A close relative died suddenly last fall. She was a 79-year-old woman who was active, vigorous and full of life. She sold fine jewelry in a large department store, spending all day on her feet presiding over her adoring customers. She was clever, a voracious reader and had a wicked sense of humor. She died in her beautifully decorated apartment surrounded by the books she loved, the artwork and sculpture she had collected on her travels, and the boxes of beads that she used to create unique and beautiful jewelry. On a small table lay one of her last designs, an intricate black and silver cuff bracelet, half finished; a long, slim needle, jewelry wire, and piles of shiny beads nearby.
She did not die in a car accident. She did not have cancer. She probably died because she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her body. One of the causes of death was listed as “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” (COPD) – a progressive disorder that damages the lining of the lungs, making it hard to breathe, even during such simple activities as walking or cooking. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD; she had been a heavy smoker all her life.
This woman lived long enough to see her grandchildren graduate from college and to rejoice at the wedding of her grandson. But she will never meet her future great-grandchildren. She will not be there to celebrate when her grandson receives his MBA. If and when her granddaughter gets married, she will not dance at her wedding.
Two thirds of all chronic illness in this country, including COPD, is caused by lifestyle and behavioral factors that are influenced by our mental, social or physical environments. (http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/21/2/78)
One of my this woman’s favorite expressions was, “It’s okay to look back, but don’t stare.” One can never predict what would have happened, of course, but it seems an inescapable fact that smoking is what killed her long before she should have died. Her lifestyle choices were her own, and she knew the risks. She also knew how she wanted to live her life. All that is left for her family now are memories of who she was, and sadness that she is no longer in our lives.
Another of her favorite expressions was, “No one gets through this life alive.” It just wasn’t supposed to apply to her.