The Price of saying ‘Good-bye’


So I was listening to my ipod the other day, and bugger me a track comes on that I’ve not heard for a long time .  It was the track that I was playing on ‘the long drive’ across Wyoming.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was probably on a day or so away from dying.

I’d arrived near Laramie in the summer of 2007 after driving some 2000 miles from upstate NY and I had an ‘upset stomach’.  I figured it was food poisoning or something and drove up into the Snowies, west of Laramie.  The evening and night was all alone in a car park, with a fever, and what I would call ‘low level hallucinations’, in that when I closed my eyes I would see vivid colors that would take the shape of familiar objects and do really surreal things.

The next day I really wasn’t feeling any better, and certainly not well enough to do anything, and so I limped Westwards.  By this time I was getting worried.  If it was food poisoning, it should be getting better by now, and if anything it was getting worse.  I picked up the interstate I80 and headed West.  It was late afternoon by the time I got to Rawlins, and I was weighing in the balance if I should head to a hospital.  In the end I decided I would head onto Rock Springs and if I was not getting better by then I would go looking for medical help.  That drive turned out to be particularly tormentful, with the pain getting progressively worse and in the failing light.  To make things worse, it turned out the GPS was out of date, and inside my head there was a wail of despair that went off as the GPS announced ‘now arriving at destination (hospital) on right’, when it was clear there was no hospital here.  Thankfully Rock Springs was a fairly small place and a little further up the road I found a Hospital sign.  It was only on getting out of the car I realized something was really really wrong.  All the time I had been in the car, all I had to do was essentially set the cruise control and keep the car on the road.  On getting out of the car, I found the movement so painful that I could barely walk.

The tormentful drive across wyoming. Incidentally, a couple of years later I returned along exactly these roads to fly my plane in the snowies. It was really a very traumatic experience as i had so many painful memories of this road. Had a similar experience when I broke my wrist coming off a pedal bike. About a year later I cycled up to the same junction and was again stunned at the power of the involuntary physiological response.

The fever made my stay in the waiting room a really quite surreal experience.  While they were checking my insurance details I sat very still, and very quietly in an almost transidental calm, like I was only watching my life.  The thing that really sticks with me from that waiting room were the parents opposite me, getting progressively more frantic as they went from credit card to credit card trying to get something that would pay for their childrens treatment. It was an unpleasantly disturbing sight seen through the eyes of one whose my mind wasnt quite right and who, by now was dealing with the unconformable realization that there was something very wrong with him.

When a doctor finally took a look at me, it took him minutes to come to the conclusions ‘appendicitis’.  They took blood, and at some did some form of imaging that required a tube to be shoved up my ass and significant amounts of dye to be injected.  I was assured this would be quite painful, although to be honest at this point I was in so much pain, and in such a dazed state that I just didn’t care. Not even a little!

All this confirmed what they had suspected all along, and that they would operate in the morning (less than 12 hrs after arriving).

Now I knew the risk of death in the operation was small, and the chances of death if they did not operate were all but certain, but nonetheless, when they came to put me out for the operation, that this might be the final curtain call.  Complications as unpredictable as they are, it turned out, my appendix was actually fairly far gone and gangrenous and as a consequence my appendix scar is longer than most!

So these were the memories that came flooding back when I heard this track, and then I remembered something else.

-I had chose not to contact my parents, and the uncomfortable things I had weighted in coming to that decision.

I knew that the chances of death were small but real, and in that case, all my parents would ever know of this is that their son had died of complications in Wyoming.

-So how could I not tell them I hear you ask?

Well, I also knew the operation was something I had no control over, and nor would they.  That is that if I told them I knew they would worry terribly, my mother especially as they could do nothing other than powerless wait on the other side of the world to hear if their son was going to live or die.

… and there, as I stood waiting for a bus, listening to my ipod, it suddenly dawned on me that this was the price of saying good-bye to your loved ones.

It also prompted me down the rather uncomfortable line of thought of what sort of risk of death would you need before the balance was tipped from ‘the probability is small, and the matter is out of everyones hands, so I will spare my parents the emotional grief’ to ‘the probability is high, and even though it’s out of everyones hands, I want to talk to my loved ones for maybe the last time.  What would be the tipping point? 10 %? 30 %? 90%?

