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An Ounce of Prevention

July 26, 2018 (637 words)

As a charter remember of the “never been sick a day in his life” club, the last few years have been a humbling experience for me. The decline started innocently enough, as it usually does, with fading eyesight and the inability to hear. These afflictions are commonly known as “they keep making the type smaller,” and “everyone is starting to mumble.”

Lately I am also experiencing an intermittent and unnerving loss of balance, no longer the fairly athletic and reasonably coordinated specimen of earlier days. My endurance and stamina, a source of inordinate pride for so long, has now dwindled to practically nil. And my once steady gait has turned into an awkward hobble. Just the other day someone said “you look like an old Amish guy walking around.”

The case of shingles I contracted earlier this year is still with me. One effect of this lingering (minor) ailment is the way the bottom half of my torso feels disconnected from the top half. There is a horizontal band of mild stomach/back pain that is separating my body in two, a most peculiar sensation.

Now comes word that I have a condition that will probably require surgery. What exactly is going on here?

Well, nothing new or revelatory, as it turns out. My corporal shroud is merely going the way of all flesh. Years ago I remember hearing the elderly writer Mary McCarthy remark that “the deterioration of the organism is not pleasant.” I am beginning to understand what she meant.

One is also reminded of the observation made by that great American philosopher, Rodney Dangerfield, who said “I figure if I take real good care of myself eventually I’ll get sick and die.”

This is, more or less, the theme of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, The Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. At seventy-six years of age, Ms. Ehrenreich has concluded, among other things, that she is old enough to die.

She no longer bothers with annual exams, cancer screenings, or any other measure “expected of a reasonable person with health insurance.” For this best-selling author there will be no more mammograms, no more tedious lectures, and no more pawing physicians.

“Not only do I reject the torment of a medicalized death,” Ms. Ehrenreich tells us, “but I refuse to accept a medicialized life.”

Many of us feel the same way. And it’s not grounded in any disrespect or lack of appreciation for our dedicated healthcare professionals, who knock themselves out to keep us going. It’s just that not everybody has longevity as their number one goal in life.

I am told my long-ago best friend, Jim Gillis, who passed away in March, had contracted some form of cancer but decided not to do anything about it. We had fallen out of touch, as they say, and I only learned of his death a month after his funeral Mass.

Jim’s response to his diagnosis immediately flashed across my mind when I was informed recently of an uninvited mass that has taken up residency on my kidney. But unlike my old friend, I guess I am not quite ready to check out just yet. Give me another twelve years, though, when I would be rounding the bend on seventy-six, and I may be aligned perfectly with Ms. Ehrenreich’s sense of being more than ready to depart this mortal coil, thank you very much.

At this rate, considering the accumulation of physical defects I seem to be acquiring, I certainly can’t see myself making it to eighty-five the way my father did. Or to eighty-eight, the way the Italian woman who raised me did. But then who knows, fate may prove me wrong.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
July 26, 2018

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