Learning to live before I die

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By Roberta Ness

I am going to die.

I don’t mean right this moment and I don’t mean that I invite it. I mean that it is inevitable. Echoing in my mind ever louder is the old adage, “the only thing guaranteed in life is death.”

Most of my life – until the very end of it, for many of us – we simply deny death. We forget or don’t hear or don’t heed the echo. But I’m doing the opposite. Like the famous commentator Norman Cousins I’ve decided to embrace dying. Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

First, let me explain what seems like a morbid focus on my mortality. You can skip the next few paragraphs if you’re easily grossed out, and for a long time I didn’t tell anyone because it’s pretty disgusting. A couple of years ago, I developed life-threatening diarrhea. Imagine that dreaded clean-out prep you have to undergo for a colonoscopy. Except that it doesn’t just go on for a day; it goes on for days without end. Just keeping myself hydrated was a constant challenge. I laid on the couch pretty much unable to get up. Fortunately, my gastroenterologist made a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease like lupus – except that my immune cells seem to particularly love munching on my colon.

Also, fortunately, modern medicine has developed a special steroid that for me was a cure that helped me to be, thankfully, (mostly) symptom-free. Then I went to South Africa and all hell broke loose. My colitis symptom – eliminating huge quantities of brown water as often as every 15 minutes – recurred full blast. Again, a raft of tests revealed the diagnosis and a treatment. It was none other than traveler’s diarrhea – three types of E. coli were all partying in my bowels and a blast of antibiotics took them out.

Out of the woods again – whew – except I wasn’t. About a week later I got yet another series of bouts. This time my stool tests were clean. So what was going on? Just as I faced another colonoscopy I remembered the miracle steroid. I had tried it after South Africa and it did nothing. But that was when I’d been loaded with bacteria. Maybe the bugs had triggered a recurrence of the underlying disease? So I started myself back on the steroid and I seem to be OK again. But coming to terms with the fact that I will live the rest of my life with this autoimmune condition has forced me to acknowledge my own mortality.

As my friends age, each is confronting death. Those with chronic diseases are dealing with this reality more actively. But even in those who remain entirely healthy and robust, I see signs – mostly signs of denial.

Don’t get me wrong. Denial is a terrifically adaptive defense mechanism. But is it the best way to avoid dying while we still live? What does it look like for me to not just deny but actually welcome my lifetime limit? It looks like the Tim McGraw song:

“I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu. And I loved deeper. And I spoke sweeter. And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying. And he said, ‘Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.’ ”

I’m not so sure about the bull riding and the skydiving, but other than that I’m living by McGraw’s recipe. I’ve taken up Ecstatic dancing. I’ve become a regular at ad lib storytelling events – although so far just as an audience member. I’ve been traveling more and to more exotic places. I’ve gone to my first rock ‘n’ roll concert. I’m even going (only because my 20-something children invited and are going with me) to Burning Man – a kaleidoscopic art and music happening in the Nevada desert. And, yes, I know that temperatures there range from 110 degrees during the day to 30 degrees at night, and I know I’ll need to truck in all my own provisions including tent, water and a face mask for the sandstorms.

Most importantly, I’ve been giving/asking for forgiveness. And I’ve become incredibly committed to loving more deeply. So yes, I’m dying. But inside I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.

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