Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Living with dying

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VANCOUVER -- I just read that 10,000 boomers are turning 65 every day in the United States, so maybe 1,000 per day are starting to roll over the retirement divide in Canada.

With that roll comes an increasing likelihood that you will also confront death more frequently, certainly in the case of parents, aunts and uncles, the majority of whom are 20 years further advanced in their trek through life.

I'm not quite there yet, but I have already experienced the death of my father, and now as of 2012, the first deaths of an aunt and uncle. My father's death was somewhat predictable, as he had spent eight years dealing with Lewy body disease; my aunt succumbed to Parkinson's and my uncle simply to advanced old age. He was 93.

Harder to deal with last year was the death of a peer. A schoolmate. Someone who was two years younger than me. Peer death is incontrovertible proof the tide of your life, too, is ebbing.

You can try to avoid analysis of how you feel about these departures from life, but I have never been very good at hiding my emotions or blanking out reality.

In the cause of learning to be better accepting of death, I recently talked with two longtime friends, both of whom have broad experience of life and living: my 90-year-old mom, and a First Nations pal who lives in an Arctic community that is no stranger to death.

My mother is an artist who paints just about every day. She works in a studio space in her apartment, and is accustomed to three- to four-hour zones of intense contemplative work when she has time to think. When I asked her how she deals with death, she had a ready-shaped answer.

"You have to reach down into your very core, and simply find the strength to carry on. You rely on the values that you live by, and you work through it. I believe that everybody has his or her allotted time on this earth, and when it is up, it's over."

Mom has seen death as a student nurse during the Second World War, as a doctor's wife, as a constant friend to sick and dying friends and now simply because of her advanced years.

In spite of it all, she is full of life, is surrounded by a growing body of new friends, and is constantly sought out by a seemingly endless parade of recently bereaved men in her age cohort.

"I don't need another husband; I enjoy the company of men. I just don't need one man right now," she says with a smile. "I am living my life and making my art, and thrilling to the achievements of my grandchildren."

My northern friend lives in a community of about 800 people that is struggling with the transition from full-time reliance on the bush economy to a mixed reliance on small business and government employment. This socio-economic transition comes with a price, and too often suicide and accidents rob the hamlet of its young and promising. Every Christmas season, several elders pass on with numbing frequency. Since I have known him, he has been dealing with decades of death, at least 10 people per year.

"There are no words to describe how you deal with death. You just do. And in my community we are pretty good at it, because it happens so often."

When we first met, back in the early 1980s, he took me for a stroll past the growing cemetery. "You know Mike, that's where I will be buried. None of your tribe are buried there. You guys all go south to die. We live and die here."

In spite of his close acquaintance with death, my friend is full of life. He travels frequently on business, hunts moose and caribou with his son every chance he gets, and we recently formed a small resource company together. I think death's constant presence has made him the most 'in the moment' person I know. Whenever I need advice on a tough problem, he is among the first I call.

It seems that at best, death is a present reminder of the power of your life and the life of those you love. I observe that those who have confronted death with frequency, approach their lives with purpose and a constant sense of possibility. They don't complain and they get on with it. So shall I.

Columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary, he worked for eight years in the oilpatch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J1

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