A very close friend of mine (whom we'll call "Kim" -- because, well, that's what her mom and dad named her, for what were, I'm sure really good reasons at the time) called me Sunday in tears because she'd just learned her father had to go into the hospital for an emergency triple-bypass. I guess when you're a candidate for a triple-bypass, "emergency" is kind of redundant. Three blockages keeping blood from moving into any or all chambers of the heart would, I suppose, constitute and emergency, by definition.
There were several bits of "good news" attached to this. One, Kim's father lives in Texas, near one of the finest cardiac hospitals in the country. Two, his doctors do not believe he suffered a heart attack, even a "silent" one, so the heart muscle is in pretty good shape for a guy who's in his seventies. Three, he is, in all other respects, in excellent health. Furthermore, catching the blockages prior to an "incident" probably added years to his life. If he had to go through something like this, every single factor was working his favor.
Still, it was a tense few days for Kim and her sister, who had to leave their teenagers at home and fly to Texas and wait out the surgery and recovery. It also made my friend think of mortality -- his and hers. In the summer of '99, my godmother, who was Kim's mentor and beloved friend, passed away suddenly of lung cancer. Several months later, Kim's mother died from a heart attack so massive that she was gone before her husband could even dial "911". Now Kim's father, who lives a pretty healthy lifestyle, save his aversion to aerobic exercise, has had open-heart surgery. Kim called me tonight after she'd gotten home from work. She flew home last night, went to work this morning, came home, fixed a little dinner, and got her butt on the treadmill. Proving once again that I don't make friends with stupid people.
A close brush with a medical crisis tends to make us think about our mortality, which is something that we humans just don't care to do, unless we're engaged in deep philosophical discussions about life-after-death adventures or the Rapture. I personally have little patience for such discussion as I've always believed that, unless you are, at present -- this very moment -- coming face-to-face with your mortality (as in, you've just inadvertently stepped off the curb into the path a speeding Trailways bus, or you have just drunk strychnine, or have been recently diagnosed with ebola), there is no need to think of your mortality beyond the fact that it exists.
Knowing that you are, in fact, mortal, you can be assured of a couple of things, regardless of any spiritual or philosophical affiliations. 1) You are going to die, and 2) wherever you go after you do, you're probably not going to need to stop and ask directions. Here's what I believe about God and the Universe. God made us exactly as we are, complete with the capacity to understand everything necessary to navigate life, and the Universe reveals all to us on a "need-to-know" basis. Since we weren't born with the knowledge of what happens to the soul and consciousness when we die, my heartfelt belief is that... well... its just none of our damn business. All apologies to Shirley MacLaine (whose story, by the way, is just as plausible as any other I've heard for what happens after we bite it), it's just not our job to know.
Here's what our job is. To live. And keep on living. Right up until we're not. After that, we'll retire from the "living" thing, and move on to a career in "what comes next." Whatever that is. So my friend will get on the treadmill and start eating better and taking care of herself (as will I) because doing so means that, while we're alive, we get to feel reasonably good, and be cute, and get dates, and have sex. All of which are important.
The flip side to mortality is that, while we're being all healthy and stuff, the people around us -- especially our parents -- are getting older, and more vulnerable, and more frail. And what things like open-heart surgery remind us -- vividly and with slap-upside-the-head clarity -- is that someday in the foreseeable future, that loved one is probably going to start their "whatever comes next," and we're going to be left behind to schlepp our way through the "living" thing without them.
And this is the part where mortality sucks. Today, we're still here, Kim and I -- a 26-year friendship still alive and ticking. But my godmother isn't ticking anymore. Nor is Kim's mother. Nor is my own mother, for that matter. Only our fathers remain to separate us symbolically from our mortality, and her father's recent brush with a cardiac care unit, and my father's increasing lack of independent mobility remind us every day that someday, it's just going to be us. Two little (and, believe me, that's no euphemism -- we're short) old ladies, one on her treadmill, the other on her elliptical trainer, eating salads and boneless, skinless chicken breasts, taking our calcium and our multivitamins, trying our best to stave off "whatever comes next" for as long as possible.
Because our job is to stay here and do the "living" thing. Right up until the "living" things is done. That's what mortality is all about.