Covidisms: Thoughts on Death

I did something last evening that I have never done before. I wrote a serious and heartfelt email to the New York Times and those who make the podcast The Daily, one of my favorite ways to start each day. This podcast has a way of finding and telling stories that get to the heart of what we are all experiencing in the midst of our lives, especially in these days of pandemic and racial strife and economic crisis. There have been many episodes of The Daily that have been poignant, thought provoking and moving, but two of the most recent ones from this past week hit me hard. I would like to share the end of the email that I wrote before I go further with this post:

The episode revisiting the situation in Bergamo, Italy, through the wise, thoughtful and emotional perspective of Dr. Fabiano Di Marco hit home. I lived in Italy for two years as a teen and my wife and I had planned a trip back to Rome and Florence in April, my first trip back to the country in fifty years. Of course, it did not happen. I felt a deep sense of sadness for the Italian people and the medical staff members who are trying to serve in the face of this pandemic.

Today’s episode about the grief felt by little Tilly for her grandfather hit me even harder. I am a grandfather of six kids, five in Chattanooga and one in Denver. I have not been able to see them for what feels like years, except by FaceTime calls. We are planning a driving trip out to Denver and back in late September, because I am not excited about getting back on planes, but we need to reconnect with our family and friends in other parts of the country. Hearing Tilly talk about her grandfather, coupled with the recent losses of one of our long time mental health center employees and another counselor whose clinic I used to consult with, made me very much aware that I could be that grandfather or that employee who contracts this virus and does not make it through the ordeal.

Your stories are powerful. For someone like me, who tries very hard to deal with the emotions by blogging, journaling, taking long hard bike rides or keeping up with the political craziness all around us, they force us to stop, to listen, and most of all, to feel. Ironic, isn’t it, that a psychiatrist would have a hard time feeling. Of course, the feelings are there, and when they are released by storytelling  and powerful emotions that you bring to life, the intensity of it all is almost too much to bear. It is so necessary though, and I know that full well.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for getting the information out there, for telling the stories in such compelling ways, and for making us think, process, and feel. Yours is one of the first podcasts I listen to every day, and the ideas that come from it are some of the last ones I think about when I go to sleep at night. I appreciate what each one of you do. Please keep up the excellent work, knowing that we hear it, and we need it.

I wanted to express my thanks to the makers of this show because they provide a way for me to stay in touch with some very profound feelings during this time that I had simply rather not have. I feel frustration, I feel anger, I feel loss and grief, I feel elation, I feel dullness and boredom, I feel indignation, I feel sorrow, I feel pity, and I feel fear.

As I have mentioned in blog posts earlier this year and in followups afterwards, I will be sixty three years old on October 24th this year, God willing. At that point, I will have lived longer than my father, who died suddenly at age sixty two of a devastating brain aneurysm and cranial bleed. I never had much doubt that I would easily reach that point and that age, given the fact that I try to eat right, I exercise, I am trying to keep my weight and blood sugar and cholesterol and blood pressure down. All the right things that one must do to live a long life, barring catastrophe. I have been holding my figurative breath all the same, knowing that when I reach that milestone I will have a good cry, say a few words of thanks to my dad that I hope he can hear and go about the task of living productively until my sixty fourth birthday.

All of that held true until March of this year. Until the coronavirus upended all our lives, changed our daily routines, changed how and where we work, who we see, how we eat, how we travel, how we worship and how we connect with others. I have done what you have done, tried my best to make good decisions, protect myself and my wife from harm, continued my work to care for my patients the best I can given the circumstances, and kept my cool, for the most part. We have personally been so very blessedly insulated from the ravages of this plague. As far as I know, no one in my family has contracted this virus, no one I work with has had it, and only a few of my patients have, most of them doing well in spite of having the illness.

In the last couple of months, one of our long term mental health center employees, someone who was there when I started working in the center almost twenty nine years ago, contracted the virus and died. He left behind a wife and young son. A pharmacist friend of mine, who visited our offices every month to inspect our medication areas before her retirement, has just been released after a ten day stay with COVID-19. A counselor who once had a family clinic that I did medical consultation with in the early nineties recently contracted the virus, got very ill very fast, refused to be placed on a ventilator, and died quickly of COVID-19. The disease is starting to hit home.

I grieve these losses and setbacks for various reasons. I feel so badly for the families and loved ones of those who pass on. I rejoice over the victories of those who get infected but make it, all the while fretting over what long term consequences they may have to endure. I am sad that when someone like my counselor friend dies, not only because her life was most likely cut significantly short due to this illness, but because her death reminds me starkly that mine is coming too. She and I shared a slice of time, a set of circumstances, a place to talk and work, and a shared cause of promoting good mental health for the people we treated almost three decades ago. I sincerely hope that the work we have done together and that I continue to do goes on, but I am made painfully aware that we will not. We will end.

