I found out last night that the father of a friend of mine died suddenly the other night. Obviously all death is tragic, but there is something especially unsettling about unexpected death—the lack of warning, of preparation, the inability to say all the things we’d say if we had the chance.
Naturally, this terribly sad news made me think of my own father, currently in the midst of a flare-up of his polymyositis and still trying to improve his renal function. He has flirted with death more times than I care to elaborate, and when I consider the many life-threatening conditions he’s battled for so many years, I can’t help but wonder just how much more his body can take.
For people whose lives are dominated by chronic illness, sudden death is so disconcerting because it flies in the face of all the things we do each day for our health. I’ve watched my father test his blood sugar, inject himself with insulin, endure the nausea and ill effects of chemotherapy, and work against the pain and fatigue of muscle disease for years. I’ve picked up his blood pressure, gout, and cholesterol medications from the drug store, and I’ve visited him in the cardiac unit after his catheterizations, angioplasties, and stent insertions. All the things he does to stay alive could wind up becoming his entire life, if he let them.
And all the things he does for his health reassure me that he, that we, have some control over what happens, that if we plan and dose and medicate and recuperate, we can keep death at bay and our bodies can keep bouncing back. Sudden illness and death is so scary for that exact reason, because it defies planning or preparation or proactive approaches. But perhaps the day to day grind of chronic illness, the whispers and tuggings that our conditions bring into our lives, can also combat that most sober of reminders.
No matter how short or trivial the conversation may be, I never hang up with my father (or my mother, husband, or brothers) without saying “I love you". I do this not because I am thinking catastrophically that it could be the last time we speak, but because I have learned not to take anything for granted—illness as well as health.