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On Dying

by Cathy Corcoran

Well I said I was fine.  The doctor said I was fine.  But clearly, I was not fine.


The thought hovered at the edge of my mind for weeks, just out of sight, just out of reach.  

It was scary.  Too scary to talk about.  Too scary to even think about.  In fact, that’s how I realized something was wrong - I was trying to not-think about something.  

I ran around day and night, working, shopping, doing laundry, playing computer solitaire as though my life depended on it.


I didn’t even want to write in my journal.  Too busy.  Busy busy busy, that’s me.  

Too busy to die.


I sometimes joke that, as they lower the lid on my coffin, I’ll stick my arm out and say, “Wait!  I have a few more things to do!”


It’s black humor.  A way of coping with something that’s just too big to cope with. 

I am going to die.  I am going to die and that scares the bejesus out of me.


Two weeks ago, chest pains forced me to leave the gym and go to the emergency room.  

I felt foolish perched on the gurney in my sweaty gym clothes, but still, chest pains.  Nothing to sneeze at.  Best to find out what’s going on.


Now, after hours of tests and weeks of waiting, no one seems to know what went on at all.  That scares me too.

“You did not have a heart attack,” my doctor said, as he looked at the results of the stress test I had at the hospital.

“Then what caused the chest pains?” 

He shrugged.  “Breathing problems, ribs, a muscle.” 

“The heart is a muscle."

“Not that muscle,” he said. “You did not have a heart attack.”

Hmph! What does he know?


I stay busy. I have lunch with several friends. 

My friend Sharon says that’s the way she wants to go. Heart attack. No long drawn out illnesses for her, she says. Talking to her friends one minute; dead on the floor the next.  Quick and easy. Bang!


We all discuss how we’d like to die.  

I opt for a short illness with time to prepare, time to come to acceptance and peace.  

I picture myself surrounded by family and friends.  

Someone will be singing “Amazing Grace” as I pass into the next phase of being.


We talk about this as though we have control over how we will pass into the next phase of being.


”We can’t control the way we die,” Joan says.  “Only the way we live.”


We all chew our salads, nodding at this bit of wisdom. Live for today, seize the moment and all that.  What crap!


“We're all going to die!” I want to scream.  Instead, I nod along with the others, and finish my salad.  Dead is one thing; crazy is another.


Accept mortality. It’s a task of middle age. I make a mental note to put that on my to-do list: Exercise. Floss. Diversify my portfolio. Accept mortality.  

I will. Later. When I have more time.


I stay busy, writing a story about our family trip to New York City. 

The day after the piece runs in the paper, some nut takes a gun to the observation deck at the Empire State Building and shoots seven people. One of them dies. Then the gunman turns the gun around, and kills himself.


When I hear the news, I can't catch my breath. 

Just two weeks ago, I was standing on that observation deck with my ten year-old daughter.  An image flashes into my mind - me lying on the floor on top of Colleen, my coat spread out around us, trying to protect her from a murderer.  Death is everywhere.


I am suddenly furious.


I could stay inside the house, away from the crazies in New York and the drivers on the southeast expressway, but anything could happen.  

A tree could fall on the roof, I could slip and hit my head in the bath tub,  I could have a heart attack.  I’d be dead anyway, and I would have missed showing my daughter the Empire State Building. What kind of life is that?


I stay busy. I check my to-do list.  “Accept mortality,” it says.  

But I've been reading about this. I know that to get to acceptance, I have to go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then finally, I'll get to acceptance.


Denial is my favorite place to be, but thinking you had a heart attack really shakes that illusion. So I'm done with denial.


I did not have a heart attack. So they say. But I am going to die. Not when I’m prepared, not when I’m good and ready, but any time, any day,  I am going to die.


Boy, I hate that! It really makes me mad.

That’s when I notice that I’ve moved from denial to anger. On my way to acceptance.


Progress, I guess.

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