That’s how long my elderly neighbor has to live – less than five months. She won’t celebrate Christmas this year. OK, so, I am being very blunt today and a tad bit cynical but if you are my facebook friend, you know what kind of a week I had. I don’t mean to start the weekend with this grim thought but let me tell you a little background on this story. And yes, this has something to do with you too and later, I’ll tell you what I am doing to prevent me from having to answer this question.
Remember my harrowing power outage experience back in March when NY was hit with a brutal Noreaster? The elderly lady, Jean, whom I helped during that ordeal (I checked on her, brought her coffee, and eventually drove her to a nearby hotel to spend the second night without power) lives across the street from me. She has never been married so she has no kids or a partner. She worked for AT & T all her life and lives alone on its pension. She bought the house – oh, about fourteen years ago – with intention of living out her last glorious years in it. She doesn’t have friends who visit her. She doesn’t go out much – just to the grocery store, post office, and doctors’ offices. She let her neighbors know that she does not like other people to worry about her or ‘take care’ of her or to attend to her, less-than-spectacular, garden. Jean once told my mom, who lives next door to me, to pull out the flowers that my mom planted on what she thought was the town’s land but on her property. My mom promptly moved the flowers, feeling a bit foolish.
So then, why did I help such an anti-social, cranky old lady?
Because I think deep inside, she wants to be around people. She was always nice to my kids and me. Anti-social or not, she gave out huge bars of Hershey Chocolates on Halloween – the original kind, without nuts or caramels. Just plain good old Hershey bar. And although my kids didn’t really LOVE chocolate, they loved receiving those vintage looking bars wrapped in plain brown paper. There’s something to be said about a loner who takes the time to buy chocolates for trick or treaters. She could have easily not open the door – like some people in my neighborhood – or leave the chocolates in a basket on her front porch so that she doesn’t have to open the door. But she didn’t. She always handed them out, in person. And, yes, she was a loner with no one to check on her but when the power went out, she knew she had to accept my help. When she didn’t resist, I was more compelled to help her and to make sure she was safe.
And now, she is dying…without anyone noticing her absence.
But that’s not the whole story. Another neighbor, Harold, who lives behind me, informed my dad that Jean died on Wednesday. How could that be? According to my mom, she took out the garbage on Tuesday (we can always tell when garbage and recycling days are by looking at her garbage can and recycling bin on her driveway.) and took in her newspaper. In fact, my mom saw her drive away on Tuesday morning! When my mom told me this sad news, I imagined her empty house, on what would be the day of her funeral…with hardly anyone going in and out, paying respect. Presence of somber people would have made even a sad occasion like a funeral, a happy occasion. But that wouldn’t be at her funeral.
Then, the real shock came as Harold recanted his story and said that she didn’t die but is hospitalized. Whoever called from the doctor’s office made a mistake. Seriously. Can’t make this stuff up.
So my mom and I visited her at the hospital yesterday. She is not in pain but is very frail and weak. Shockingly, lying in a hospital bed, she looked even smaller than she is, only skin and bones are left on her body. How could she have deteriorated so quickly since I saw her last? I was actually concerned about her during the unremitting heatwave in June. I wondered if she had the thermostat set at a reasonable setting. I wondered if at the fear of high energy bill that she would shut off her air conditioning, making her vulnerable to heat related problems. Young people can handle the heat but elderly cannot. So I was concerned. But I saw that she was coming out to put out the garbage and take in her daily newspaper so I knew she was OK. It’s funny – you notice mundane habits like that, as a neighbor. It was my only way of keeping an eye on her without pestering her.
Anyway, Jean was almost in tears when she saw us in her hospital room. It took her a minute to realize the presence of people she recognized. I’m sure there aren’t too many in her life, never mind, even to visit her in a hospital. Almost immediately, she blurted out, “They say, I wouldn’t last to Christmas.” I choked. Ignoring what she just said, like an idiot, “How are you feeling? Did you just have lunch?” (She had half empty food containers on a food tray in front of her.) Duh.
Through her dark hollow eyes, I can tell she was planning the next few months she has left. She talked about installing an elevator chair that goes up the railing to her second floor bedroom. She gave me the combination to her garage, just in case I needed access to her house. I didn’t expect her to give me access to her house, her private sanctuary! She then, told me, she doesn’t want chemo or radiation for her cancer that has metastasized to her lungs, ovaries, and intestines. She said she is eighty two year old and lived a good life. No need for treatment. She thanked us over and over again for visiting and said, get this, “I don’t feel so alone anymore.” That just about got to me right ‘there’ and then. I had to turn away. Gosh that old hag. Why did she do that to me. Now, I’m gonna have to take care of her!
We came home, feeling, not great that we did a good deed, but sad. I know I shouldn’t be because she said she lived a good life but I couldn’t help wondering, how do you live the rest of your days when you know you only have five months? Where do you begin? I know it sounds like a cliche but have you really thought about it? What would you ‘do’ if you have five months to live? Unfortunately, if you’ve been told you only have five months, the chances are, like Jean, you are not that mobile. You might be frail, weak, can’t eat, and in pain. You can’t go to Machu Pichu and walk up those stairs. You can’t go to the Great Wall and walk miles on the wall. You can’t even sit for too long to last a boat ride on the Nile. And will you try to find all your contacts in your address book to talk to before you lose your voice?
I snapped out of it and thought about all the things I’d do NOW before being told I had five months to live. No, I’m not making travel plans and I’m not revising my last will and testament. But I thought about how I’d live if I only had five months to live from now on. Just this week, a report was published on social relationship and mortality. It was a fascinating study on how “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.”* So even though I don’t smoke or drink or am fat, my mortality rate is at risk if I am not social. And this does NOT include facebook. Actually, this finding is not new. There are studies that relate Alzheimer patients and how social they are too. Most socially active people are, less chance of getting dementia. But seeing Jean lying in the hospital bed, feeling alone, being alone, made me realize how important it is to live your life surrounded by friends and family even more. Being social is something that can not be bought, planned, or to have done for you in five months. It’s something that need to be nurtured and practiced all your life.
I always joke with my husband, “Who will show up at our funeral?” That is a true indication as to what kind of life we’ve lived. I intend to live the rest of my life surrounded by loving friends and family, regardless of what kind of past we’ve had, what kinds of words we’ve exchanged, and how infrequently we talked and saw each other. I intend to make the most out of my life by being in contact with people I trust and care about. So if I call you or text you in the next few days, don’t freak out. I’m not dying; I’m just trying to live.
After all, we all might just have less than five months to live. No one knows.
**As I was writing this, the hospital called me (me!) to ask if I can let the equipment company into her house to deliver the necessary medical items, including a bed to be placed on the first floor, before she is discharged on Monday afternoon. Thank Goodness! I was worried about her navigating up those stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. Apparently, she had given them my name to give them access to her house, (probably because I had the garage door combination) and to witness the paperwork that will ensue when she comes home. And she’s coming home with a 24 hour nurse who will be by her side to help her with day to day chores like cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I hope she’s a good person who won’t take advantage of her and be her companion while she tries to make the best of her remaining days. And if she let’s me, I hope to be there to help her too. I may be presumptuous but I get the feeling she will want me to.