Doing the Math

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A wonderful writer and physician died this week at the age of 83. I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t want me to say “passed away.”

Dr. Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die, gave the world a gift in his National Book Award winning look at death in 1994. The book sold over 500,000 copies and attempted to provide straight talk on the process of dying. In his last chapter Nuland said that like his patients, he too wanted a death without suffering “surrounded by the people and the things I love.” But, added that the odds were slim that he would. I can only hope that he did or he found a way to get as close to this as humanly possible.

I bring this up not just to praise Nuland, but to confess that when I saw his age I reflexively did the math. Let see if I live that long I still have more than a decade to write a best-selling novel, maybe another, hang out with my daughters and friends, read lots of books, be a vital member of society, hang on to my mind……the list goes on. Nothing remarkable; in fact altogether human.

After I read his obituary I thought about how soothing it is that Julie Christie, Bob Dylan and I are the same age. Fine – go to Wikipedia and check – pride goeth before me. If you’ve ever been to a high school reunion after lo those many years and seen the “departed” wall, if you’re honest you’ll admit to a “thank god my mug’s not up there” moment, and then saddened by the loss to their families and friends. “Too early” you might even mutter. That is “how we die” in your face and super sobering

It only gets tricky when I see obituaries and the deceased are younger. I feel this little chink in my immortality armor and take a step back. Often this realization and round of gratitude results in a burst of energy—get your butt in the chair and write or get that walk in before it’s too late.

Finally, Nuland left us with the only answer to the mortality we all face from the moment we enter the world. “What is to be salvaged of our hope for the final memories we leave to those who love us? The dignity we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.”

I’m going out for a walk!

Dr. Sherwin Nuland

Dr. Sherwin Nuland

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