How Long Does He Have?

I don’t know, but I wonder if anyone has asked any of my family or friends that question about me. It’s a common question in movies or on television ‘medical’ dramas. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to answer that question unless the circumstances have been set up ahead of time to determine the time of anyone’s death. In most circumstances we just don’t know. In some we do. Maybe you have a gun and are about to shoot a hapless victim. In that circumstance, you would precisely know the day and time of your victim’s death. Somebody on death row in the U.S. would know when they were scheduled to die, but with all the appeals possible, some death row denizens have been there for sixteen years and more. Still, eventually appeals run out and off you go to the abattoir. Or you might get up in Toronto some dreary Monday morning expecting to spend the day dispensing cash and stamping statements as a teller in a bank downtown, only to be stabbed to death leaving a subway train at your usual stop.  

You might have come across the same story I did about the young woman (31) stabbed to death in the subway in Toronto on December 9that around 2 PM. I have no idea if she was a bank teller, that’s my invention, but it would be possible. The fact that she was stabbed at 2 PM is significant. There are many reasons why she would be out and about midday. Her killer, 52-year-old Neng Jia Jin, required a Mandarin translator for his court appearance and was given a list of people he was not to contact even though he was held in custody. He killed the victim, Vanessa Kurpiewska, randomly. Who expects to get up in the morning, get dressed, maybe make plans for the holidays, have a coffee, go off to work, take an afternoon break to do a little shopping, and end up dead on a subway train? On the same day the CBC reported a deadly shooting in Mississauga and every day the papers are happy to report on any number of random shootings and stabbings across the country and in the US. Regular, typical, unspectacular deaths generally appear under the radar, in the obituaries, not on the front pages. 

So, a significant number of people die randomly every day from any number of causes, some endemic, some violent, and all unpredictable. It may happen that I get surprised by my death, or at least by my dying. Probably not, but it’s not in the realm of the impossible. My palliative care team can track the deteriorations in my body, some of which are clear signs of impending death. Kidney failure is a sure sign of imminent death. When I came close to dying a month or so ago after my last chemo treatment, it was because my kidney was shutting down. That’s an indicator of major bodily shutdown. I remember clearly in the ER at the time that the docs asked us what we wanted to do if my kidney did shut down. We made it clear to them that no heroics were to be used to keep me alive. Palliative care doctors are really attuned to changes in the functions of major organs. I’m fortunate in that I have a strong heart and no indication of any cardio-vascular issues. 

We (Carolyn and I) drove to Campbell River last week to see an orthopaedic surgeon about the lytic lesion in my right femur. The palliative care docs flagged it as a potential major issue because it seemed to be growing. The orthopaedic surgeon, Deke Botsford, concluded that the changes that had occurred over the past few months in my femur would not likely cause a pathological break, that is one that would happen with no provocation (a fall, for instance). Anyway, we decided that I would get an X-ray in a month or so and that we would have another chat at that time. Fair enough. No problem for now.

I’m reading a book that was kindly given to me by a very thoughtful neighbour. It’s called: With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix (2018). I’m almost finished it. Mannix is a physician and a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist (CBT). Her approach to death and dying is psychological and biological. My approach you will realize, if you’ve followed this blog at all, leans much more to the cultural, social, and anthropological side of things. Of course, I also inject lots of personal anecdotes and experiences. That’s where Mannix and I cross paths. Her book is a compendium of stories about the end-of-life experiences of a whole range of people of all ages in Britain. My blog is a mix of things, but it leans heavily on my experiences in hospitals, with medications, and with medical staff. Denial, for Mannix, refers to how individuals come to accept or reject the fact of their imminent death. For me, following Becker and others, denial is considered primarily a cultural phenomenon which rubs off on every one of us via religious or magical traditions and practices that we rely upon to convince us that we are immortal. Our traditions, practices, and protocols act as collective reinforcement of our beliefs in our immortality. Émile Durkheim, the first French sociologist and education theorist, wrote about the importance of what he called collective effervescence as an important structural component of social coherence. 

