Everyone Dies

Posted on 23. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

“It’s been too hard living/but I’m afraid to die/’cause I don’t know what’s up there/beyond the sky.”

– Sam Cooke, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

Here we are.

The Senate will begin to debate the overhaul of America’s health care system. There will be much discussion of cost. Moral imperatives will be invoked. The phrases “best health care system in the world” and “rationing care” will make frequent appearances.

A baby born yesterday is expected to live for 78 years. That’s four more trips around the Sun than was predicted in 1981, when I came into the world. It’s eight years longer than when Barack Obama was born. Life, the great gift, is enjoyed for longer than ever before. What’s more, the overall population is larger. So more people are living longer than at any point in the history of the United States.

Which is great.

But eventually, as Jay-Z puts it, “the Director yells ‘cut’.”

I don’t expect any member of the Senate to quote the wisdom of Shawn Carter during a floor speech, but it might be nice if the underlying sentiment were expressed. It won’t. The death panel shitstorm showed Americans’ bottomless paranoia and terrible fear of dying.

On “60 Minutes” this evening, Steve Kroft reported on end-of-life care in America. Medicare pays out $50 billion a year on expenses incurred during the last two months of patients’ lives. One of the patients Kroft interviews is a 68 year-old man who is in the hospital, awaiting not only a liver transplant, but also new kidneys. A doctor explains to him the unlikelihood of his other organs holding out long enough for him to survive; in fact, even if a liver and kidneys were available, the man is in such poor health that doctors wouldn’t allow the organs to be transplanted since they’re unlikely to do any good. The doctor asks whether the man wants CPR performed on him if his condition suddenly worsens. The man says ‘yes’ without any hesitation. The doctor says he knows it’s an awkward conversation. The bed-ridden man nods and feebly says, ‘it beats second place.’ He died before the story aired.

Finishing second place in the race against death is inevitable. Genesis 3:19 – ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ It is true that America’s endless budget for health care has led to an extension of our lifespan, but no amount of money will buy immortality for even one American, much less all of us.

This issue is not at all easy. My diabetes would have killed me before the discovery of insulin. The fact that I am alive runs counter to survival of the fittest. Perhaps it is presumptive of someone whose existence relies on modern medicine to argue that we as a society could find better uses for our capital than life extension for the terminally ill. The extra time allows people to reflect or reconcile or say goodbye, maybe. Oddly, such sentimental arguments are not employed by those opposed to health care reform. Rather, pictures from Auschwitz get paired with ‘government sponsored health care,’ to crystallize the hard right’s opposition by exploiting two great fears – central power and death.

The pulling the plug on Grandma argument plays on one of the absolute terrors – that life will end at the whim of another. But there’s another way of looking at Grandma. Should she be plugged in in the first place? Were Americans spending $50 billion on their grandmothers’ last two months in order that the ladies have a few more weeks to chat with friends or take a walk on a fine autumn day, I might consider arguments against health care reform. But instead that money keeps them plugged into a wall, not curing an illness so much as extending its effects. If such an end appeals to some, they should be able to purchase it. That might remove the central power bogeyman from Republican rhetoric. Give the power back to the people.

As for the fear of death, well, men far smarter than I have  commented upon human beings’ natural fear of the end of physical life. I’ll just note for the record that no matter how any of the Senate members vote, they will all die. Before they do, however, they have the opportunity to make life better for those of us left on Earth, better for those to come.

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One Response to “Everyone Dies”

  1. Carla

    23. Nov, 2009

    I really like you personalizing this opinion… your position goes against convention. I think about the maxim, Everyday above ground is a good one. No matter the state of existence, the point is to breathe and through that there’s always hope. Is that too theological of me? Should I be more practical? As you note, it’s hard to be the latter even though we know it’s more cost-effective. I think the other, more arguable piece of this puzzle though, is the strength of the AARP lobbies. Old people vote and badger their congressmen; of course they’ll see more healthcare benefits than the young. I’d love to see a townhall forum on healthcare, the Young who’re picking up the bills on one side, the Elderly on the other. What would come out of that conversation?