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On Screeching To A Stop

by Julia Sneden

It may be just another sign of ageing, but these days I find myself cutting out cartoons and little articles from our local paper and sending them to my kids and grandchildren, just the way my grandmother did for me. I can remember rolling my eyes at some of those offerings (as I’m sure my intended recipients roll theirs), but usually I enjoyed the material even as I eye-rolled. Possibly I learned a lot, too.

A few months back, there was a Ziggy cartoon that I cut out for my own delectation, since to send it to others might have been considered maudlin. In the single panel cartoon, Ziggy is running for all he is worth. The text reads: “I’m okay with the fast pace of life...it’s that sudden stop at the end [that] I worry about!”

In light of the past few weeks of lingering death (Teri Schiavo, the Pope, Prince Rainier), a sudden stop at the end doesn’t look so bad to me. It’s the long, drawn-out deaths that make me sad. Such a death wreaks an emotional, physical, and financial toll, not only on the individual who is dying, but also on his or her entire family, a toll of a kind that is overwhelming even to contemplate, never mind to endure.

But death itself holds no fear for me, only a kind of wary wonderment. I suspect that nature is kind when it wipes out our memories of being born, but I can’t help considering the possibility that I’ll be aware of the moment of my death. If I am, will I have the grace to embrace it without panic?

Given my druthers, I’d like to go the way my father-in-law did, from a sudden aneurysm. It was a terrible shock to the family: at one moment he was a capable, spry 84-year-old on his way home from vacation, and the next, he was simply gone. It took us all awhile to realize that it was indeed a blessing for that vibrant, fun-loving man not to dwindle out his last years in pain and confusion.

Unfortunately, a sudden death is an unlikely scenario for me, afflicted as I am with the genes for longevity. Most of the women in my family have made it well into their nineties: my great grandmother died at 92; my great aunt at 96; one grandmother at 99 and the other at 98; and my mother at almost 97. Amazingly, their mental capacities were only slightly reduced at those advanced ages, although their worlds had shrunk along with their bodies and they had begun to look inward, remembering times long past much more vividly than recent times.

Religious faith was a great help to some of them. I remember someone asking my grandmother, when she was 94, “Are you afraid to die?”

“If you knew the next room was full of people you loved,” she replied, “would you be afraid to walk through the door?”

While I cannot share her certainty, it does seem to me sensible to embrace death as a part of life, and to stop worrying about when or how it may come. It’s the one sure eventuality for any living thing, plant life included, no matter that Benjamin Franklin insisted on putting taxes on a par with death as a certainty. (At this time of year, I’m glad that taxes will someday be left behind, along with diets and arthritis and trashy TV).

The only hard part, for me, is the thought that my grandchildren will have to endure what I felt when my beloved grandmothers died. I wish there were some way to soften it for them. Oh, I know they’ll get over it, and someday they’ll be worrying about their own grandchildren, but I hate being the one to put them through all that grief.

When my mother died, the family congregated in the little town of Geneseo, NY, where there are two long rows of Kelseys in the Temple Hill Cemetery, the oldest graves dating back in the early 1800’s. “Julia” is an old family name, and there were at least three tombstones bearing the name. The other day, I heard my seven-year-old granddaughter, who is also Julia, reminding her younger brother about the trip they took to attend their great grandmother’s funeral. “You remember,” she said, “Grandmary was buried in that graveyard where there were all those Julias!”

Somehow that string of Julias has already given her a long view of what makes a family, and possibly has softened death’s certainty in her young mind. I hope so.

In any event, I am aware that for my long-lived forbears, death came as a kind of relief. They were tired and well-ready for it. Barring a swift stop at the end, I find myself hoping that it will be the same for me.

But until that time, I’ll continue to revel in life’s fast pace, thank you, and devil take the hindmost.

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