It started out well enough. Jane and I had just finished sending my new book about London, Ontario to be shipped and we thought we’d go out to dinner to celebrate. Titled A Place for Us, the pages are also illustrated with Jane’s drawings.
The next thing we knew I had collapsed outside, after losing three pints of blood through internal bleeding. Everything suddenly changed remarkably all around us. Shocked by the development, I learned that I had a stomach disease that would be permanent – if I got through the weekend, that is. My kids looked on in shock; Jane was everywhere in her own remarkable way; and I had a doctor, David Barr, who has proved inspiring.
It’s funny how life can work like that – everything moving along as normal and then something happens that causes us to realize that our habitual lives often fail to prepare us for what might come next. It’s as Derek Landy put it in his Mortal Coil:
“The problem with living so long is that we get used to it. We watch the mortals age and wither and die around us, watch the world change and decay … but no matter the hardship or the pain or the sorrow we suffer, we choose to continue living. Out of sheer habit, I think.
When we are in pain, or in the depth of sorrow, it is as though we only interpret the world through our present crisis. It’s natural. It’s human. And yet the broader the life we live, the more we begin to comprehend that this is the journey billions are taking. Often the younger we are the less we think about such things, but facing our own mortality will inevitably be our fate – it is the human condition.
As I lay on the bed, trying to work my through the healing of the drugs, Jane stayed with me and we began talking about all those we have seen who had no such blessing as we. Suddenly facing my own mortality helped me to face everyone else’s. Women given birth alone under a tree; a wounded combatant bleeding out in his mud hut; the grandmother holding a small child as its mother – her daughter infected with HIV/AIDS – takes her final gaze into her child’s eyes and begs Mama to look out for her. We had more such stories than we could recount and it created a strange reaction within us.
We are lucky. Anyone reading this post is lucky. Despite our healthcare difficulties, we need not suffer with no medicine. We can be surrounded by some of the best care in the world. Somebody cleans our bedpans, looks after our medication, and helps us on the long process of healing. The list of care appears endless.
But as we talked, we realized again that over two billion people in this world suffer through the worst of death and disease and they have nothing. While I was laid back in my own comfortable bed, others were suffering pain unimaginable. And we asked ourselves if that was right. Why are we so blessed to the exclusion of others? Why does all the wealth, the health, the comfort, privilege, and the good life only belong to us?
We looked at one another and realized that it doesn’t. The ultimate refinement of humanity is not about my survival alone, or that of my family. It is the race – the human race – and the longer we remain distracted, the less human we become.
I had a firefighter friend once who told me hated mortality because you spend the real energetic parts of your life getting stronger, more able. And then your body begins to fail you. You digress. You weaken. And life seems to have betrayed you. You recall how fit you once were even as you grow weaker. Well let’s count our blessings regardless. My friend already has the opportunity to have a life expectancy 30 years greater than those struggling to survive in Africa. He won the lottery because he lives in Canada. Yet humanity never arrives at its potential should we only concentrate on ourselves.
This was my journey these past few days and not necessarily yours. I am a person who holds on to a modicum of faith. As such, I can’t envision an eternal world as something that works in parallel with the mortal world – to me they are one and the same. Meaningful things have been placed within our lives that can outrun the limits of mortality. It’s not just about the body shutting down, or betraying us. It’s about the growth of the human heart and the understanding of why life is so precious for everyone, not just the privileged. Our lives are more meaningful than our mortality, and, whatever the future, it is these values that give life its meaning.
I am writing through a fog of drugs and none of this likely makes sense – forgive me. But for Jane and me has come a new commitment to help to heal the world with the lessons we have learned from these last few days. That’s the kind of wife she is; that’s the kind of human I want to be, and that’s the kind of mortality I desire.