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Friday, January 11, 2013

Connecting Dots

Nancy and I revised our wills shortly after New Years.  We started the process over the Christmas break, which is a handy time to take care of odds and ends.  For example, I also had my dentist appointment and learned two of my fillings had "degraded."  (I'd had these, I believe, since before I was a teenager, so they'd be about forty years old.)  The doctor shot me with Novocaine, drilled them out, and replaced them.  My jaw was sore for a day, but now I'm good as new.  Well, relatively good as new.  As good as can be expected.

So back to the will, our lawyer sent drafts of our new wills, and after reviewing them, we went in and signed.  We left feeling very solid and responsible.  Grown-ups taking care of business.

We also signed directives telling what measures we want in the event we enter a terminal or permanently vegetative state.  Given the state of modern medicine, such an eventuality is a pretty fair likelihood.  The first time we signed such a document, in our early thirties or late twenties, I chose option "A."  I wanted all measures taken, no matter what, to sustain my life no matter how hopeless or bad my situation was.  Had I been flattened by a steamroller, I'd have wanted EMTs to arrive with bicycle pumps and attempt to re-inflate me.  If sufficient funds existed, I wanted to be cryonically flash-frozen to be re-animated in some future century.  Failing that, I wanted my severed head stored in the chest freezer.  I wasn't ready to go, I had too many unfulfilled dreams, and I wasn't going to lightly sign them away just because some physician said I was brain dead or something.

This time - a lot of water has flowed under the bridge - I chose "B."  I want no heroic measures taken to preserve my life in a hospice or coma-type situation.  I'm not eager to die anytime soon, but I've had a fair slice of life already, and what portion remains isn't worth having if it means being an unconscious lump hooked up to a feeding tube and a respirator.

I don't want to be a Gloomy Gus here, because as I said, signing a will actually makes you feel very empowered and in charge.  It's a rare privilege law allows us: we get to keep making decisions after we die.  Nevertheless, it does put one in mind of one's own mortality, and I was aware of the shift in attitude I'd undergone in the last twenty or thirty years.

That night after the will-signing, carrying garbage to the curb, I looked up and saw Orion.  It was an unusually clear night for Atlanta, and the stars were so vivid, I could even see the three little stars forming the sword hanging from his belt.  I love seeing Orion, it's the only constellation I can reliably identify, and it's a winter constellation, so I only see it part of the year.  This thought, like my new fillings and the recent signing of my will was another reminder of the passage of time.

Herman Melville once wrote of his own mortality to Hawthorne, "I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg."  As scholars have pointed out, what's so delectable about Melville's metaphor is that he doesn't see himself as being ground down by life; he's the one doing the grinding - he's the grater; life's the nutmeg.  Nevertheless, his relentless chewing at it will wear him down.

The stars of Orion will outlast me and go on shining for other people to see on winter nights.  But even they will not last forever, and will burn out one by one.  I will never see that happen.  There are many, many things I will never live to see.  No matter.  My teeth are good for a while longer yet, and while I haven't lost my taste for the nutmeg of life, my appetite is far from infinite.

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