How Close the End?

Dearest Rachel –

It is taken as axiomatic truth that, from the moment we’re born, we begin to die.

Not that we aren’t constantly trying to stave it off, by whatever means necessary, no matter how ridiculous.

Indeed, there are times we can sense it through our own aches and pains.

Like Western medicine, for instance.

If we’re lucky, we begin with all of our cells holding perfect copies of our DNA (and even that isn’t guaranteed – certainly, the kids Jenn works with are proof of that). And throughout our lives, these cells replicate themselves, both as part of the growth process as well as the constant cycle of death and replacement, as most of the cells that made up our bodies say, ten years ago or so, are no longer part of us. We are all like Theseus’ ship, constantly being remodeled and replaced, piece by microscopic piece, until nothing of us from when we first set sail is still a part of us over time.

All of this is perfectly natural, and the process does tend to bring about improvements, in terms of added strength, size and mental capacity. We acquire the ability to reproduce on a macro as well as micro level – although not all of us use the abilities we’re given. We gain a level of sentience and awareness of our place in the world that is orders of magnitude beyond what we were aware of when our world was merely the nutshell of the womb, and we discover how we can affect life as a whole throughout it – and make decisions that will do exactly that, for good or ill.


The fact of the matter is, as our cells continue to duplicate themselves – even in the process of making these improvements to our bodies – the complex strands of DNA within them that comprise our individual chromosomal makeup are being duplicated, and imperceptibly, over time, these strands begin to lose their structural integrity, ever so slightly. The ends of each strand are capped, like aglets on a shoestring, by repetitive sequences of non-coding DNA called telomeres – and like with aglets, they begin to fray over time, although more from repetitive copying and re-copying as opposed to simple wear and tear of use. Through the reduplication process, these telomeres grow shorter and shorter, until at a certain point, they grow so short that the cells can no longer divide, and the reproductive process ceases for that cell.

There are some theories that suggest that, if we could slow or halt the wearing-down of these telomeres, we could by extension slow or halt the aging process itself. Indeed, most aspects of what we would call a ‘healthy lifestyle’ – proper diet, exercise, sufficient sleep, managing stress, avoiding destructive habits like drinking and smoking – actually do serve to slow these processes down. At the same time, there are cells that do not suffer from the problem of shortening telomeres – we call them cancer cells. So, it’s sometimes for the best to let these imperfectly replicating cells end their cycle, before they multiply and take over the rest of our bodies.

But eventually, this means that the end comes for us. It’s not a question of “if,” but of “when.”

All of which ought to be obvious to you, except for the fact that your end was not one of wearing out, but a near-instantaneous impact that separated you from consciousness at the moment your spinal cord was severed. You didn’t age yourself into oblivion like your parents, but rather were thrown into it in a single moment. Still, you did see it as you made provisions – or at least, insisted that they make provisions – for your parents as they declined. When you lost each of them in turn, you grieved, but you had seen it coming, and had time to prepare.

For now, I’m not going to say much more about how neither Daniel nor I had that opportunity with you. I’ve more than said my piece on that, and while I may add to it going forward, today is not the day for it.

You see, yesterday afternoon found me upstairs relaxing after having come home early to discuss what still needs to be done to clear the kitchen, laundry room and front hall (I completely forgot about having to empty that closet) in order for the remodeling team to do what they need to starting Monday (yes, it’s been pushed back yet another day – the projects they’re working on just keep growing on them, for one reason or another. Evidently, their telomeres aren’t wearing out soon enough). I’d put another load of your laundry in the wash (as I’m preparing to send the rest of your shirts to be made into quilts following the success of the first one), and was just settling in for the news, when…

I don’t know how to describe it. It started with a mild but noticeable headache, followed by a squeezing sensation, combined with a slight tinge of nausea. It felt like being a toothpaste tube, where if the pressure was any harder on my chest or stomach, I might just throw up – as if that was the objective of whatever it was that was squeezing me in the first place. A moment or two before, I thought I might fall asleep in the recliner. Now, despite still being just as tired as I had been a moment before, I didn’t dare let myself drift off, lest the possibility exist that I might not wake up.

I’m sure that mental reaction was colored by hypochondria. But it wasn’t a sensation I was familiar with. It’s one thing when I feel a twinge in my back from sitting or sleeping in a bad position – I know what I’ve done wrong, and I’m pretty sure that, while it’s painful, it’s no indication of something much more sinister than that. This came from nowhere, with no clear explanation, and didn’t seem like it was going to end as long as I was sitting there, but I felt too much pressure weighing upon me; I didn’t think I could stand up at first.

Eventually, I did manage to get up, and I walked into the bedroom that serves as my home office, and rested my head against the window looking out over the yard and street below while the disconcerting sensation passed over me. I was in the clear, but I had no more idea of what had just happened than when I was in the middle of it. I’ve no idea what prompted it, nor how to avoid it, or if it was just a warning of things to come. I understand that a third of all adult deaths are caused by heart disease; was this a relatively gentle reminder of things to come? And if so, what triggered it now?

I mentioned about how telomeres get frayed, and how they can be prevented from doing so, earlier on in this letter. Avoiding, or at least managing, stress is one of those ways. I remember reading a list of stressful events ranked with a point system, suggesting that a certain number of points in a given year would be likely to cause one to suffer a stress-related cardiac incident. Losing a spouse was literally top of the list, and while a divorce was lower by a few points, it was still close enough to bring one more than halfway to the danger zone. Even good things – like travel and vacations – could be stressors, I should point out. It’s entirely possible, if I were to go over that list again, I probably racked up enough points last year that the fact that I’m only now dealing with an incident like that of yesterday afternoon is nothing short of miraculous.

As departures go, a heart attack probably wouldn’t be all that terrible, aside from being fairly sudden in its own right. But there’s so much of life I’ve yet to deal with. I need to make sure that Daniel is able to take care of himself before I go – we’re almost done with your estate, honey; once he’s received his half, I’ll show him how to pay his own bills, like credit cards and health insurance, and he can manage his own affairs. I need to make sure I can be replaced in other capacities, like at church and camp.

And there’s this little selfish part of me that just wants to be able to enjoy a bit of life before it’s over.

But if I’m called, I’ve got to answer, don’t I? All those plans just go by the boards. And even the best of motives (like making sure of Daniel’s situation) won’t save me in that moment.

So, I guess for now, all I can do is to ask you to wish me luck. I still need it.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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