One of my random actor contracting jobs this year was working for a local medical school, where I played a fake patient. I got to pretend I had an illness and the doctors in training would attempt to respond accordingly. In the past, this has usually meant I pretended to have bulimia or OCD, but the last case I was given was breast cancer. In this case, the medical student had to break the news that I was dying, then pretend to visit me in hospice after. Finding out you are dying is…well…pretty shocking. Even when it’s fake. It surprised me actually, how real it felt. Maybe because it’s the first time these medical students are having to tell someone something so horrible, but their anxiety spilled over into me emotionally. Tears streamed down my face, thoughts of how my family would cope filled my head. The craziest thing was that the patient was supposed to be my actual age, and it hit me that being a 30-something means that people I know are actually going to die. Not the accidental shocking 20-something deaths that happen in college, when a university student is hit by a car or overdoses on prescription drugs. Horrible as these are, they are abrupt and usually circumstances of a bad environment or situation. So in some ways, they feel less real, or at least less telling of everyday life. Now, however, people are starting to die of illness, of their bodies giving up on them, of life, and from here on out, it’s only going to get worse. Hurray!
Just as this was sinking in I got the news I’d be attending my first real funeral. The truth is, I haven’t known many people who have died, and the ones I have known haven’t had a big service. For my grandfather, we visited his grave as a family, and the few of us did a whiskey toast, but there was no service as such. This particular funeral was for a gym client who was also a friend; as he loved the theatre, he and his wife would go see plays with me. I called his house recently to ask if he wanted to see a play; his wife answered and told me he had died the day before. Wow. That was an awkward situation for both her and me. Especially for me. What do you say when someone tells you that? You’re sorry? That’s what I said, though obviously that’s never enough.
In addition to being an overall good person, said gentleman was also a former ambassador and major player in Mid-East politics, so I knew when I decided to go to the funeral it would a big one. I wasn’t disappointed. The entire church was packed, a full mass was performed complete with a choir, and the speakers were bigwigs in politics and the foreign service. It occurred to me that though I only knew him for the last couple years of his life, I probably spent more time with him in those last two years than most of the people that had known him for 50. Strange to meet someone just at the end of their time, in some ways I got the best of all of it: the stories, the knowledge, the experience. Anyway, the food at the funeral was as good as most weddings I’ve been to, strangely, and people were friendly. It was both a happy occasion in remembering a joyful person, and a sad one in losing him.
I’ve been very lucky, I know, that I’ve gone this long surrounded by healthy people. I admit I’ve taken it for granted. A new phase of life for me is dealing with death. No longer does it seem so distant, so futuristic. When you’re young and struggling, it seems like life can’t get harder, and than the alternative hits you. It’s here. To stay. It’s looming. Death. I hope this helps me to appreciate every day going forward, and find a healthy path to dealing with this new scary reality.