Reminders of our mortality

In little existential bites

In the last twelve months, we have had our share of medical drama in the family. It began with my breast cancer scare during the summer of 2021 and the lumpectomy that followed it. It is strange to me that after that we had a string of health news and events in such a short span of time – it feels to me like someone, somewhere is poking us repeatedly… or in my case, pounding through my thick stubborn skull the fact that life is very fleeting and that we actually have little control of how it unfolds. “Hey, it’s about time you get it: you’re actually not in control over anything… except your hygiene.”

The cancer scare from last year has a happy ending – it was benign, and the lumpectomy in the fall was out of precaution. But for about six days in August, I sat around waiting for the biopsy results, and that was an interesting time. Being me, of course, I thought about how to leave my affairs in order, making sure that Jeff was taken care of (as if he needs it… he’s 19 years older than me and has more life experience!). First of all, a tad dramatic, I know. A biopsy on a 6-mm tumor led to “oh no, I’m going to die!” One does not automatically lead to the other. But my thought process was important at the time because I was forced to think about death. I thought, “so, is this how the cookie crumbles? Why so early, God?” During the wait, I was visiting my brother and his wife who welcomed their first child just two weeks before. I wondered if I would be able to see this precious boy grow up… Needless to say, it was an existential six days.

The episode of Jeff’s medical emergency was the next existential experience, and frankly, we are still processing it. It was traumatic, so I don’t like thinking about it too much, too often, and I know that Jeff is going through some surviver’s guilt – aortic dissections normally kill people… “why was I spared?” is the question he is dealing with. For me, it was another lesson that really nothing about this life is within our control. The few hours after Jeff and I parted ways in the ER were a real low point in my life – I thought Jeff might die, and I may become a widow, and how am I supposed to live the rest of my life without him?

As if that wasn’t enough dose of existential lessons, I recently had another such moment. During a fairly routine visit to the doctor, I had an EKG/ECG done. The doctor saw me afterwards and didn’t even talk about it – presumably because it looked normal. A week later, the test result appeared on my “mychart,” and boy was I shocked. It said that I had had an infarction of unknown age. A heart attack? I quickly ran through my memory bank to check if I had felt anything bad. Nope… I don’t remember having a heart attack… huh?? I was skeptical of what I was reading because I felt fine – more than fine! Of course, I consulted Dr. Google to see if you could even have a silent heart attack and be completely fine (that’s a bad idea BTW). I’m not obese, I do not have hypertension, I am not pre-diabetic, and my triglyceride levels are super low, etc… so what gives? But for the next 20 hours or so, I was so confused, and frankly, a little scared in case it meant something. Your heart is a vital organ and it is so deep within your body… and during those 20 hours, I got a small taste of what it meant to put one’s life into God’s hands. I did not even tell Jeff about it until I knew for sure. And just in case, I ordered a vegetarian meal for dinner that evening (hahaha, so unlike me). And the next day when I spoke with the doctor’s office, I found out… that this happens all the time to healthy people because those machines are so sensitive!! This is why you need humans to read the actual report.

After I knew everything was okay, I told Jeff and we had a really good laugh about it. We even laughed about that rogue vegetarian meal (which was really delicious, by the way). It was a comic episode, but I cannot help noticing the messages that are piling up before me, and they point to a singular lesson… one of human mortality and of humility that is required to accept it, to be at peace with it. When we are young, it is so difficult to imagine that our lives could end… so it is easy to focus on our own goals. Of course, our accomplishments on earth are important because we are supposed to express the potential God allowed for us… but at what point does it become purposeless? Achievement as the end in and of itself? Money for its own sake, safety out of fear, ego because we are all to some degree narcissists (while we accuse others of being full-blown narcissists)…

The awareness that we do not control or “own” the days, hours, minutes, and seconds in our lives helps us to truly embrace them and be responsible stewards of them. In recent years, I have seen stoicism make a comeback, and with it the Latin phrase “momento mori,” or “remember that you must die.” This sentiment helps us to put everything that is happening around us into a larger holistic perspective. But let’s take it one step further: We all die, but the real kicker is that none of us know when. The potential immediacy of that fateful moment is what should drive the notion that we do not actually own the next 24 hours. They are not guaranteed. Not under our control. Why? Because just maybe history, even our story, doesn’t revolve around us.

I am a fan of Bishop Robert Barron, and one of the things he says is that we in reality are all a part of “Theo-drama,” but our perspective is set on the “ego-drama.” I love this spiritual way of looking at life. I know that I have made decisions in my life based on this “ego-drama” I was writing for myself. But it is all in vain. Because no matter how spectacular and special I think this little “ego-drama” is, it is really an illusion of control and importance. The existential moments, when they come, teach us of this illusion and helps us to see the reality of the bigger drama unfolding through history. One where we have roles but the story does not revolve around us. This humbles us (there is that word, “humility”) and helps us to ask the right questions and to act with the right motives. “How can I help you?” “What can I do to make things better?”

I am so grateful that my existential lessons came in bite sizes. My cancer scare had a happy ending. My funky EKG reading was a technical glitch, and the internal Sturm und Drang only lasted less than a day. And while Jeff’s experience was traumatic for the both of us, my slice of true existential fear was a few hours… and I got him back. Not in the least, our dog Maris’s journey into “home hospice care” is the latest lesson in mortality. Okay, God. I get it. I get the picture. Nothing is under my control, and I need to put my trust in you.

Maris, having an existential moment

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