It May Be Life, But Is It Living?

by Jake Block

I got my “wellness check” this week, when I went to the doctor for a horribly wrenched shoulder that I have been fighting with for the past month. We all get them when you’re old enough for Medicare, so I sat in my doctor’s office in the blue smock of shame, a nurse checking out my feet, answering the “100 question assessment,” and going over my list of medications in preparation for Dr. C to come through the door.

So, all in all, I’m as well as you could expect an almost 69 year old man with arthritis and polycythemia to be. And after being put into shoulder holds that reminded me of the pretzel twists used by the late wrestler The Iron Sheik, getting two shots into the joint of my shoulder, and getting my shirt back on, Dr. C had me come into his office, where he sat at his desk and opened up my file. He leaned back in his leather chair, as he touched a button on his CD player. Humble Pie. Always a good choice. 30 Days In The Hole. His desk is full of files, a few “toys” and on the wall, diplomas and family pictures, and one of my infrared photos of Reelfoot Lake hung on the wall to his left.
He withdrew my “Living Will” from beneath the red sheet of paper and glanced through it. He looked up from his desk and asked, “Any changes?” Now, my “living will” is pretty simple. If I go into surgery and die on the table, I have a standing DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), unless he could guarantee my Power of Attorney, with 95% certainty, that reviving me would not leave me dependent on tubes, wires and technology to live. End of story. I assured him that it was good, and he asked if my wife would want to review it.

Now she and I have been on the same page regarding our end of life agreements for many years. I know what she wants, and she knows what I want. Neither of us is so in love with life that we would agree to spend any time in a limbo between life and death, supported my machines, or drugged to the margins of life. And we have both lived a good, long life with some pretty great highs and a few trips to the abyss that were traumatic, but learning experiences, in the long run. As my father used to say, “Live hard, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.” He was a mortician, so if anyone should “get it,” it would be him.

There are some that would quote Dylan Thomas’ (1914-1953) poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” For those who don’t know it:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Yes, there are those who, no matter what the pain or ignobility survivability might demand, would beg the doctor for just one more wire, one more tube… one more cut of the scalpel to keep the blood flowing, the breath circulating… keeping them “alive.” I can, on some level, appreciate their desire to survive at all costs, but I reserve the right to disagree, at least as far as my personal life is concerned.

I, for one could not be so self-centered and egotistical that my waning life should take precedence of those around me, when the intervention of medical technology might buy me a scant few months or perhaps a year of “life,” hooked up to machines that, in sustaining my life, can drain the emotional and financial vibrancy of my loved ones. So, when I spoke with Dr. C, who was not only my physician, but my friend, he understood where I was coming from. He knew that there were many situations where he could keep me alive with technology and his medical skills, but knowing me, he understood that for a man like me, just being alive wasn’t necessarily “LIFE.”

We all must, at last, come to grips with our own mortality for certain, but to do that, we must examine our existence on this earthly plane and what we require to make it worth staying. For me, I would have to be viable as a man, and able to function in a self-sufficient way, be able to exercise my creative side with my photography, my intellectual side with my writing, and my erotic side as well, to provide the emotional support that my partner requires with me. Now certainly, as we age, these facets of our lives require some modifications based on our physical attributes. Much as we would like to think that we can be the men and women that we were in our teens, twenties and thirties, reality eventually shows us the weakness of our personal equations. Or, as the immortal Dale Grabowski, explainer of things, once told me, “You may not be as good as you once was, but you can be as good once as you ever was.”

So sure, hang on to life and drain every drop of personal enjoyment and pleasure that you can until your cup is empty, but then, realize that we all must at one point lay down the sword and shield, because like it or not, age is the one battle you will not win in the end. Many fear death, but I am not one who does. It’s simply another damned thing you’ve got to do. I still have time to rage against the dying of the light, but when the sunset comes, it won’t find me cowering and begging to stay.

I remember one day when I was undergoing phlebotomy for the second time in the same week, and lamenting the nurse ripping through my flesh, shoving a sharp 16 gauge needle into my vein, trying to draw off a pint of the thick sludge that was my blood. I’d just been diagnosed with a fairly rare condition called polycythemia, in which, for some reason, your body begins to make way too many red blood cells, increasing the amount and thickness of your body’s blood. Like forcing more and more water into a balloon, unless the excess is drawn off, the results are always less than good. Ultimately, the condition causes clotting and stroke, or internal gangrene, or other less than pleasant and ultimately deadly conditions.

In the chair next to me was a older gentleman, a man in his late 60s, who was hooked up to a machine and three separate bags of chemicals… chemotherapy… attempting to stave off the inevitable ravages of a particularly aggressive cancer. The cancer, at this point was winning, but he fought on vowing to reach the goal of seeing the birth of his grandchild. He told me, “My goal used to be living to see 100, but then it became 75, then 70.” Now it was the birth of his grandchild, but by the time he was finished with this four hour procedure, he laughed and said, “bedtime. I know I can make it until then!”

His lips moved from time to time as he sat there, shivering under his blanket and trying to concentrate on the group TV playing in the cancer center’s treatment room. I asked, “praying?” He looked at me, kind of sideways and tired, and said, “No, I don’t pray anymore. I think about the poem “Invictus” by William Ernst Henley (1849 -1903). When I get sick from the chemo, it helps to take my mind off of the nausea.”

I told him that I wasn’t familiar with the poem, and he smiled wanly, eyes closed, and quoted:

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

I sat there, watching my thick, dark blood oozing into the bag marked BIO-HAZARDOUS WASTE. I said, “Good words. Glad they help.” Then we chatted for a few moments and he drifted off to sleep. He was still sleeping when I left, once my treatment was complete. On my way out, I remember touching him on the shoulder and whispering, “Beat that bitch, man.” I learned that he indeed made it to bedtime, but died before the birth of his grandchild, a boy, they named after him.

I’m still kicking, a few years after then, and that big-ass needle isn’t nearly as hard to take as it used to be, and thanks to the doctors and nurses there at the Cancer Center, I’m enjoying the condition “in remission.” I’m thankful for the small doses of humility that being in the company of people who were fighting their losing battles with dignity, offered me. They’ve given me insights into my own life and outlook on death I’ve found enlightening and supportive in times less pleasant.

Death is inevitable, but we choose how to face it. It’s a bitch we’ll eventually lose to, but while we may end up broken, we sure as hell don’t have to be defeated. I sometimes think of the words of Invictus, but also those of Death Be not Proud by the poet John Donne (1572 – 1631):

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

We’re living, so we live, and we alone should be able to choose the manner and time of our passing, when we can. We may not inevitably be able to “beat that bitch,” but however we decide to leave the ring is our own choice. We have no one to impress but ourselves.
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God

The Order of Pan
The Order of Cernunnos
The Order of Prometheus
The Order of Dionysis
The Order of Shiva