Not long ago, my husband said rather casually to me, “I wish I knew when I was going to die.” An important wish, indeed. He was then 81.
But his concern was neither spiritual nor existential. He was wondering whether it was worth his while to have a knee replacement operation.
The Complex Issues of Being Old
Finding ourselves in what are inevitably our later years has many different aspects. Some people bemoan the fact of being old, loathe the many vicissitudes of ageing and have a strong fear of death.
Not me. I have always focussed on the positive at whatever age I have found myself – and this includes right now, having turned 80. Indeed, I have written a book that explains exactly why.
But this doesn’t mean that everything is easy. We have less and less energy. Our memories fade. Our bodies begin to show their age in one way or another – or perhaps I should say in many ways altogether.
I tend to summarise this as ‘the wheels begin to fall off’.
The Knee Operation
Which brings me back to this knee.
As many readers will already know, knee operations are not at all easy. Some proportion go wrong (you end up worse off than when you started) and there is a long period of recovery and rehabilitation.
My husband’s thoughts were very sensible: “If I knew I was going to die in a year, it wouldn’t be worth all the trouble. But if I had ten years, it would be worth thinking about.”
And he is right. It is a difficult decision.
I would bet there are plenty of others in the same situation. Or wondering whether to move house. Or whether to embark on some other major undertaking.
All our lives, we are taught to weigh decisions carefully, taking into account the costs and benefits, including the time available.
Yet here we are with a key variable completely missing from the calculation.
I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.
Would You Really Want to Know?
But his simple question sent a number of ripples into my mental pond. Would we really want to know our expected date of expiry?
Yes, there are some decisions where a clear date of departure from this earth would be useful.
You could make more sensible medical decisions. And perhaps some others. You would know exactly when your things needed to be in order. You could say your good-byes in good time.
But this is undoubtedly a slippery slope. How would it affect your day-to-day relationships? Or the activities you undertake?
Would you be out there trying to fulfil every longstanding wish, ticking off the items on the famous ‘bucket list’? Or would you simply turn your face to the wall some time in advance?
Or would you be the proverbial deer caught in the headlights – so much to do, so many people to see, not certain where to turn?
It is strange the things that you remember. I distinctly remember my mother telling me, when still a teenager, about Socrates.
He had been condemned to death and was due to be administered a dose of hemlock (a known poison). While it was being prepared, he asked to be allowed to finish learning a particular melody on his flute.
On being asked why he wanted to do this, he was reputed to have said, “When else will I learn it?”
I don’t know if this is apocryphal, but it is a good story. Doing something meaningful until the very end.
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, life is a gift but a nicer gift the longer one's general health (physical and mental) lasts. I do think one should live for each day, but a certain amount of activities require planning and, with no knowledge of when you are going to drop out of the world, it is difficult to plan. A knee operation is actually a good exemplar. If it goes well, it can make all the difference to having an active life – and I know many people who thank their lucky stars to have had one (or, indeed, two). Without one, life gets progressively more difficult. It's a real gamble. Being an inveterate optimist, I would probably have one in the situation. My lovely husband is, however, a pessimist. It takes all kinds.
A very interesting post. I liked the Socrates story. The power of now? Accepting mortality but not being passively resigned to unnecessary suffering in the moment?
I found myself thinking of my mother who's in her nineties and her increasing complaints about everything wearing out and needing replacement-the carpets, the freezer, the cooker. Sometimes she talks as if death is imminent, everything is futile then the next minute she's cheerfully reminding us that her own mother lived til she was ninety nine, only just missing her telegram from the Queen. Mum's old gas cooker really does need replacing but would she learn how to operate a new one now they're all fitted with child proof safety ignition which even I struggled to get the hang of.
Replacing body parts is of course are very different. As you say a knee operation can make a big difference to the quality of life-less pain and increased mobility. I'm not a great optimist but remember discussions with patients who had knee surgery and though some disliked the physio afterwards I can't think of any who regretted having the surgery. Best wishes to you and your husband.