My Masonic lodge visited the Junction City lodge this week. I sat beside Brother Belvin Terry who is dying from prostate cancer. He told this to each of the visitors in turn, and I listened to their reactions. One said that death comes to all. Another pointed out that he had at least exceeded the average lifespan. A third advised that he would get well if he took care of himself. When Brother Terry disagreed, the speaker tried again to reassure him, almost angrily this time. The next day, I asked the lodge’s secretary if Brother Terry would welcome a visit. I will call him soon.
I just got up to pour myself some coffee, but had forgotten to put the carafe on the warmer when I started the drip and had to clean up a large puddle. It was not the worst experience of my life—at least there’s that to be said for it.
Today, I bought a book about retirement planning, and later wondered what kind of books I would buy if I only had a few months to live. What if I knew I had seen my last Christmas, and that Peggy would be a widow when the daffodils next bloom?
My one certainty is that I would make the aftermath as easy for her as possible. I would take care of things like getting the den re-roofed and finding people to do some of the chores I now do. I would teach her more about the computer, and I would get rid of many of my personal items. But, beyond all that, how would we spend the time I had left? Would we sell the house? Would we travel?
I only know that I would not want to drain our savings on medical care if my odds of surviving were poor. Peggy long ago stopped loving her job, so how then could I leave her broke? Yet, if she were the one who was ill, would I count the cost? I would like to say that I would trade everything for even a miniscule chance that she would live; and I think this is what I would say—if it were only about money. But it’s also about doctors, drugs, hospitals, and the other irksome details of fighting a battle that you will almost certainly lose.
The trouble with living is that I cannot escape the feeling that I am responsible for something without knowing what that something is. I don’t mean responsible in the sense of fulfilling an ordained purpose but rather in fulfilling an obligation to myself. I seem to have done so little compared to what I might have done. I say this, yet when I ask myself what it is that I would do differently, I don’t know. I have a feeling of having failed, but without an awareness of what would constitute success.
I never cease to be amazed by the number of people I never heard of that are listed in the Britannica. One might be a Frenchman whose paintings were once popular but have not stood the test of time; another an Englishman who wrote forty books that are out of print. What made these people’s lives worth remembering? What makes any life worth remembering, and what does it matter whether I’m remembered? I will readily admit that a man can lead an extraordinarily virtuous life and still be quickly and utterly forgotten, so what then do I really want? By what measure might I pronounce my life worthwhile?
Many of the people who appear in the Britannica are remembered for the harm they did. Hannibal took a vow as a child to conquer Rome. By the time he committed suicide, hundreds of thousands had been killed or ruined because of him, yet Rome still stood. Others don’t strike me so much as evil as worthless. The major accomplishment of Madonna, for example, seems to be that she set new lows for tackiness by a female performer. Thanks to her, Britney Spears can sink even lower, but unlike the Hannibals and Napoleons, such people are the symptom rather than the cause of societal suffering.
If I were dying, perhaps, I would not find it worthwhile to think about such things. It is in this sense that I envy the dying. Like people in a burning house, they are forced to rely on instinct in deciding what to pick up and what to put down.
Not too many months ago, a local man robbed a bank and then sat quietly in the lobby awaiting arrest. I can imagine that such a one simply lost his ability to deal with having so many options. Every minute of every day, I choose to do one thing at the expense of not doing an unimaginable number of other things. It is a dreadful responsibility to have untold options without knowing which ones are best or if any of them are best.
It might be argued that the question is a matter of personal preference. For example, one person becomes a carpenter, another a dental hygienist. Both fill important functions, but the rub is that not everyone is suited to be a carpenter or a hygienist. This is true even among those who are carpenters and hygienists. I have always envied people who love their jobs so much that they would work for free: they have an assuredness about their place in the universe that I have never enjoyed. I see my life rather as a succession of uncertainties and miscalculations, and this appears to be the common lot. I just worry about it more than most people.