Thursday, October 22, 2009


I read this once.

The shortest book in the world:



That’s how it used to work. If you were sick, you died. The doctor came. He brought his black bag. But there wasn’t much in it.

“I saw a bottle in there.”

“Yeah, that’s for me.”

People die all the time. Now and then. But in the Olden Days, it just seemed more expected. Almost an everyday occurrence.

“Where’s Mary?”

“Died in childbirth.”

“And the baby?”

“Gone too.”

“The older brother?”


“The Dad?”

“Eaten by a bear.”

“Is there anybody here at all?”

“Me. And I just stepped on a rusty nail, so, goodbye.”

Dangerous times, the Olden Days. You could go from anything. Just like that. (I just snapped my fingers.) I’m sure it was no less of a tragedy when death was more common. People were still devastated. But they seemed to – and this may be wrong, I don’t know, I wasn’t there – they seemed to accept death more as an inevitable part of life.

Death was all around them back then. In rural cultures, they participated in it themselves. They killed animals for food or to protect their animals. Which they later went on to slaughter and wring their necks.

In the Olden Days, there was no doubt about it.

Death happened.

Frequently, and like that. (I just snapped my fingers again.) And you could do very little about any of it.

“I thought you had a date.”

“He ate the wrong kind of mushroom.”

“Where’s Louise?”

“The barn fell on her.”

“What happened to the wagon train?”


Life was nothing but bad news. No wonder Olden Days people were more actively religious. Their loved ones were going in and out of life like a revolving door.

“What’s you name?”

“Don’t bother. I won’t be here that long.”

Desperate for understanding, people had nowhere else to turn. So they looked to the heavens, and they (or I imagine at least a few of them) said:

“Dear, God. Would you please stop killing us?”

Eventually, things slowly and gradually, began to change. Medicines were discovered for certain diseases. So you didn’t die from them anymore.

There were safer child-birthing techniques. Mother and baby, not dead at all.

They invented anesthetic. So you didn’t die from shock while they were operating on you. (Plus – a bonus – you were asleep through the whole thing.)

Penicillin and antibiotics. No more dying from the things that used to kill you before penicillin and antibiotics. (My medical knowledge is limited.)

Plus, though arguably most importantly, the doctors started washing their hands.

These advances significantly cut down on the dying. Medical progress cheated death one discovery at a time. “Magic” Johnson. Is there any reason that guy’s still alive? Yes. They invented drugs to save him. And they showed up exactly when he needed them. Now that’s magic.

Today, death isn’t as intrusive as it used to be. Compared to the Olden Days, it’s almost invisible. Few of shoot our own food anymore. We buy it pre-killed and packaged in cellophane. By the time it gets to the supermarket, it doesn’t look like anything that once had a face. It’s just…dinner.

Few people today own cows, and pigs and chickens, so we’ve lost the experience of going after them with an axe. Dead people? They’re almost invisible. The minute you die, they whisk you off to the mortuary. The next thing you know, you’re laid out in a box or poured into an urn.

Mourners will be shedding tears, but a number of them (especially in California) will be bitterly criticizing you, lamenting, “If only he’d eaten more bran.” People may not say it out loud, but for many health enthusiasts, there’s this nagging belief that, you die today, and it’s very likely your fault.

With this type of thinking, how far away is it for an informercial, proclaiming:

“People once said, ‘We’re never going to fly. It’s just not going happen.’ Today, planes take off every twelve seconds. We’re flying around the world. Now, you’re bound to be skeptical about this, but I’m here to tell you that that same ‘turnaround’ can happen with dying. ‘We’re never going to live forever.’ It might just happen. And soon. Impossible? Hey. They said, ‘We’re never going to fly.’”

Sure, people still die. But in a world where death is a virtual stranger, it’s possible to believe that someday, that infomercial may actually sound less crazy. Maybe not in your consciousness, but somewhere, you’re thinking, “Maybe we can live forever.”

And then, you wake up one night with severe shortness of breath because a piece holding your mitral valve in position just got detached. And you go to the hospital, and they tell you you’ve got trouble, and if you go home, you might die.

Die? Really? You mean people are still doing that?

In the blink of an eye, the illusion of invulnerability comes crashing to the ground. Without any comforting explanation.

It wasn’t, “I fell down and broke my mitral valve.” It wasn’t, “A guy sneezed on me on the subway, and he infected my mitral valve.” “How did you hurt your mitral valve?” “I slept funny.” It’s not how it happened. How it happened was

For no reason


A random occurrence. Just like that. (There go those fingers snapping again.) Reminding me of something I never think about, because, unlike in the Olden Days, there is nothing in my daily life that would cause me to think about it.

What I’m reminded of is this:

Anyone, but in this case, me, could die

At any time.

And at any place.

Because of what happened, the awareness of my mortality is now firmly embedded in my consciousness. And I can’t get it out.

So what do I do? Stay inside, because you can die outside? You can just as easily die inside. I could just go to bed and stay there. But, wait, don’t most people die in bed? It’s a terrible dilemma I’m living with. Jolted by this primal reality which has taken control of my brain

I don’t know where to be!

Once I lived my life, oblivious, at least on a moment-to-moment basis, to the possibility of my own death. Now, I’m as “blivious” as I can possibly be!

I wonder how those Olden Days guys handled not wallowing in the reality that was all around them. Perhaps it was being caught up in that whole “subsistence living” process. That won’t work for me. We have food, and we have shelter. We even have a swimming pool. Darn it.

Oh, well. It’s a beautiful day. I think I’ll go outside and look for distractions.


MikeThe Blogger said...

Earl, I expect you will be just fine. The operation is safe and the low mortality rates are excellent (just did some on-line research for you). Considering you probably weren't daily downing KFC and Big Macs like most of the population studied you'll fare even better than most. I am looking forward to the insightful and humourous recounts of your hospital stay. - But you were right about the "washing the hands" thing. - Unfortunately American hospitals are not as fastidious as they should be in those areas. When I was admitted to hospital last year (In Ontario) [HERE'S A HINT FOR ALL YOU CANADIANS] they immediately put me in a private (isolated) room because I told them I had just returned from my two day stay at an American Hospital. My doctor asked why I was in a private room and thought that was a great way to get "the upgrade". ... Best of luck.

PALGOLAK said...

I suggest cultivating mindfulness through meditation.

Perhaps cleaning your pool or, if that sounds too strenuous, meditating on the wave patterns formed by the wind.

Peace out!

JMG said...

Get some bran. I mean, while you're out and all.

YEKIMI said...

I have a feeling you'll fly through this operation fine. My mom has had a bad heart ever since she had rheumatic fever as a kid, which should give you a clue as to hold old she is. In 1982 they gave her 5 years to live. Through the miracle of modern drugs she lived long enough till some doctor invented a procedure with lasers that could fix her heart [a quintuple bypass and a mitral valve fix]. She is very small which means her organs are also small [no, not a Wurlitzer]and they said they couldn't operate on her because at the time, 1982, they didn't have tools small enough to fix her heart. Luckily, a few years later, she was living in the same state at the time as the doctor that had invented the laser procedure and he was the one that did her heart surgery. I don't think it's very often that you can say the doctor who invented the procedure also did your surgery. So here it is, 27 years later after her "death sentence" and she's still kicking. And my boss earlier this year collapsed while visiting his mother in the hospital and turns out he had two bad mitral valves, a week later they operated on him and he's home and doing fine. I'm betting you will come through surgery with flying colors.