What’s a Good Life?

Working late last night and being coaxed by my parents into a pancake breakfast at the local diner have both combined to delay this post by a good 24 hours. The ironic thing is that this post is further delaying the post I’ve been delaying for about a month now, as mentioned in my last post. Oooops! But I guess the lesson here is that everything will happen if and only when you want it to, so until then, you just have to deal with that little thing called procrastination.

Now that I’m done justifying my slack as of late, let’s get into why we’re here.

After reading Michael Wolff’s “A Life Worth Ending” and sitting through yet another calc class behind Nick, I’m left to wonder about something very obscurely pertinent: What kinds of lives are we even living?

Don’t worry. That may sound ridiculously philosophical on the surface, but it’s not at all, and I can promise you that because I hate philosophy. I wish I could emphasize “hate” more there. Hate is such an understatement. I mean, you know Sartre? Yeah, well he’s my arch nemesis. Legit. If I could make a dart board with someone’s face on it, he would be the chosen one.

But in my desperate attempt at keeping readers interested in my contemplation of a good life, I digress. Get back on topic, Leah.

Before we dive straight into my thoughts on the quality of life and when enough is enough, however, I first need to explain two things.

One: What in the world is “A Life Worth Ending,” and why is it making me contemplate the meaning of life?

I recommend taking a few moments to read it yourself. It’s a great piece, and, no matter what your viewpoint on the subject matter is, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Anyhow, “A Life Worth Ending” is an award-winning editorial from New York magazine written by Michael Wolff in 2012 about the long term care (LTC) that his aging mother has gone through and how that care has affected both her and his family. Basically, Wolff grapples throughout the entire article with the idea of treating patients who would otherwise die as being prolonged suffering rather than attempted salvation. It’s a very sad, intense piece that uses his mother to pull back the veil of home and hospice care in order to discuss something that most people shy away from: quality of life.

Now to explain the second thing: Nick.

Nick, whose last name I honestly don’t know, is someone I’m finding myself writing about a lot lately. He’s a sophomore at my college and is in my calculus class. I sit two seats behind him on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and one seat behind him in the row to his left on Tuesdays. I’ve spoken to him all of one time, yet every day I see him, he breaks my heart.

Nick has some conditions. What they specifically are, I don’t know, and, frankly, I find it impolite to ask. But he definitely has some medically related problems, the first of them being that he’s blind.

What kind of blindness it is, exactly, I don’t know. He isn’t the all-I-see-is-black kind of blind, but he doesn’t see well enough to get around without a guide dog, either. When he speaks to you, he knows where you are; he can see that there is someone or something there, but he cannot see exactly what it is.

His other problems, again, I don’t know. I know that he wears either a bandanna or a knit beanie every day to cover his hair (yes, he has hair; I’ve seen it peep out before) and that–for the past week, at least–he wheels around an oxygen tank and has a breathing tube running around his cheeks and up into his nose.

He’s the nicest person I’ve ever met, which is why he breaks my heart. He doesn’t at all deserve what life has brought him. But I’ll come back to Nick later. Right now, though, I feel that it’s time to tell you what I’m thinking.

I was halfway through the article when I got to calc. During the class and after I left, feeling worse than ever for Nick (why, I don’t know–a phrase that seems to come up a lot when I’m discussing him), all of these questions started popping into my head. Is medicine prolonging our suffering and thus our deaths, or is it alleviating our pain and therefore causing us to live? Even if symptoms are suppressed, causing us to feel better, does that mean we are better? If we have to wake up each morning and take seven different pills in order to reverse what a life of ingesting carcinogens has done to us, does that make us healthy? Or is it all false hope, our demise merely being prolonged? Are we suffering more keeping ourselves alive than if we just let the diseases take us the second they start? If we are ill, debilitated, deformed, etc. and are only kept here by medications and hospitalizations, if we’re only still living by suppressing death, are we even alive?

The thoughts kept coming and coming and would not stop. They worsened, growing even darker and more befuddling as I sat behind Nick learning direct substitution in limits for the fifth day in a row. As I left the room and began my jaunt down the five flights of stairs in the back left side of the liberal arts building, I started wondering if life is even worth it. I mean, if we live only to have horrible ends, then what’s the point? And as I sat in the library finishing “A Life Worth Ending,” I couldn’t help but think, “Would it be better to give up the fight, to just let ourselves die before living becomes a chore?”

It’s a very macabre and chilling moment when that thought crosses your mind.

So, like the writer that I am, I just had to keep thinking about it.

In that thinking, I discovered something incredible, a sort of epiphany regarding how we should look at life. It may have taken me a while to get to this point, but that is the whole reason why I’m writing this. I want to share it in hopes of bringing a bit of light back into somebody’s day.