I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.  What would you have done?

-You are on the other side of the world and with a risk of death, maybe big, maybe small.  Would you spare your loved ones the anguish? Or does the necessity for the closure of talking to your loved ones, maybe for the last time win out?

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32 Responses to “The Price of saying ‘Good-bye’”

  1. polesch Says:

    Apart from a broken clavicle, I haven’t been in any serious harm. I did get peptic ulcers a few years ago though, which was extremely painful. I wonder how I would have lived through it without the immediate relief of proton pump inhibitors like pantoprazole, or finally the antibiotics cure that got rid of the helicobacter pylori that had infected by stomach.

  2. Nocheinbenutzername Says:

    I would talk with my family.

    Part of it is me wanting to talk to them, part ot it is the closure for them.

    If I died without talking to them, they would have to go on living without this closure, as well as the question of why I didn’t talk to them when I had the chance.

  3. Kaylakaze Says:

    I suppose not having to worry about such things is one of the benefits of not having any loved ones.

  4. eternalsojourn Says:

    This is a tough question that can usually only be realized hindsight.

    Only recently have I had to think about this sort of thing as my dad has undergone heart surgery several times. The first time it was a big realization of death being a possibility, but after a few times, it was an unspoken agreement that we all knew.
    Now I usually find out the day of or day after a surgery rather than it being a big family meeting.

    I understand you not telling them, though I probably would have as I’ve always been healthy and haven’t had any types of operations.
    I wouldn’t want them feeling like there was a reason I didn’t tell them, though if I didn’t they would probably just think that I figured the odds were good, it was a more or less routine operation, so no need to worry them.

  5. Myriad Says:

    For friends and relatives, parents and sibs, maybe 20%. Higher if I knew they had something more immediate in their own lives to worry about.

    My wife, I’d tell regardless. We made a deal, took vows, and that’s part of it. Another part of the same deal is trusting one another not to overreact.

  6. PirateFish Says:

    Your story reminds me of my own experience which took place in my early twenties. I had been mugged in an attempted street robbery by two similarly aged men. While my efforts to ward off my attackers were successful in saving my wallet and money, I was left me with a severely dislocated shoulder.
    As the scuffle was taking place 911 had been called by some witnesses to the event, and after the attackers fled and the cops arrived I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital emergency room.
    While waiting to be tended to by nurses and doctors the police were looking to complete their procedures by collecting my statement and my personal information. The pain and discomfort however was increasing exponentially by the minuet and I really didn’t have the frame of mind to speak to them, so I told the cops to just take my wallet from my jacket and take whatever information they needed from there. I remember them asking me if they could call anyone for me. Knowing that I was not in deathly peril I told them “no”, and I remember stressing to them; “whatever you do, please do NOT call my mother”, because being a Jewish mother I knew that a call from the police, saying that her son is in the hospital emergency room would cause her great, undue distress. At the time however, I did not know that I was going to be put under general anesthetic in order to repair my shoulder. Had I know that at the time I *may* have thought differently and let them call my mother, with a request to just insure that they tell her not to panic.
    This brings up a small side story: The evening that I was attacked I had a blind date set-up where I was going to meet my date by picking her up after she finished work at 10:00pm. I didn’t have her phone number with me and I kept telling the hospital staff that it was imperative that I be out of there by ten o’clock, to which they assured me each time with a reply that I would “be out by ten”. What was unannounced to me is that they meant I would be ‘out cold’. [At least I had a good excuse when I called my date the next day to explain why I had stood her up.]
    As my ordeal of that day came to an end I awoke in the recovery room to find that the police had ignored my earlier request and instead called the emergency contact number in my wallet – which was clearly marked “Mom” – and to both my horror and delight I found my mother standing at the bedside. At that point I was not mad at anyone for ignoring my request, and in fact I was actually more happy than not that they (whoever made that decision) did.

