Animals may struggle to survive but they have no will to live. Driven by their selfish genes who want nothing more than one more chance to reproduce themselves, animals will run and hide and fight but in the end they surrender to the inevitable. The rabbit relaxes in the eagle’s claws, the deer falls to the lion’s jaws and even predators slink away to die when the time comes. Animals live in the present, sentient, yes, able to distinguish between good things and bad, good moments and fatal ones. But they have no concept of tomorrow. Lucky them.
Only humans — and perhaps a few other species — have the capacity to contemplate their own death. They can know that present joy may still lead to sorrow and that present pain may have future relief. They can weigh the merits of holding on versus letting go.
So why do some let go so easily while others cling to the sweetness that is life?
I had a friend, Frank, who was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was given six months to a year, perhaps two with treatment. Many people would have slumped their shoulders and accepted their fate. Not Frank. He eagerly took the treatment offered and then the next one; he volunteered for experimental drugs, changed his diet and his lifestyle. He held on for nearly a decade.
But he didn’t merely hold on; he embraced life — travelled and explored, tried new foods and new things, did things that scared him like skydiving and through it all laughed and met every new challenge with grace. Even at the end, when he could no longer eat, he would come to dinner and drink clear soup while the rest of us feasted. He would laugh and sing and enjoy the company of friends. I never knew a more graceful approach to death — or, rather, to life.
My mother-in-law, Dorothy, was widowed some years ago after a lifetime with the same man, an Anglican priest. Even in their last days together they were clearly in love. Dorothy grieved and wondered what was left to her, other than heaven. Until she was told that her heart was literally broken and that she might not have much more to life. She decided then and there that she wasn’t ready, in her words ‘to leave the party.’ She took the promise of a year or two and following every instruction of her doctors to the letter has now stretched it to more than a decade. Last week she broke her hip. At 89 and with a heart condition, they discussed the issue of resuscitation during surgery. It might break your ribs; there could be a lot of pain. Her answer: absolutely bring me back if you can. I still have flowers to grow and berries to eat and yes, a little wine to drink and great grand children to visit with and oh so many books to read. I’m not ready to leave yet.
The surgery went well — no extreme measures needed — and Dorothy looks forward to returning home.
There are days when the grind of bad knees and gradual slowing of every part of my body makes me wonder what I will do when it gets to be too much. Will I slip away like an old dog and find someplace to die or will I cling to the party until the last dog is hung? What will you do? Merely struggle to survive or will you struggle to live. Because that’s what separates us all — not the will to live but the joie de vivre that makes living worthwhile.
But that’s ten minutes.