Wolff clearly believes that long term care and the treatment of terminal illnesses prolong our suffering. They keep us from our deaths and put us in a sort of “pre-coffin” state (his words, not mine). The things that he says in “A Life Worth Ending” make it seem like it would be better if we let ourselves go at the first sign of aging, like the elderly and terminally ill of our society would have rather died at the start than let it get so far into symptom suppression that they seemingly have no end.

If you read his article, you’ll get why I’m saying this. You’ll also get why he’s saying what he is and therefore be able to decide for yourself if his argument is true.

But I’m here writing this right now to tell you that everything he says is not. I’m here to say that the suffering we go through, whether it be a loved one’s death or a stubbed toe or rejection from art school or finding out you have cancer, makes us stronger. It makes us live by giving us a reason to hang on, to start enjoying our lives instead of sitting back and watching time as it flies out the window into the sunset. It gives us a reason to stop, smell the roses, and start doing what we’ve always wanted. Suffering is the pinch that wakes us forever-asleep humans up, making us see the reality of life being short and the fact that, if we just sit back and relax, we won’t get anything we want done.

In other words, the possibility of death teaches us how to live.

Sure, you could easily refute what I’ve just said. Michael Wolff is only one example of the arguments against. But before you go on saying that I’m wrong, I’d like to share with you the reasons why I believe I’m right.

The first is my great grandmother on my mom’s side, or my Gigi, who passed away in April 2012. She was around 90 years old and had been slowly declining in health for a while. Her eyesight was going, she’d constantly forget to eat (and was therefore only about 95 pounds), and she couldn’t tell my family apart until we told her our names. Once she got that small bit of info, she was golden and would talk our ears off the rest of the night, asking us about work and school and relationships and the next holiday. Heck, she’d even throw in some childhood stories. But unless we told her who we were, she had no idea who she was even with. It was like that for a few years.

Right before she died, she was in and out of the hospital multiple times; her organs were starting to shut down because of her age and malnutrition. Yet every time we visited her, she would tell us that she’d never been better, that she just wanted to hold on a little longer. She’d tell us how she couldn’t wait to see us again, how she couldn’t wait to have another holiday or watch that evening’s news. She’d also tell us how she wished she was young again (and also fatter). But then she’d say that she’d take any life over none.

No matter how debilitated she got, she just wanted to keep living. And she did. Until her body could not take it any longer, she kept on kicking. She wanted to keep on living and keep on experiencing until there was physically no way for her to go on any longer. And that’s because there were things she wanted to do. What they were, exactly, she’d never say. The only thing we needed to know was that there was stuff that still needed to be done, and that was enough to make her want to live.

Now for my grandma, my father’s mother. She passed away when I was five. I don’t remember too much about her death other than that it was from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke and that we were there at her hospital bed as she left this world. I remember being suddenly rushed there and her saying goodbye (although I don’t remember what her words were), and I remember crying a lot as she did. But then, at the last second, my mom took me, my sister, and my cousin out of the room and into the hallway. I remember the beeping of the machine she was hooked up to (what I now know to be a heart monitor) get really fast. My mom went back into the room, and the beeping turned into one long, high-pitched noise. I remember my aunt yelling something like “no,” and we all started crying even more than before. I think there were some doctors who came a few seconds later, but that’s where the memory stops.

I said that I don’t remember what she told me when she said goodbye, which is, for the most part, true. What makes it partly false is that I remember hearing her say, as my mom rushed us little kids into the hallway, that she was happy and could finally go.

Another personal experience of mine with death by terminal illness is my uncle, my dad’s sister’s husband. Denny was his name, and he was diagnosed with either stage three or four (I think it was four) brain cancer a few weeks before I started eighth grade. He was given around six months to a year to live, even with surgery.

He went for surgery and chemo almost immediately. By the time we saw him, he had no more hair and a scar running along his scalp. They got all of the cancer, but it would grow back. At some point within the next year, the doctors said, the cancer would take over his cranium and kill him.

Denny loved life. He loved his wife and stepson and hunting and eating, and he didn’t want to die. He was optimistic, we all thought; he said he would live to die from old age–or at least not die from the cancer until he was old. When you spoke to him, he sounded as if he’d just found the fountain of youth and, therefore, death could not touch him.

Plain and simple, he just didn’t plan on dying.

What he did plan on doing was hunting as often as he could. He also planned on going to Disney World and the beach, and he planned on having some special evenings with his wife. His final plans were to see his son get married, no matter how far away that may be.

