As my friend Bob succumbed to leukemia, I followed him closely over a period of many months. We began with an ambulatory Bob telling me, laughing, “not to be a smartass” when I hurled jokey provocations at him. We ended with me feeding him thickened apple juice through a straw, until he couldn’t even manage that. He died last month at 73.
What feels like not so long ago – probably 25 years – I didn’t know anyone who had died who didn’t already seem ancient. And I certainly hadn’t been regularly on hand or deeply engaged with the dying process.
When my father died at 84, it was my first experience of holding the medical power of attorney and being responsible for making the big decisions. His gift to me was the realization that not all deaths are tragic. His was a loss but not a tragedy. He was ready. My mother, by contrast, died suddenly, much earlier, at 63. She never had the chance to see how her children and grandchildren turned out or participate in our lives, which are filled with joy. Missing out on that is a tragedy in my book.
I found it comforting, and still do, this distinction between loss and tragedy.
When my friend Jerry died at 63 from complications from liver cancer surgery, I was no longer a novice at losing loved ones, or seeing to their needs as they declined. Jerry was an oncology nurse whose nightmare was to be too sick to recover and not sick enough to die—a kind of horrible limbo created by a bureaucratic healthcare system. Jerry chose me because he had decided, having watched me handle my father’s situation, that I would be worthy of his trust in making sure he didn’t get stuck. His gift to me was an ability to treasure moments and days that had previously gotten lost in the cacophony of constant motion and doing.
But what about Bob? I had no responsibility for him other than showing up regularly with a cup of digestible kindness. Responsibility lay with his wife, the extraordinary and inspiring Sue. My gift to Bob was allowing him to determine how this would go on his terms, not mine. He talked when he wanted and remained silent when it was what he wanted or was all he had. Either way was OK with me. When he could no longer drive, I’d take the two of us and his dog, Oliver Gordon, to a restaurant that delivered a water bowl and dog cookies well before we even got menus. Later, when Bob couldn’t get out of bed without a team, I’d bring him a cookie and a decaf latte laced with sugar from that place. The man had a major sweet tooth.
It was troubling watching his external identities (retiree, golfer, homeowner, husband, man who drives the elderly to their doctor’s appointments, father, barbecue whiz, church member, grandfather, active friend, respected elder, traveler) slowly stripped away. Life after 50 frequently involves releasing, retaining and creating new identities. We can grieve for the lost ones and struggle for new ones in mixed measure. Or we can learn to live serenely amidst these losses. Bob’s gift was his demonstration that it’s possible to live without past identities with grace and dignity. In fact, it’s worth practicing in advance. Death is an individual thing but Bob’s was inspiring to me.
Now I am in the midst of a 90-day experiment. I’m trying to not define – to myself – me in terms of my external identities. I’m continuing to operate in those roles and appreciate what they mean to me. But what’s different is that I am acknowledging them but not relying on them to be OK.
As a developmental psychologist, I am devoted to the notion that life moves on across one’s entire life span. Lifelong development is real. What we used to be good at won’t necessarily serve us well in the future. What we’ve clung to might not either. True development means ongoing experimentation with what we’ll have to be good at in the future. Bob was extraordinarily good at living each day without regrets, taking the best from each moment. Bob’s skill at adapting continues to impress me.
In this experiment I’m not rejecting my external identities. I’m just calmly putting them in neutral for a little while. To my surprise, it has been much more OK in the midst of the experiment than I thought it might be. Goodness knows, I could benefit later from the experience when the chips are down.
Thanks for the gift, Bob. And blessings on your head.