I guess if I have any institutional or cultural connections with denial mechanisms, they would be associated with science, especially physics and chemistry. If I have any belief about what happens to my body after I die, it’s that all the atoms and molecules that make up my body will return to the biosphere, to be taken up by organisms in their process of growth. My consciousness will evaporate to nothingness.  So, it goes. 

7 thoughts on “How Long Does He Have?

  1. Read it, thought about it. Then I figured maybe I would tell you about the time Clive and I had a show together. It was in a little cafe in Cumberland. We were sitting at a table by ourselves when a big greasy truck driver sat down at our table. Clive knew him (how I don’t remember) and he introduced me as his lover from Toronto. To top it off, as we were leaving he slipped his arm in mine.


    1. Ron! Good to hear from you. It took me five days to respond to you because I wasn’t at all sure how to respond. Clive is a joker. I’m
      expecting he doesn’t have a secret love for you, nor is he a closet gay guy. He is funny, though. I haven’t seen him in ages. Must give him a call.


  2. “Matter makes up everything visible in the known universe, from porta-potties to supernovas. And because matter is never created or destroyed, it cycles through our world. Atoms that were in a dinosaur millions of years ago—and in a star billions of years before that—may be inside you today.”

    If we throw you in Comox Lake after you are gone, and stir you into it completely, there is high probability that we would all have a piece of you in us for a time. We should be so lucky. Love reading your stuff.


    ps I’m still pissed that I appear to be getting my mom’s bad knees and the sports of my youth are slipping away


    1. Thanks, Tom. I always love reading your stuff too. The substance of the article you post took up hours of time in my courses at NIC
      even though my courses had nothing to do with physics. I talked about he conservation of matter to highlight how interconnected we are, even down to the molecular level. We share DNA with plants. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to eat them and make them ‘our own’!
      Don’t be too pissed off at your mom. It’s your whole damned lineage that’s responsible, your ma being only one little cog in the chain.


  3. Roger, thanks for your text/voice message. I didn’t know there were such things, and have concluded that you’re not only a smart cookie, but a wizard! I myself am “Luddite lite,” and admire those who have the patience to keep up with the world.
    I’m glad the Mannix book wasn’t completely inappropriate, even though I knew it wasn’t exactly your cup of tea. I like the simplicity of embracing or at least shaking hands with things that can’t be avoided, and the relaxation of knowing we’re all in the arms of mother Nature, where all the science is implicit and we don’t need to worry about it. The tide comes in for each of us, pulled by the moon.
    I’m glad you’re reasonably comfortable and able to enjoy thinking, reading and writing. If you would also enjoy some really good gingersnap cookies, let me know.


    1. Hi Anne,
      Sorry it took so long for me to respond to your very thoughtful comment. As I write in my blog (writing today) they tell me I’m dying,
      and they tell me what to expect as I REALLY start to die, but I don’t know for sure. It’s a conundrum. I know dying is inevitable, and in a sense, I just want to get on with it. I’m not suicidal, but I feel that the docs have been teasing me, sort of: “Yes, you’re dying. Should be any time now. Just wait for it…wait for it!” Arrgghh. Oh well, maybe some gingersnap cookies would help!
      All the best,


      1. Hi, Roger – thanks for your note. Waiting is one of the hardest things! You might gain a sense of control by setting your own schedule, maybe figuring out a date to have MAiD if nature hasn’t carried you home in the meantime. You can always postpone if you’re not ready when the date comes. It might give some shape and definition to waiting so that it doesn’t just randomly torture you.
        I haven’t read a lot of your blog entries, but in one you describe death as an impassable stone wall that gradually blots out the landscape beyond it. In my own mind, death is a permeable diaphanous membrane that we will slip through easily when the time comes, and in fact be met by a guide who cares about us. Who can say if either view is remotely accurate? Interesting that they both describe a barrier, implying a place beyond it.
        I’ll get some gingersnaps together; they help with any conundrum. In the meantime, check this out:



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