He attempted and completed many of his plans, although he did never make it to Disney or his son’s wedding. He held on for three whole years, but then the cancer came back suddenly. It was only a few months until it killed him. I remember the day that he died, firstly because he died, secondly because we were celebrating my aunt’s (mother’s sister) birthday at The Cheesecake Factory, and thirdly because I got awful food poisoning from the salmon I ordered. We got the phone call from my aunt (dad’s sister married to Denny) saying he was dying as we were on our way to the restaurant. My mom dropped my sister, my Nana (her mom), and I off in town for convenience sake, and she hopped on the highway to make the hour trip to Denny in his hospital bed at his home, planning on meeting my dad (who was away for the weekend) there.

Denny, in his last hours, told my aunt to call us. He told her that he wanted to see us all one last time before he died, that he wouldn’t go until we got there. He hung on until noon, thirty minutes before my mom arrived, in hopes of seeing his whole family again.

Now for a very special girl (and very good friend of mine) named Francesca. (You can read a bit about her incredible story on her blog.) She was found to have an inoperable tumor on her brain stem almost two years ago. She immediately underwent treatment, and the tumor, as of now, is no more.

Even though her life was turned upside down, forcing her into some very intensive care that caused her to miss out on a lot, if you’d have even had one conversation with her, you’d never know she was ill. She continues to love life no matter what it has brought to her. If you asked her, she’d say the tumor was one of the best things to ever happen simply because it showed her everything she needed to know about life.

If you want to spoil what it is that she now knows, then take a break from me and read her blog. But if not, I’ll be getting there in a moment.

Now it’s time to come back to the boy in my calc class named Nick. I’ve only spoken to him once, as I stated at the beginning of this super long post, but that was all I needed in order to see what we should think of life. Which brings me to the point of all of these stories. All of the above combine to show why I’ve concluded that we need suffering and the fight for life, why it makes us appreciate living more than ever before: Any life is better than no life at all. I mean, if we didn’t feel that way–if we truly didn’t want to live–then we wouldn’t. It’s as simple as that. Suicide and the elderly who “let themselves go” once their loved ones pass prove this.

So, any life is a great life?

You see, when I talked to Nick, he sounded as if he just won a million bucks. Sure, he had a guide dog, a bandanna, and an oxygen tank, but he sounded like I imagine Leonardo DiCaprio will when he finally wins an Oscar. He’s honestly the happiest person I’ve ever met. He was talking to me as if the only thing he had to worry about was possibly switching his major from environmental science (to what, he’s not quite sure) and the calc test we had that Friday. It was like he was the healthiest, richest man alive, like he was flipping Jay Gatsby himself–post reuniting with Daisy and pre Myrtle’s death, that is. He was just happy to be alive.

Any life is a great life.

Nick’s attitude blew my mind, even though it shouldn’t have. I should’ve known he would be like that because of Francesca. She’s the same exact way, the girl who filled my high school’s newspaper with columns discussing why we should be grateful for life. Yet her’s was filled with bitterness and pain for a very long time.

But that bitterness and pain doesn’t matter. Because of her experiences, she has a philosophy like none other (taken straight from the bio page of her blog): “I stopped asking God, “why?” [sic] Instead, I started to treat everyday as a new opportunity and devote myself to make a difference. […] [T]he ill fated times make the fortunate ones that much sweeter. […] [E]veryday is a struggle, but tomorrow is a blessing.”

Because of her life’s sudden turn, she sees just how precious time is. Now that she’s danced with death, she wants to hold onto life that much longer.

The possibility of death makes us want to live.

And even if Nick isn’t dying, I believe that his complications have made him feel the same. It’s why the sick are, for the most part, happier than the healthy. It’s why the impoverished are, for the most part, more grateful than the rich. It’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” If there’s a possibility of death, pain, or sorrow, you try to make what’s left of or in your life as good as it can get because you actually see its perish-ability. You actually see your perish-ability.

That’s why we only die if and when we want to. If we feel we have nothing left to live for, we have no problem letting go, but if there’s something more to be done, we hang on. It’s why my Gigi and my Uncle Denny wanted to keep going as long as possible; they still had stuff to accomplish and people to see. It’s why my grandma finally let herself go; she’d checked the last thing off her bucket list. It’s why Francesca and Nick are so happy despite the turn their lives have taken; they want to survive and live because they’re still only kids.

Even if it means a bit of pain, we still want to live, for any life is better than none at all. And while Wolff may be content in his pessimism that negates this thought, he’s given me no reason to believe that I should feel otherwise. Maybe it’s all just a matter of relativity and opinion, but I’d like to stay hopeful and say that he’s just being dramatic. I know that if something awful ever happens to me, no matter how tragic, I’ll want to keep on going. Even if dementia one day settles into my mind, I won’t want to be offed. Even if I have no idea who or where I am, the fact that I still am will be enough to keep me happy and never make me regret the life that I’m lucky enough to still have. For any life is a good life, and any life is good enough for me.

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