Over the years I’ve mentioned my husband, Woody, from time to time.
Today for the first time (and hopefully not the last), Woody talks to you directly. I think you’ll come away understanding how I could fall in love with him so easily. His writing style is conversational, authentic, and personal. I’m very pleased to present my husband, helpmate, and friend, Woody Starkweather, with his thoughts on (his) mortality.
Lately, I have had some minor, but negative, medical news. And I’m now into my eighth decade, so thoughts of my own mortality are bubbling up. The end is not near, but it’s closer than it was last month. Minor aches, persistent pains and dermal discontinuities loom larger than they did before. It didn’t help that winter came to Vermont in the middle of autumn this year. Time seems to have accelerated.
A few years ago, a friend was spending his last few days at home, and Janet and I went with others from our hospice choir to sing for him. Someone asked gently how he felt. “It is what it is,” he said. I thought at the time that it was a beautifully calm acceptance of reality, which I admired. I would like to feel the same way.
It was easy then to see the beauty of accepting death as a natural part of human existence – a prearranged cessation of the complicated arrangement of specialized cells that make up organisms. But the problem is that I don’t feel that I am just another organism. My arrangement of specialized cells is unique. It is me. And it is unique, as are all the other human arrangements on earth. But, of course, if everyone is unique, then uniqueness is commonplace. And we are all mortal. So, there it is. The machinery will in time slow down, and stop.
Among these recently activated thoughts about my own mortality, is an increased interest in the past. At moments when I am not attending to something in the immediate present, I find it pleasant to remember events, people, sights, and sounds of the past.
Some memories are fuzzier than I would like, and I try to resurrect the details, as if the loss of particulars is itself a kind of death. Or, I want to summarize and evaluate. Take note of regrets. Assess achievements. I take some satisfaction in the work I have done, pleasure in the friends I have known, and warmth in the love I have shared. And, there is still more to come. Just a little less than last year.
But there are also losses as mortality approaches — physical functions that I used to take for granted.
First and foremost, for me, is my sharply diminished hearing. I note, grimly, the obvious irony that I, who have worked my professional life to help people communicate more effectively, cannot now hear the speech of others, at least most others.
Janet, sure. I suppose it is because I know her speech patterns so well, that my brain does the interpretation part of hearing with little effort. But for others, I get only a portion of what they want me to hear. And, annoyingly, my brain fails to compensate.
For example, I hear someone say “This message will be grief.” I realize quickly that this does not make sense. And even though I know that the “b” and “g” sounds are acoustically similar, my brain fails to enlist that knowledge, at least not quickly enough for me to revise what I hear so as to understand the intended message.
The worst part of hearing loss is not the delayed or frustrated communication. It is the isolation from others.
In a group, particularly a group in which the members all know each other, they tend to talk over each other, abbreviate sentences, and laugh together. This kind of group communication is, I think, bonding for the group. But I can’t handle it. I am lucky if I know what the topic is. As a result, I am not a part of the group during these conversations. And it is uncomfortable. Isolating. It is almost embarrassing. Perhaps I should not be present, as if they were telling secrets that I should not hear.
Along with hearing loss goes a diminished confidence in my ability to balance. Steps without railings are a challenge. And slippery surfaces.
Various tendons seem to be deteriorating — left foot, left shoulder, left bicep. “I’m all right,” I like to say with an attempt at humor to relieve the sense of loss.
Memory is not diminished, but it is delayed. Names in particular. Often, I try to recall a name, and it is not available. But some time later — a minute or two usually, but sometimes more — it pops into my head, retrieved but useless at the time.
And finally, I cannot constantly complain about these losses. That just pushes me farther away from the “others.”
No, the end is not near. But it is nearer than it was.
Want more about Woody? Check out my 25th anniversary post, Happy Anniversary, Woody here. And the post I did when CHOP named a program after him. STUTTERING: TALKING ABOUT WHAT WE CAN’T TALK ABOUT is here. Soon, I’ll have a Woody’s Books page live on my website to showcase the five novels he wrote while we were in the Peace Corps together.
Now it’s time for Woody to meet you. I hope you’ll say hello. He’s having surgery on a hand this afternoon, but he’s agreed to pop in throughout the morning. And later tomorrow, perhaps he’ll figure out how that voice recognition system works. Otherwise I may be doing his typing for him for the next three weeks.