by Madeline Sharples
I keep hearing the meant-to-be soothing words, “It’s our age,” when I stress about a death of friend or relative. I suppose that’s true. As we age more and more of the people we know and love will leave us. However, I have been losing loved ones throughout my life.
I was in my thirties when my first dear friend died. He was probably the smartest and funniest man I ever knew – always such a pleasure to be with and so knowledgeable about wine. My husband and I were fortunate to see him a week before his sudden death of a heart attack during an epileptic seizure.
When my friend Caryl’s daughter Laurie was about four years old she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and Caryl was so devastated she went to see a therapist every day for the rest of her life. In the midst of it all, Caryl developed breast cancer (I always wondered if that was a result of the huge stress of her daughter’s life-threatening disease) – she had a lump that her doctor decided to just watch for a while. That while turned out to be two years and by that time Caryl had a very advanced stage of full-blown cancer. She had a mastectomy, developed lymphedema – a swelling in her arm caused by the removal of her lymph nodes, and though she made a heroic effort to stay alive, she died when we were both in our forties.
Caryl, whom I met when we were eighteen years old, was my first girl friend to die. I never believed she would. I was too naïve about death in those days. Even when she told me in the last year of her life that her health wasn’t good, the treatments weren’t working, I didn’t probe, I didn’t want to know the details. I just didn’t want to believe she could die so young. Now I still regret my naivety. In the last thirty years I’ve found cancer doesn’t discriminate. Young, old, in between, it hits and it kills. Many more of my friends have succumbed to it. These days many more young women are diagnosed breast cancer.
Adele was another friend and work colleague who died young. She was fifty-one. Her death was a form a suicide. She smoked, she had a mother who died of breast cancer, she was smart, she knew better. So, my take on it was she just didn’t care – not about her wonderfully creative art work or the job she brilliantly performed. Adele had a few good friends, lots of close work colleagues, but what she lacked was intimacy and love. Not long before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer she lost a love to another woman. Could that have been it? My son killed himself when he lost a love. Adele could have done the same. But, she did it over years. I would see her outside the building, cigarette in her hand, blowing smoke in the sky, and killing herself. How long could she last with that kind of behavior?
My brother, also a smoker, developed lung cancer when he was in his early fifties. However, he went through a grueling experimental protocol along with radiation therapy, and he beat it. He lived until age seventy and finally died as a result of his cure – radiation damage. In the last two years of his life he suffered from oxygen depravation because his lungs were damaged so badly, but fortunately he had the joy of four grandchildren before he died.
This last December two of my long-time cherished friends died, both after long illnesses. One was about my age, the other several years younger.
Stanley, who died in early December 2013 was the same age as my brother. They were in the same class in high school. That’s how long I knew him. Congestive heart failure took him – common in older folks. My mother died of congestive heart failure at age ninety-four.
However, Cynthia, who died in late December after a two-year battle to survive Stage 4 lung cancer was only sixty-seven. She had so much to live for – a loving husband, two daughters, and four beautiful granddaughters. Plus she had such a meaningful career as a superior court judge. I feel cancer and early death were so unfair to her because she never even smoked.
But when it comes to death, I never think life is fair. I certainly felt that way when my son took his life at age twenty-seven. I think of all he has missed. I think of what the rest of my relatives and friends have missed – especially if they died young. I know I’ll experience many more deaths of loved ones as I get older, but I know I’ll never get used to it. I’ll never be soothed by the words, “It’s our age.