The Time We Have Left

Right now, NPR tells a story about a man named Ralph who is dealing with Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia characterized by memory loss, altered behavior, and impaired thinking. The story was sad; Ralph has four children and a wife he will leave behind. In his NPR interview, Ralph said, “I was going to try and work as long as I can, but with the encouragement of my wife, I’ve decided to spend the time I have left with my children.”

The time I have left. Ralph’s prognosis is about three-four years to live, and that is how he looks at time now, what he has remaining. I can’t help but wonder, what separates our thoughts from the time we have to the time we have left?

Is the difference a matter of diagnosis? Perhaps after all, hearing the words Alzheimer’s must feel like an introduction to Death himself with a prognosis of three years. However, most people still feel the same way with HIV, a disease that, according to data from a clinical trial involving UCLA researchers, can potentially be managed as a chronic illness with the help of a new therapy called SB-728-T. Many people, with the right kind of insurance at least, can even now expect to live almost normally long lives, yet Death’s face appears to most people when they hear the diagnosis, anyway.

So when do we as humans, as people, stop looking at our lives as living and more as an hourglass with moments dropping like sand forever off the earth? Maybe when a presumed higher being like a doctor says, “You are going to die.” Somehow, this obvious fact of life turns bleak, sudden, and soon, even though the moment can and does strike the healthy in an accident as surely as it does the ailing.

Perhaps the thought is in the knowing, the inescapable statement echoed in a hospital room, a thought tucked into every human’s mind from birth now dragged out onto center stage, taking a spotlight we never wanted it to have.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is because we are all living in the first stage of death. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, people go through five stages of death before finally leaving the world. The sequence goes:

  1. Denial and Isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

I know that the denial I speak of is not at all like the denial of first diagnosis, but to a lesser degree it still is. Perhaps it is not even so much a denial as a blissful ignorance. Most people lose the ignorance of death at the loss of a loved one. I did when neighbors died. At 12-years-old, I learned that moments lived more like trickling sand than burning stars when a friend a year younger than I died. Yet, the sting wore away, as they all do, and the notion of “time left” only occasionally appears, now. On most days, I remain blissfully ignorant of my mortality, of my own real, fragile, tiny speck of mortality. As I grow older, the odds of me getting diagnosed with some illness increase, as do my chances of viewing the world as a final sunset on my life.

What do your moments mean to you?

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