Best Case: Stable Health + Quick Decline + Death
Reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”
Mr. Gawande is a surgeon and medical professor and writer for The New Yorker. His recent Being Mortal is a long conversation about how humans face death. Or, more to the point, how medicine and our own optimism interact to keep us from planning for this known, finite end.
This is not something you think about at 18 or 28. But it is a wedge topic that soon starts to butt into life. At some point you notice aging people appearing all around you. And then you do the math and start to think you may be aging as well—though we’re all hard pressed to say where the time has gone. Like a favorite, recently-passed in-law said not so long ago, “In my mind, I’m still 18.” No one agrees to aging and few self-select as “old.”
Still, there is this inevitable endpoint.
Mr. Gawande’s book does the reader a favor by naming the moving parts of this process. That is, the slower and slower moving parts. From the shrinkage of the brain to why it is that older people seem to choke more to the insult of not driving to the big fear of dementia. One of my favorite characters in the book is the groundbreaking geriatric physician/researcher who was active until he, well, became old. And then, in a clear-eyed fashion, detailed his decline, his motivations with caring for his wife of 70 years who became blind then deaf, and then broke her ankles. It’s a happy/sad love story of a couple who were active into their 90s.
As a believer in the God who resurrects, I do not think of death as final. But as aging continues (which I don’t feel but suppose is acting on me even now), my reading of the gospels and prophets and psalms finds me looking for clues that point beyond what medicine says and beyond what my own senses say. I find a good bit of hope in what I read.
Wendell Berry explored this topic with extraordinary care. His The Memory of Old Jack is a solid antidote to our collective denial.
Image credit: Atul Gawande, Kirk Livingston