I met one of my neighbors this morning and he told me he has been diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy. This is a rare brand of dementia that progresses from the rear of the brain, first destroying visual processing and then proceeding to wipe out memories and cognitive function. He is already feeling the effects. There is no treatment, no way to slow the onset, no way out and nothing that I could say or do to help him, apart from empathy. How does one live in the knowledge that one is already on the final mortal slope and rapidly gathering speed with no brakes? What would I do if I was there?
I am not a total stranger to this world. Several years ago I accompanied my father on that final slope and today I hold my mother’s hand as she careers down it though the darkness. My father suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which he kept at bay with medications for several years despite its inevitable onward march. He was cognitive far into his final deterioration. He saw the ground getting ever nearer as he hurtled down that slope and there was a time when I could see a glimpse of fear in his eyes as he leveled them towards his advancing condition and his impending mortality.
He once said to me that he was just sitting waiting to die, that any new experience was now meaningless as he was only going to take it to the grave. I ponder on this. I believe that there is meaning in whatever improves our sojourn in our life because for us at that time it is. What we can do for others and what we can leave behind us as a lasting contribution to those around us or even more so to unborn generations is more meaningful as it impacts and improves the lives of others. Meaning I believe, is what we imbue or see in the action; it is not an absolute quality. Thus for the dying person if they can rise to enjoy the fleeting futile moment then that will have meaning even if it is their last.
As an aside (within this aside), Shelly Kagan devoted a whole section in one of the lectures in his series to debunking the “we all die alone” cliché. I want to say that in one way we do die alone, in that we cannot communicate our last thought or feeling to anyone. It is ours and instantaneously lost forever.