Seeing the End: What Would You Say?

After a night on the futon to distance my contagion from the wife, I’ve admitted at the end of four days of symptom creep that I probably have a cold–nothing more than that, most likely. It has been a couple of years since the last one, so I should not whine too much.

I was miserable in the wee hours as my chest ached and the in-the-dark impromptu bed clothes failed to keep my bare feet covered. In my unsleeping misery I wondered if this might be “the big one.” Actuarially speaking, the odds go up each year in this time of life that even simple formerly-trivial health challenges will overwhelm age-weakened immunity and resilience.

But what if you KNEW with cold certainty that your end was near? And if you wrote about it–to better grapple with your own mortality or to leave a message in a bottle to a child, spouse, friend or the world–what would you say?

First Oliver Sachs a few weeks ago, and now Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon, have recently shared publicly their thoughts about impending death. The latter passed away last week, leaving behind his infant daughter born as he was released from his first chemo treatment.

And I guess what I would say in light of these intimate epistles of impending death is that–not always but not infrequently–I’ve seen this inconsequential backwater blog page serving as my letter in a bottle to the future. I have a habit of wanting to see the ground I’m standing on and so I often write from the perspective of an outsider looking in on my own life–and that of the ailing and imperiled planet I’ve been privileged to know so briefly and so superficially. What shape has my time and now my words taken, and why that particular shape, and so what?

If my life were coming to a close in a week, a month, a year–what would I say, and to whom, and so what? Would I blog it? Would time, as Kalanithi describes, become merely a measureless medium through which I simply persist or could the end bring a kind of clarity and energy and sweetness that the deluded “eternally-living” cannot appreciate and employ?

And so, dear diary, I leave myself these two terminal epistles this early Sunday morning (on which I will not take my germs to church) that I will come back to some day. Maybe a few random Fragments visitors will read over my shoulder.

Before I go | Stanford Medicine

Your Dying Words to the World: Oliver Sachs /FragmentsFromFloyd

Message in a Bottle: The Power of Words | Fragments from Floyd March 2012


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, I’m sorry you’re sick and hope you feel better soon! And I mean both in body AND spirit! I started to reply to your prior post but was afraid I’d come across as having become a crazy cat (video) lady. What I wanted to say was “Let it go!”. ( Sorry for that reference.) I don’t mean your passion necessarily, but your focus on being able to change anything. It’s futile probably and at our age time is not on our side, and continuing to frustrate ourselves is detrimental to physical and mental health. What you communicate best is your awe at the natural world, and it’s contagious. That is important. Keep doing it. As far as fighting the good fight, those younger and hardier than we are going to have to pick up the banner at some point for anything to change and I’m afraid they are going to have to feel some pain to do so. I don’t think that’s a sellout. It’s about enjoying this time of life.
    I’ve read the two essays you’ve mentioned and found them quite touching, especially the young surgeon”s piece. I think last words like that are very personal and probably reflect our human need to control somewhat the uncontrollable and to be remembered and known after we are gone.
    In a similar vein, please read if you haven’t, BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande. He is also a surgeon and writes beautifully about the end of life and how our medical system often fails us. This sensitive work is framed by his experience of his father’s illness and death. I think it ought to be required reading for anyone “of a certain age” and their children and loved ones.
    Take care of yourself!

  2. I read or re-read all the links and feel strongly the need to read about the end of life. I intend to read Being Mortal soon. Whatever you write about it seems relevant to me (except tech stuff, which I forward to my husband.) So, continue!