To be or not to be…

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As we approach the New Year, our thoughts are generally forward-looking: We think about New Year’s resolutions, wonder what changes the coming year will bring, and think about what we have to look forward to.

On the other hand, we also are likely to see the popular image of Old Father Time passing on the baton to the newborn New Year. The image suggests, as does much of our culture, that those who are aged are “on the way out,” while the future belongs to the young.

Many of you have read about my father on these pages over the years, and though he’s now 92, I hope to have the opportunity to continue to write about my visits to see him and my mother for years to come.

But my last couple of trips to Texas to see them have featured some significantly more sober conversations than usual with my Dad, and I’m wondering how widespread his feelings are. A few months ago, he began talking about “how hard it is to die.”

At first, I thought he was saying how much he loved life and would find it difficult to let go of all the beautiful experiences in this world (such as my visits!). But no, he said, that’s not what he meant.

He was referring to all the medical conditions, pills, doctor visits, hospital stays, losses of mobility and independence and the like that afflict those blessed with long life.

I guess it was his way of saying what Bette Davis once said and Art Linkletter popularized: “old age is not for sissies.”

For those who have missed my earlier columns about my parents, I should mention that each of them has faced some of the common health issues that affect those of us on the other side of 50.

No matter how well we take care of ourselves, setbacks will occur — from acute episodes like infections, falls and broken bones, to chronic conditions like arthritis, to debilitating or even terminal illnesses.

What was most interesting to me about my father’s line of thought was that he seemed to be viewing his recoveries from various setbacks as a “failure to die” rather than “success at surviving.”

Isn’t avoiding death the whole point of modern medicine? Don’t we want our doctors to fight every infection with antibiotics and every illness with hospitalizations and IVs and multiple medications and surgeries?

And when these actions succeed and return us to our homes — perhaps somewhat drained, and sometimes even jaded by the many indignities imposed on us in the process — don’t we nonetheless feel relieved and happy to be back?

My father has been suggesting recently that, well, maybe not entirely. Surviving to fight another day means having to face that next fight. And, at least in his recent experience, each fight is a bit harder fought than the last.

So I told him I thought what he was finding so difficult was not dying, but rather choosing to live by fighting death. It takes energy, sometimes an indomitable spirit, to bounce back and take another crack at life.

I reminded him how hard he worked at painful physical therapy to regain the strength to walk unaided; the effort he made to learn how to crush his medications and feed himself through a stomach tube. These things bespeak his very strong will to live, and they are an inspiration to me and to others, I said.

It’s been a few months since that original conversation, and I think he has gradually been regaining his long-time optimistic outlook.

I was visiting my folks again recently, and this time, though Dad made a passing reference to dying, he spent much more time complaining about some of his doctors.

“You come in with an aide or family member, and they talk about you to the other person as if you’re not there,” he said. He wanted to grab the doctor by the collar and say, “I’m the patient. Talk to me!

My dad’s no sissy. Seems to me he’s ready for another bout.