"Americans are obsessed with longevity," my therapist said, cocking her head like the RCA terrier and raising her eyebrows, "You know that, right?"
Yeah, I know, and it seems a little weird. On one hand, we are the most unfit, obese nation on the planet. On the other, we scour magazine stands and evening health segments on the news in order to glean new ways to lengthen our stay here. We want to live forever, but we don't want to "get old". We spend millions of dollars a year on potions and treatments and advisors who will help us live longer.
But how much is enough? Is what I'm doing with my life now important enough to sustain forever? If someone asked me how many years I want to live on this planet, what would my answer be? Do I want to make sure I have enough time to be a mother, a wife, a career woman, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a hot air balloonist? The happy retirees I see around me are not rushing off to do more, to get more accomplished. They are slowing down. They are enjoying families and friends, golfing, walking, playing bridge.
There is a man who bags groceries at my local supermarket. No matter how long the line, I always maneuver my way through the choices to get to where he is. I want him to bag my groceries and help me out to the car. He jokes with my girls, he always has a smile on his face, and he pretends to know everyone. Rain or shine, he pushes my cart through the parking lot and never ever lets me help him unload the bags into the back.
"You love this job, don't you?" I asked him one day.
"What's not to love? I used to be a stockbroker, now I get paid for flirting with pretty women and giving stickers to kids. Benefits, too!"
He doesn't have to work to supplement his retirement income. He does it because it gives him a sense of purpose to get up and go do something every day. He doesn't have to hire or fire anyone. There is no pressure to "produce". He just comes to work, does a good job, and goes home with a paycheck.
My 85-year-old grandfather spent much of the last year undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for bone cancer.
"I can't tell you how much time you have left, D. But I can say that it will be the cancer that will take your life," said his physician. The radiation treatments shrunk most of the tumors in his chest and we all sat up a bit straighter. The chemotherapy wore him out and made him miserable. Three months ago he decided to quit. He couldn't sleep, he didn't want to eat, let him live without the toxic chemicals pumping into his body every week.
Last week another scan showed a new tumor in his esophagus. My mom made plans to fly down and spend some time with him. Her sister did an online search and found a man living near them who claims to possess a miracle cure for cancer. It only costs $15,000.00. She got the videotaped testimonials and watched them before urging her siblings to do the same.
Nobody wants my grandfather to die. He is the mortar between the bricks of his family. He is the moral center, the one who always knows how to look at a situation with love and logic. He has lived for 85 fantastic years, traveled the world for pleasure as well as war. He raised a fantastic family, owned several businesses, golfed his fill and watched his wife of 50 years die slowly of Alzheimer's disease. He has threaded silk strands of his strength and love throughout my family and allowed us to be better parents, siblings, and partners by example. How much is enough? Do we spend these last weeks of his life frantically chasing a mystery cure or do we sit with him and tell him the things we haven't made time to before? He will die soon, but he will never be gone. My daughter has his hands - long tapered nails and strong, capable fingers. My mother has his compassion, and every time my uncle laughs, my grandfather's eyes sparkle in his face. He has lived. Enough.