Thoughts on Mortality: A guest post from my husband

posted in: Age, End of Life 35

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.

 

Photo credit: me
Photo location: out behind our favorite NYC movie theater.

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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.

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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.

 

35 Responses

  1. Lea
    | Reply

    Woody, I wish you quick healing and all the best. Thank you for sharing your story, your insight, and experience.

    Janet, thank you for letting Woody tell his story here.

    Take care.

  2. Clive Pilcher
    | Reply

    Lovely post, Janet, and thank you for introducing Woody in his own words. I hope his surgery is successful, and look forward to hearing more from him, as well as you 😊
    Clive Pilcher recently posted…Dare I Mention The C Word? – A ReblogMy Profile

  3. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Hi Woody and Janet–
    Hope Woody’s surgery goes smoothly and he has a swift recovery. I’m glad we had a chance to meet in Philadelphia.
    Merril D Smith recently posted…North Wind, or Ebenezer’s DreamMy Profile

  4. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    How lovely to hear from Woody. I will be interested in hearing about the books he wrote about your peace corp time—I have read books by Woody and really enjoyed them—Charles and Louise books. Take care Woody and stay healthy.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes indeed, Susan. You were one of our beta readers for his Charles and Louise series, three of the five novels he wrote while we served in the Peace Corps. And we appreciate your support. His fourth, Cargo, will be out later this week.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Thoughts on Mortality: A guest post from my husbandMy Profile

      • Susan Jackson
        | Reply

        Hooray—don’t let me miss it

        • Susan Jackson
          | Reply

          Never mind—I just went online and pre ordered it

    • woody
      | Reply

      Thank you Susan.

  5. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    It’s great to meet you, Woody. I know Janet understands the hearing loss, but she feel frustrated too. I know I do as my husband is in the same fix with figuring out conversation, even with hearing aids. You hit the nail on the head by naming “isolation” as one consequence of the dilemma.

    Best wishes on your hand surgery this afternoon, Woody. Yes, you are a unique soul! And Janet, thank you for featuring him today!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Grandpa Vogt’s Christmas TableMy Profile

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Woody —It’s lovely to meet you. I appreciated reading a bit of your story. Thank you for sharing it here. Echoing what the others have said, I, too, hope that your recovery from today’s surgery is “swift and sure.”

    • Woody
      | Reply

      Thanks Laurie for the good wishes.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Laurie and thank you. Good to have you two meet. And, btw, I was thinking of you over the Thanksgiving holiday. Turns out my high school sophomore granddaughter is looking seriously at going to college in Boise. The world gets smaller every day. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Thoughts on Mortality: A guest post from my husbandMy Profile

  7. Cynthia DeKett
    | Reply

    I miss singing with you both, especially hearing that sonorous baritone right next to me. Speedy recovery, Woody! The machine might be needing more repairs, the computer slowing, but those are just the tools your beautiful soul inhabits – a soul for which there is much more to come!

  8. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi, Woody. Thanks for sharing. It’s great to know we’re not alone in this ‘mortality thing.’ Your post will be especially helpful in the hearing department. I have a ninety-five-year-old friend who is becoming more reclusive even though she’s had hearing aids for a couple of years. I’ll be on the stop-look-and-listen alert when we’re together at gatherings.

    • Woody
      | Reply

      Thanks Bette for your input. Most people who have normal hearing think that hearing aids solve the problem. They help, but much less than expected. At least in my case. They do not correct the problem the way glasses restore normal vision. And they are outrageously expensive — and not covered by Medicare.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Bette. I’m glad you could join us.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Thoughts on Mortality: A guest post from my husbandMy Profile

  9. Carol
    | Reply

    Hi Woody…Nice to meet you, thank you for sharing your mortality thingy…I will take more care around the friends whose hearing is diminished..lack of thought sometimes so thank you for that…Good luck with the surgery and recovery 🙂
    Carol recently posted…Whimsical Wednesday…with Carol…My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Carol. Thank you for joining us here and sharing your thoughts. Those disorders that are invisible to others — like hearing loss — play havoc on our ability to show kindness. Even I, who know about W’s hearing loss, still forget. It’s a challenge. Good luck with those friends. I hope you’ll write about it.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Thoughts on Mortality: A guest post from my husbandMy Profile

    • woody
      | Reply

      Thanks Carol

  10. Cheryl
    | Reply

    Hello Janet and Woody, I haven’t visited your blog for a while, Janet, but this post has reminded me why I should pop in a bit more often. Yes, it’s very easy to see why you fell in love with Woody! I also have a body that’s not in as good condition as it was in earlier years, and my hearing isn’t good either, although I’m ‘only’ 52. I also experience isolation when in groups of people, especially in large groups, or when there’s some loud background noise – I often can’t hear words and so just drift away from everyone. I understand. I feel for you, Woody, because I have some understanding of what you’re experiencing in this respect.

    It seems like you, together, have a handle on things, so I don’t have anything to add, except to say to you enjoy what time you have left together, it’s what I am trying to do, because we don’t know when it will be the end.

    Be strong and continue the love you share with each other, it’s very beautiful. x
    Cheryl recently posted…The Plastic Pen ProblemMy Profile

  11. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Greetings, Woody, from the Idaho central mountains. ‘Enjoyed your honest, open, and well-written post. Best regards!

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