I do not fear death so much as I am not ready for it. Like everyone else, I am sure in my own feeble mind that this illness, this worst illness of its kind in the last hundred years, is not going to be the way that I will leave this life. It is not aiming for me. I will live a long life and become a grump old man who still likes to read and write and fish and take pictures and take walks by the river. Or will I? The uncertainty of these times is the biggest stress of all.

In watching this pandemic and how it is affecting all of us, I am reminded of a few basic things that we must attend to each and every day, as if it was going to be our last. Things that tend to shine through and demand our attention when someone dies and passes on, leaving their legacies.

  1. Relationships are important. Make them. Enjoy them. Nurture them. Attend to them. Water them like flowers in your summer garden and watch them bloom and dazzle with bright color.
  2. Find something that you are passionate about, and throw yourself at it with fury. Write. Paint. Play music. Heal. Preach. Teach. Mentor. Parent.
  3. Put others above yourself. Whether this viral illness is your ticket off this planet or something else gets you down the road, you will inevitably leave others behind. They, like little Tilly on The Daily podcast, will remember you. They will remember what you said, what you did, what you taught them, but most importantly, how you made them feel.
  4. As the recently departed John Lewis of Georgia said, get into trouble. Get into good trouble. Do the right thing because it IS the right thing. Do not waiver in your resolve to do this, because it is important.
  5. Know above all else that your reason for being here on this earth is not to glorify yourself, embellish yourself, surround yourself with riches and accolades and awards, and make yourself the center of the universe. (You are most assuredly not.) Your mission, your assignment, your reason for being is to do all you can, everything you can, in every way you can, with everything you have at your disposal, to make the lives of those around you, those less fortunate, those who are downtrodden and oppressed and neglected and forgotten, those who the world despises, BETTER. You have the power and the obligation to do that. If you do, if you truly do, then at the appointed hour you can meet death, smile, close your eyes and know that your time here has been well spent.

Stay safe, do the right thing, and live long, friends.

You Matter

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I had one of those life experiences yesterday that is not pleasant but is not altogether unpleasant at the same time. I went back to my hometown and said goodbye to a woman who used to keep me in her home when I was just a little kid.

Ms. G. A. Hayes, otherwise known as Ethel, died on Monday at age 106. She would have been 107 if she had lived to see November. I learned one thing about Ms. Hayes yesterday that I don’t think I ever knew before. She had a twin who died at around one or two years of age all those years ago. Imagine that. One twin dying so very young in the very early twentieth century, and one living well into the next century.

We told stories yesterday, tales about Ms. Hayes as well as stories about ourselves and how she had fit into our lives. We all remembered the things that stood out with her. Her love of children, her rock solid faith and church life and her commitment to helping others. Oh, yes and that one defining characteristic that everyone was reminded of as soon as they set foot in her little mill village house on First Street in Shannon, Georgia. One glance to the right at the television told you that she was the biggest Atlanta Braves baseball fan who ever lived. Dale Murphy was her man. She also doted on Tom Glavine. She never cared much for Greg Maddux. If some of the baseball players had names she could not pronounce, she made up her own.

One minister, then another, then two young men whose family she had been intimately involved with for years all told of her courage, her resilience, and her compassion for others. They laughed about her stock phrases, remembered her proffered pieces of cake, recalled the radio sitting on her lap playing at full volume, and marveled at how she kept taking care of herself and living alone for many years after other mere mortals would have been packed off to the nursing home and called it a life.

It is not lost on me that Ms. Hayes started caring for me and had her first influence on my life when she was the age I am right now. She had already lived many decades, but she was constantly reinventing herself.

I often write about changes in mood, suicidal ideation and giving up, hopelessness, drug and alcohol use and misery in these blog posts. Just like other media and other writers, it is easy sometimes to write about the sensational, the awful, the shocking and the negative. It gets attention. It hits hard and shocks people, if for just a moment.

It is much harder to write about the quiet, day-to-day heroism and influence of someone like Ms. Ethel Hayes. Someone who taught generations of young girls in the GA program in the Baptist church. Someone who would sometimes have up to eight or nine kids at a time in her little house, paying attention to them, feeding them and loving them through their young lives, shaping them to be the adults of today. It is also easy to forget the influence these kinds of people have on each one of us as we grow and mature. We may not know, consciously, how much we glean from them, but it is a tremendous amount. It has staying power. It is woven into the fabric of our young lives, and it is the bedrock of who we are.

You may get up today and wonder how you’re going to impact the world. You may wonder if anyone will hear anything you say or think any of your opinions matter. You may sometimes wonder if you ever make an impression on anybody else at all.

You matter.

Just like my friend Ethel Hayes mattered to so many of us.

Don’t wait until one hundred and six years have gone by to find out whether or not you touched someone else’s life.

Go out every day and make sure that you do.