Hump Day: Dealing with death among your elders is part of growing older

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Moncton Times & Transcript
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Editorial section

My father’s brother Gerry died last Friday in Massachusetts at the age of 82 after a long illness. He was the eldest of the family who grew up at 107 Wesley Street in Moncton. The house is now long gone, but every time I drive by, I imagine my grandparents waving to me from the window.

I don’t care if it makes me sound odd. It always makes me smile.

Gerry was the movie-maker in the family. Making good money (from what I’m told) working in the United States, he purchased a Super 8 movie camera and took loads of family movies. The ones I have digital copies of are posted to YouTube and show various family members cavorting on Wesley Street playing and waving to the camera, at the beach in Caissie Cape enjoying a family picnic, and back at home on Wesley Street chowing down on some steamed clams.

I, for one, am really grateful for these movies. So many people in them have passed away. Many of the young children – my cousins – shown in the movies (made before I was born) are now either retired, close to retirement, or grandparents themselves. So far, they are still living, thankfully.

The Super 8 movies were eventually transferred to VHS tapes. I got my hands on a couple and had them digitized for the computer. The music that was embedded with them is melancholy and adds to the emotions of watching so many of these relatives when they were young and healthy.

For some reason, most of my father’s siblings all seemed to suffer greatly for long periods of time before they passed away, including Gerry, who had a prolonged decline in health that lasted several years until his passing last week. Although we are all sad to see him go, one can’t help but think that someone who’s been so sick for so long is in a better place now that the suffering is over.

When someone in your family is sick, the world seems to revolve around their health. There are visits to the hospital, meetings with doctors, telephone updates to friends and family, stress and financial burdens. It’s such a difficult and tension-filled time.

Unless you take matters into your own hands, most of us will not decide how we die. I just have one request (if anyone “upstairs” is listening) – please don’t let me die in terror. I’d rather not arrive in heaven all stressed out, thank you very much. I’ll just be learning how to fly with my angel wings. I don’t need them all tensed up because I died being chased down and eaten by an escaped lion while visiting the zoo.

Hey, it could happen. Years ago, I was obviously annoying a female lion at the zoo when she raised her tail and shot me right between the eyes with an impressive laser beam-like stream of urine from about 20 feet away. That was just a warning shot. After that, I’m her bedtime snack.

Oprah Winfrey’s best friend and talk show host Gayle King mentioned this on her radio show the other day, too. Like me, she doesn’t want to know when she’s going to die and she doesn’t want to die in terror. I hope I die looking at a picture of kittens or puppies. That would be a pretty nice death, don’t you think? At least I’d arrive in heaven relaxed. I can only imagine that it’s difficult to look good in your casket after you spent two hours fighting off a burglar who invaded your home and killed you with a machete.

My father only has one brother left. I still find this so difficult to believe. So does everyone else in the family, I think. Less than 10 years ago, nearly all of them were still alive.

One by one, they went. Heart attack. Lung disease. Prostate cancer. Pneumonia. Diabetes. One by one, taken from us. I still remember them all so well. It’s like they’re still here. And I suppose they are. Through home movies, photos and other memories, it is difficult to forget them.

And that’s a good thing. Forgetting those who have left us is the saddest fate of all. If someone remembers you, you’re still with us.

Whenever it’s your time to go, I hope it’s peaceful and that you’re ready. I hope you’re not scared. I hope you’re loved. I hope it’s pain-free. I hope you see it as a natural transition of life. And I hope you have a big crowd waiting for you on the other side. Family and friends. Co-workers and neighbours. And yes, even beloved pets.

And, well, if you don’t believe in an afterlife or are not spiritual in the least, I suppose the lights just go out and you go to sleep without dreaming. Fade to black. No pain. No drama. No welcoming party. No halo to polish and put away in its velour-lined box every night. No angel wings to brush. I suppose there’s peace in that, too, eh?

It’s been a melancholy week. The older I get, the more this will happen. It’s part of aging, I guess. I miss the good old days, though, when we were all together and taking it for granted. That’s a luxury I wouldn’t mind getting back right at the moment.

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