Here is my latest essay on Psych Central. It has a content warning for death and dying.
When I have a panic attack, I am terrified of dying. When I am having a good day and think about having a terminal illness, it doesn’t scare me. I like the good days. I don’t like to be fearful of the end of my life. If I have to be aware that my life is going to end one day, I don’t want to be terrified of how that is going to happen.
For the past twenty years, I have watched people from Mexico celebrate the Day of the Dead, and every time I see an altar, or a painted skull (I have one on my desk), I wish that we treated death more like our neighbors in Mexico. I want to be more like Mexicans and have a day to celebrate the dead, and keep them as a part of my life. A celebration of those who have gone before isn’t something I want to do alone I want to do it with others, as a part of a family or community.
I grow weary of living in a culture that worships youth, and where many elderly people are placed in homes away from their families. I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy or even safe, to always care for the elderly in your home, but many people are alone at the end of their lives, and that is tragic.
The first time someone I knew died, I was twelve or thirteen. Two boys, twins, from my hometown, (I had a crush on one of them) drowned underneath a waterfall near a lake outside of the town where I grew up.
Since that time, I have lost friends, a step brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my grandparents. Occasionally, I will write a story about one of them, and the process of putting a memory into words brings more memories of them back to me.
I love the young people in my life, and I know they have things to teach me, but so do the older people in my life. When I see older people, I know that someday, if I am fortunate enough to live a long life, I will be in their place. I may lose bits or pieces of my memory. I may completely lose my memory. I will be frail in comparison to my youth. I will have more doctor appointments and more medication. Of course, there are more and more stories of people living past one hundred who are still participating in a passion of some sort like music, or architecture, or other arts. Many people are living longer and healthier.
These are the thoughts I have on a Sunday morning in January. I am thinking of how I would like to celebrate those people who have died but are still a part of my life. I am also thinking about how we treat youth and age, and my mortality and the mortality of those I love.
It may seem like a weighty or depressing topic for the early morning, but it shouldn’t, and that’s the point – it happens to all of us and so many of the messages we receive from advertising is that it doesn’t have to. It does have to. It is a certainty; a certainty that we often hide.
I’m not hiding this morning, although I may be next week, and if I have a panic attack, I’ll be terrified of this very thing. I don’t want to be terrified. I want to celebrate and accept. Of course, I also hope to be writing my best stories at the age of one hundred.
I hate going to the doctor. The last time I went (just over a week ago) my pulse was at 125. My doctor jokes that I am running a marathon in his office. It is so stressful to me to be anywhere close to a doctor’s office.
Today I have to get my blood work done. Everyone on anti-psychotics needs regular blood work. The chances of getting high cholesterol, diabetes, and other ailments are greatly increased by the drugs.
I have to get other tests too. I have been having a problem in another area of my body for several months now and I have been on two rounds of anti-biotics and I don’t know if it is cleared up yet. Of course, me, being me, I think I am dying.
I have thought I must be dying for several months now. I have obsessed over how I want to behave if I am dying and the things I want to do in the time I have left.
It is absurd to always jump to the worst case scenario, but I do have a mental illness so bizarre and other types of thinking often go hand in hand with my diagnosis. Mental illness or not, I can’t possibly be the only person who fears the worst.
So, for the last few months I have been thinking about my mortality. I really want to live until my husband retires so I can spend long days with him traveling across the country again. That is my dream. To live long enough to spend 5-10 years in retirement with my husband – where our days are free and we can take any road that looks interesting.
After the shootings in Oregon the other day, I realize that I have nothing to be angry about even if I do have a terminal illness. Complaining about the life I have had would be ridiculous when so many people go to work, go to school, go to a movie and never make it home again. No chance to prepare. No chance for doctors to try and cure or prolong their lives. No chance for Mother Nature to take her course. No time for planning. No time for good-byes.
I nearly died twice in 1997. I was saved by two strangers on two separate occasions. I honestly feel that every day I have lived past that time has been a blessing and a bonus – a true gift from God. I have had almost twenty years of happiness with the love of my life. A love I didn’t know was possible all those years ago. I have walked hand in hand with my favorite person in the world, in Paris, in Abu Dhabi, in New York, in Los Angeles, and lived six months in a van with him crossing the country.
Schizophrenia or no schizophrenia I was given a second chance and these added years have been the very best of my life.
I always need to prepare myself for the worst when I have something wrong with me, and whenever I think of the possibility, I eventually come back to thankfulness and gratitude.
I am ready for all my tests tomorrow – come what may. As usual I will crack a joke to the person taking my blood, and smile, and be chatty in order to overcome my nervousness. S/he won’t know the whole process I have had to go through to in order to give samples of my blood and urine.
Only I know the full impact these things have on my life. A life, I’m thankful to still be living, and when my time comes I hope to still feel the power of thanksgiving for every day and every week, and every month, and every year I survived those suicide attempts. So many people never get that second chance and I have had so many.
Off to the lab. By mid-week I should know how I am doing. There is probably nothing going on that some medicine can’t fix. Either way, I have prepared for the worst and I’m better for it. Somehow the whole process brings the beauty and sacredness of life into focus.
I don’t know if it is a symptom of my mental illness, or just my character, but I think about death every day. If anything goes wrong or feels different in my body, I think it is terminal. That is an example of my anxiety, and fear. There are other times though I think about developing an illness and dying, and I’m not frightened at all. I am totally at peace with it.
I have a couple of wishes about my dying. I want to have several months to prepare for it, and I hope that I go with a happy and peaceful heart. I want to be a person who is pleasant while dying. I want to share the experience with my husband and those who care about me without bitterness, anger, or depression.
I pray I can manage that.
If my wishes comes true and I have time to prepare for my death, I want to write my own obituary and plan my own funeral. I have already picked out one of the songs I want played several times (so people really hear the lyrics). Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrotsEzgEpg
I also want to create a video collection for my husband over a month (or how much time I have). I want it to be videos of me laughing, talking to him about things I think are important for him to remember, and a visual and audio recording telling him how much he is loved. I want him to be able to turn on these videos and be reminded that someone thought he was the most precious person out of all the billions of people on the planet. He was, and will always be, number one for me.
I also want to have time to create twelve months of letters for my husband. I want to give the letters to a friend to mail the first day of every month for a year. That way I will be able to send my husband a message every month for the first year after I am gone. The letters would be encouraging. Telling him to try and be happy, to try and find things he loves to occupy his heart, his time, his mind.
When I think about what I want to leave behind in this world, it’s not much. I don’t care if I never make it to a best seller list. I don’t care if I never win a Pushcart Prize. I don’t care if I don’t have a lot of money to leave as an inheritance.
I want to leave some of my love behind, and the creative ways I found to love the most important person to me.
This is what I want my legacy to be:
Creativity and how I used that to honor love; a once in a lifetime love.
If you are reading this God, please take notes.