  7. emilyhasbooks Says:

    Given such a choice, I would definitely call my mom. She lost her father without having the opportunity to say goodbye, and the pain has haunted her a lifetime. I could not bare the thought of choosing that outcome for her with my own death.

    As for my father, I can’t say that I understand him well enough to know what the best choice would be. For my own odds of recovery, it would be more beneficial to not speak with him before the surgery- keeping stress as low as possible.

    Considering your health and hallucinations at the time, you did the best you could have.

  8. noahbleh Says:

    I would have to contact my mother as Ive never been very nice to her, and I would need her to know that, even though I never really expressed it, I appreciated everything she’s done for me. Maybe I should give her a call some time.

  9. Prelude610 Says:

    My thoughts on learning friends or family had died was that I wish I had had a chance to say thank you and good-bye. I would contact my closest friend and her son so they would be able to do that, if it was that serious. I’d let her contact others as she saw fit.

  10. Adrian Says:

    Speaking as somebody who has lived in Asia for a good long time and having lost a sibling in my early teens I would probably let my family know what is going on, if the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes the cost of loving another is a certain amount of worry and anxiety. Part of what it is to be human is to accept and deal with that anxiety. If my son, who lives in Japan with his mother, were to need an operation I would want to know about it regardless of the anxiety I would feel concerning the situation.

    I may be powerless to do anything about the situation but I am not powerless when it comes to my own feelings and anxieties around that situation.

  11. Seymour Says:

    Minor operations I wouldn’t bother them. I’ve had three in the last couple of years (internal abscesses in the scrotum, blood poisioning is possible if not cut out). They know I have an AF and high blood pressure but as long as I take my medicine this is under control.

    They are all a long way away, including the better half, as I work overseas. So not much they could do, for major surgery I would call my sisters and spouse.

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  13. eikonoplast Says:

    All of my brushes with death have come on suddenly (car crash, building collapses, stray bullets whizzing, and other physical and/or social catastrophes), so I’ve never had the time to call and say “this may be the end.”

    Though none of my loved ones want to see me die (I hope), I think they are mostly firm jawed, and would want to know rather than be surprised.

    I think of death as inevitable, and I’ve lost a fair number of people I’ve been fond of, and it’s never fun, but it’s never going to go away. It’s interesting to me that you bring this up, given turns in events for me personally over the last few years, as well as what I’ve been observing in regards to the large movement of people challenging unfounded belief. I’ve long ago come to very lucid and unsullied understanding that we will always hear news of someone’s end, until it’s our turn.

    On a related note, I think much of the problem here in the west, especially the U.S., is the reinforced tendency to deny death. Barbara Ehrenriech touched on it in her book “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (which is a great read, and easy, if you haven’t read it) She starts with her experience with breast cancer, and then moves on to the unrelenting positivity of a large number of elements in culture, from new-agers, to megachurches, to corporate culture, etc. I agree with her synopsis, that sometimes the “is the glass half full or half empty?” (in addition to being a binary fallacy) is a sort of open-ended begging-the-question, wherein you fulfill the fallacy yourself by getting duped into filling in the presuppositions. A half-glass is always just 0.5 glass to the realist.
    Anyway, I don’t think it’s good for us to treat something so certain by hysterically expunging it from consideration in our culture, at least to the extent that so many seem to do. It seems like it is another excess of unfalsifiable beliefs, and only makes life harder (with denials and their fruits in law and culture), and does nothing about death.

    Anyhow, I would tell my family, but not months in advance, unless it was necessary (like cancer, where you need a good deal of support from those who love and know you best).

    What I DO do, is make certain I tell people who are close to me now how much i do love and appreciate them on as often a basis as possible (without getting smarmy). And try to act towards them a little more with that consideration than i may normally be inclined.

