There’s a scene in Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov is standing on a bridge, thinking of committing suicide, and a person near him on the bridge climbs over the railing and plunges to his death. Raskolnikov decides not to follow.
I thought of this after our neighbor, Sandy, phoned at 3 a.m. to say that her husband, Rick, was terribly ill and that she had called 911 and would I come over to help. I did so, though I did not provide much help other than moral support. The emergency trucks were all there, lights flashing, and I watched the guys figuring out how to get Rick down the narrow spiral staircase to the waiting stretcher and ambulance. I offered to drive Sandy to the hospital in Traverse City and went home to awaken Kim, who made me some coffee and toast. Meanwhile, Sandy had persuaded the Emergency Guys to ride with them to the hospital, so Kim and I promised to look after their dog and then went back home and to bed.
The next morning at breakfast Kim said, “You know, that could be us. Either one of us.” I knew exactly what she meant. Just as Raskolnikov could picture what his suicide death would be like, Kim and I got a glimpse into and all-too-possible future.
That we are going to die, of course, should come as no surprise – though for many, it will. We have read about the death of classmates and colleagues along with famous people whose obituaries are published. We all know friends and family members who have died. But somehow, seeing Rick in the ambulance, with all the flashing lights, the big truck engines, the early hour, Sandy’s distress, the barking dog locked in a bedroom, our helplessness in the face of an uncertain near future – it all became more real. That could be me strapped to the stretcher, my eyes wide with confusion, instead of my dear friend, Rick.
Kim and I have updated and restated our “What if . . .?” plans. And we have gone over some mundane stuff, e.g., If I’m run over by the propane truck tomorrow, what happens to the automatic electricity, cell phone and cable payments now automatically deducted from my VISA account? Stuff like that. As well as instructions about CPR, cremation, organ donation, etc. Having just read Atul Gawande’s excellent Being Mortal, I have some idea what to anticipate and discuss with Kim and our kids.
Meanwhile: Got a cracked tooth repaired. Photographed birds at Boardman Lake. Downloaded photos. Enjoyed coffee and a cookie with Kim on the porch. Spoke with Rick, home from the hospital, where all his doctors agreed that they didn’t know what happened, but he is fine now. But I know what happened: flashing lights, stretcher, ambulance.
Note: A friend wrote about his own 'What If" conversation with his daughter. When asked if she had made any plans for after he died, "She said, "Don't worry Dad; Elizabeth and I have already agreed on who the taxidermist will be. You will set on a platform with rollers and will be dragged from room to room as we keep you in the conversation."