The three siblings were stairsteps as children. Clyde’s birthday was yesterday; he’s 79. Middle sister Jane is 80, and Edie is 81. We had birthday cake in the gazebo that Clyde built this summer. I was on my neighborhood walk and needed to rest my sore foot. Just in time for carrot cake.
I wondered what I would talk about with these three as I saw the ladies carrying the cake tray out. Not that I’m young, but I wondered if we would find a common thread of conversation. Jane had made a small scrapbook for Clyde; looking at those pictures became the focus and offered a little talk and laughter.
They spoke about how the three of them hadn’t been alone like this since they were children. They live in different states, but here they are together celebrating a birthday with their children and grandchildren scattered and spouses having passed on. Each now lives alone, yet they seemed to be truly happy.
Being with them brought to life the book I had just finished reading: Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande is about the final days, months, and years of life. When our bodies wear out but the desire to make our own life choices is still very much a part of who we are and who we want to be. I told them a little bit about the book, and that carried our conversation to a place that was rewarding for me and I think for them, too, as they were in accord with the author’s message.
Gewande is a surgeon, an award-winning writer, a thoughtful physician. His chapters are lessons in how we should approach aging and death. He has researched the way nursing homes and assisted living homes operate, why some fail and why some succeed. There is hope!
In the book he shares examples of his father’s aging and his patients’ terminal illnesses as well. He charts his own growth as a physician and surgeon. He is well aware of where colleagues are failing their patients by not being honest and realistic. He became aware of his own shortcomings in helping patients make end-of-life decisions. His journey is a part of the book’s story.
We are all mortal. Yet it may seem easier not to think about it. Gawande illustrates how it is much more difficult if we don’t approach our mortality with clear heads, clear instructions, and careful thought.
Bob asked me if the book was depressing. And my answer was not really. There was one chapter whose ending had me silently weeping. The terminally ill patient was so young. On a whole, however, it isn’t a depressing read because I believe as Gawande does: I want to be in control of my own life no matter what my age. I don’t want to approach the next decades of my life with my head buried in some mystical cloud of denial.
I strongly encourage you to buy the book and keep it to read and reread: that’s part of my plan. Gawande paraphrases the philosopher Ronald Dworkin in writing, “Whatever the limits and travails we face, we want to retain the autonomy—the freedom—to be the authors of our lives.” I like that idea and hope to also make it a part of my plan as I approach all of those happy birthdays to come.