hits just kept on coming. I looked after my maternal grandfather when he came to live with us after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and a subsequent leg amputation. I’d make him tea, and some evenings we played gin-rummy together. All the while, my heart hurt for the pain he was suffering, stoic, and without complaint. Not long after his death, I lost an uncle, a grandmother, my dear aunt who was like a mother to me, and then my own father. In between these deaths, I’d watched them all deteriorate through suffering illness. I sat at many bedsides, visited too many hospitals and been to way too many funerals for my young age.
Throughout my life, I questioned myself as to why I felt so unsettled around the sick and the old, and once again, those feelings have come back to visit.
Five months ago, I buried my mother, and just over two months ago, my mother’s last remaining sibling, my Aunty Lee, who seemed remarkably spry and healthy at the age of seventy-six, went for a routine colonoscopy. The doctor discovered what was supposed to be some sort of minor obstruction and booked her into the hospital a few weeks later to have a simple laparoscopy to repair the blockage. Once they probed inside of her, they found numerous stomach tumors and closed her up. She awoke after the surgery with her natural optimism, thinking that she had been repaired, only to be greeted by her doctor who informed her that she had three weeks to live. I can’t even try to imagine what went through her head when she was handed down a death edict after waking from what she thought was minor surgery from a symptomless diagnosis. But stoic as always, she swallowed her lumps and began to get her affairs in order.
Within days, the ongoing pain that developed had landed her into palliative care. That once brazen, self-sufficient woman, who had conquered so many hurdles in her life and never once complained through any of them, had resolved herself to her demise without a tear in her eye, or a “Woe is me” attitude. That rock is my Aunty Lee. And two and a half months have now passed, and she is still with us. With all her medication and woe, she still smiles and tells us how much she loves us at every visit. She still takes in joy every day with her loved ones. I will never know of all of what goes on in her head, but I know that I still can’t wrap my head around her demise.
Every time I visit her, as I walk the halls of the Baycrest Center for the aged and palliative, that old, unsettled feeling of age and death still looms deep within me. I know that part of my discomfort is because of my empathetic feelings I get for these people. I feel sad for them when I think about how their lives are coming to an end. Sometimes I can almost imagine their pain.
I think I’ve come to understand the unsettledness within me. I believe that it’s my own fears that get heightened when I’m surrounded by inevitable aging and death. I begin to question my own mortality. And I find myself praying harder and faster to God that I will never have to wind up ending my days in sickness, away from my own home.
I think that being all too familiar with sickness and death has the propensity to engrave these fears into our minds. I know the secret is to find a way to overcome these fears. Admittedly, I have yet to master this.
D.G. Kaye ©April 2015