by Casey N. Cep
He never got better. Well, not quite: He got a little better, but then he got worse. He never got better enough.
When my uncle died in November, it was after years of sickness and suffering, but also years of health and joy. You’ll forgive me for sometimes forgetting that he was dying. Daily life isn’t orderly; it’s chaotic, so even when someone is dying, you sometimes forget.
Was he dying when he sat teasing my cats with a laser pointer, telling me a story I’d never heard about the time some friend of his had fed their cat peyote and she raced around the house like a demon? He didn’t seem to be. He didn’t even seem to be dying in his final weeks, when he would sit quietly on my couch, opening his eyes only to tell me that he was meditating, a thing I never knew he did, but that he explained he’d learned once in a yoga class, something I would never have believed if he had not been telling me about it so seriously.
When exactly did my uncle begin dying? It’s not as fixed a moment as when he died. That happened one cold November night: his life a tall glass from which he took big swigs for six decades until finally, after a few last little sips, the glass was empty. I know precisely when he stopped drinking, but not when the glass went from being more full to being more empty.
One of the most haunting phrases I learned as a hospital chaplain was “actively dying.” The patient is actively dying, the nurses might say when they called for a chaplain, meaning you’d better come quickly. Often they were right, but once a patient said to be actively dying went home a few weeks later and a few months after that I went to his fortieth wedding anniversary.
A novelist can pull a plot out of death, but for most of us death comes and goes, drawing frighteningly near and then going blissfully far away. We rarely know how closely death is stalking us. A child might wonder if death had been hiding in the pockets of my uncle’s flannel shirt or between the matches in his pocket, but an adult worries about where death will go next.
The longer we live, the more we worry about how soon we’ll die. This year had even more talk than most about immortality and even more research into senescence. It’s not enough to stall the aging process, we want to stop it. Even Google is trying to turn us into Tithonus. Would living forever be better? I doubt it. Our life expectancies already lengthen like shadows, bringing their own kinds of cold and darkness. We may have cured many of the diseases that killed our grandparents, but illness has found new forms.
2014 was my uncle’s last year. Was it better than the ones that came before? I doubt it. His life was full of good years. The year he met the girl he almost married; even the year she moved back to Florida with her family and he stayed in Maryland with his. The year he cut his hippie hair to join the Army; especially the year he finished his service and started to grow it out again. The year he got a new red Firebird; even the year he lost his license and my grandmother started to race around town in it. The year he inherited a grey parrot from my great uncle who was so loud we children covered our ears when he squawked but was so sweet he would sit on my great aunt’s shoulder and try to pull out her false teeth. My uncle’s life was full of good years; 2014 was just his last.
Photo by Judy van der Velden