My Mortality and Ebola

ebolaWhile the networks are ginning up fear around Ebola, I’m serene.

Not indifferent, but far from panicked.

I stay informed, all the while trying to keep at bay my annoyance at the media’s role, the finger pointing, and the lack of humanity for people who actually have it. But my serenity is not just about intellect.

While I’m far from the Queen of Zen, I attribute my calm to this — it’s been two years since I experienced 2012, the year that handed me an acute awareness of my own mortality. As the months that year unfolded, there was a steady rhythm of hits that kept coming – bam, bam, bam – as if the idea was ultimately for me to see some kind of stark reality.

I did.

But first, some context. At the end of 2011, I pitched a column idea to the editor of O The Oprah Magazine. I was 49 and the pitch was to chronicle the fabulousness that was about to be my 50s. I’d be living, baby. Try to keep up. Come along on my ride. You know you want to.

I hit send and then went on with a flurry of fun, including Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera and a resort in Palm Springs for my late-December birthday.

Yeeha. We’ve only just begun, people.

And then the calendar turned over to 2012. The year went something like this – knee injury, sudden death of an aunt, sudden death of a man I was in love with, death of another aunt from terminal illness, knee surgery, a diagnosis of hypertension, adverse reactions to drugs to treat it, shocking death of a former client. That was all by June.

Fifty didn’t have me hanging from any chandeliers with a glass of champagne in my hand.

Two more deaths in the summer and fall that year were followed by Hurricane Sandy; my town of Hoboken, N.J. was particularly hard hit by the storm. While I was blessed to have no damage to my home, I was wrung out and feeling lost for months afterward.

In retrospect, I’m not sure I had the chance to completely process any one of the aforementioned things that happened. I was in survival mode – just keep going. However, each of them left me with lingering sadness and certainly lessons that translated to fresh perspectives. Unquestionably, the death of the man I mentioned had the greatest impact for several reasons – I was in love with him, we weren’t together when he died but I felt we eventually would be, no one else I’ve ever met has as close a spiritual perspective to mine as he did.

But there is also this. He died of a heart attack at age 46. He wasn’t feeling right, was going to go to the emergency room at the urging of the family members he was with, but wanted to shower first. He collapsed in the shower and died. Numb in my grief for a while, it’s only lately that I’ve noticed I am feeling the effects in the way I deal with my own health – in short, I’m afraid more. Of every pang and pain and shortness of breath.

I don’t want to sound like I have a death wish, but I am acutely aware of death now. If I had to list the things about it that scare me, Ebola wouldn’t make the top 10 or even 20. I’m still coming to grips with high blood pressure, so the word “stroke” keeps coming up. As are most people I know, I’m surrounded by instances of cancer that range from minor scares to death. I don’t typically sit up nights thinking about any of this, but seeing how others are reacting to the Ebola outbreak is bringing so many of my thoughts about dying to the forefront.

Insights and observations are swirling. I’ve released so much of my need to control. I’m a little more paranoid about my aches and pains. I’m more determined than ever to see more, do more, chill more, appreciate more. When I see someone walking with a cane I give them a wide berth because I know what it’s like to have one and hope that no one accidentally jostles me. When I sit next to an elderly man at a diner counter and strike up a conversation, I engage rather than get nervous when he shares that his wife died three weeks before.

I am a more present, more empathetic person because of 2012. I also emerged from that year with an intense curiosity about what happens to us when we die and in 2013 I went on a bit of a bender, reading and attending lectures and watching a whole lot of The Long Island Medium. I devoured bestselling books Proof of Heaven and Heaven Is For Real. I went to St. John the Divine in Manhattan to hear Dr. Eben Alexander talk about the former book and then weeks later back to that sacred landmark to see Irish mystic Lorna Byrne.

Since Hurricane Sandy I walk across the street once a week on a weekday for 12:10 mass even though I haven’t identified as Catholic since 2002 and consider my spirituality more of a hybrid. I can connect to spirit anywhere – church, temple, mosque, mountain, waterfront, sitting on the subway.

I never got that column in O Magazine. What I did get was a clear message – Attention, Nancy, we all die.

Recently I met a man in a casual setting and we struck up a conversation that quickly went from small talk to a deeper place. We talked about the NFL and values, family and death. At one point he showed me a guardian angel coin hanging from his key chain.

That’s where I am now, connecting with people who openly wonder what it all means and where we might go next. I like that so much.

Ebola is either going to get me or it’s not. In the meantime, I don’t have time to think about it. I have some living to do.

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