  14. Margaret Says:

    Whether to call family or not depends on the family. I am speaking from the “other side” here, as someone who has worked as a nurse since 1994, and prepared patients for emergency surgery. Some families support each other; but some clans start fighting, even going so far to start laying claims on the patient’s possessions just in case he doesn’t make it. The worst are the ones who simply panic, and do everything in their power to prevent any productive work from being done by any medical staff anywhere in that particular wing of the hospital, whether they are involved in the care of their loved one or not. THEY are the center of the universe, drop everything and explain to them for the 35th time just what an appendix is, why it has to come out, etc. Oh, don’t forget, this family has 14 siblings, none of whom can talk to each other, who all immediately call in all their friends, cousins, in-laws, coworkers, and church members to ask the same questions over and over. Does not matter if they live in town, or on the other side of the world. These people will literally call every 5 minutes for 8 hours straight. These are the people who will do everything in their power to interrupt the nurses and doctors work and then complain if they don’t think enough is being done and threaten to sue. They do not care if the constant interruptions are interfering with the care of their loved one and every other patient who is there. In cases like this, a spokesperson has to be appointed to receive all information and relay it to the larger group. Getting this done also takes time, but I have to say, the hospital chaplains are actually useful in this situation, in smoothing down some of the panic and getting some semblance of sanity. The phone calls every 5 minutes are then forwarded to the family spokesperson. The best thing anyone reading this can do is have an advance directive and a family spokesperson who agrees with your viewpoint to be your advocate.
    So in answer to Tf00t, if mortality risk is low, & you don’t want to distress the family, then don’t call, but afterwards, explain your motivation so they know you had their interests at heart so there are no hard feelings. Mortality risk low in cases like irrigation and debridement of a boil, NOT gangrenous appendicitis. You could have died, sir. So in that case, best to call, tell them you love them, assure them you will keep in touch with them after the surgery, let them know you’re in the care of doctors in a medical facility. Considering you had no energy, was in pain, and in altered mental state, you did OK. That is your defense in case family is a little perturbed with you. Lay claim to your independent streak/individuality. They know your personality, and to love you, they accept you as you are.

  15. Jon Rohr Says:

    I can only answer from the other side of the equation: I lost my mother slowly & my wife suddenly. So in one case I got to say goodbye & in the other I did not. It honestly makes no difference at all. Period, full stop.

    It is not the last thing that you say to them and it is not the first; It is EVERYTHING that you EVER say that matters.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I do not tell anyone, except my wife, my kids don’t worry about me for this reason. My mother and father did the same, most of the time, so I actually believe it is better. I am uncertain about people’s emotions being a comfort when I am ill.

  17. jimboandbear (@JimboAndBear) Says:

    I was in this situation, coincidentally also in 2007. I had no choice but to let my Parents know because the hospital refused to communicate with my girlfriend/partner of 5 years and with whom I own a house.

    Living in Ireland with my family based in Australia, the only way my Irish family could get an update on my condition outside of business hours was for my Australian family to contact the hospital and relay the information.

    This is what religion does. There was a refusal to respect my relationship to my partner on the grounds that we were not married, even with my concent to do so. I was not afforded the opportunity to nominate my next of kin either. That was also determined by my relationship status that they insisted was “single”.

    I was in hospital for 4 nights and this crap just added to the stress.

  18. Casey Says:

    In my experience, higher probabilities of death are unpredictable. Often, you don’t realise until after the fact. It would be rare indeed to know that you’re about to die and to be able to contact people back home.
    My experience comes from hitchhiking across Russia, with very little language and a phone that couldn’t make calls. In my closest scrape, a car accident left me with a possibly broken back hundreds of miles from the nearest town. If I had died, it’s likely that I would have simply disappeared without a trace.
    After the fact I let them know, of course, but by then the danger has passed.

  19. justnorrik Says:

    Oh that stretch of road is quite bad without being sick/ill.. Mind you it’s beautiful scenery, but the long nothingness is mind numbing…
    I did it with my wife this past summer when we drove out to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and San Francisco and back…

    I think the worse part of the psychological aspect is the loneliness or solitude of dying in that situation. To be alone with no friends or family can carry a seriously impact on top of an already serious situation. I’d recommend seeking out some counseling, not that you “need it”, but it helps, it helps a lot…

  20. bismarket Says:

    As my 84Yr old mother is my only living relative i would NOT want her told until after. If i had the opportunity, i would do what the soldiers in WW1 & 2 did by writing some sort of letter or arrange some way (Delayed eMail?) of informing her of my feelings & decision not to tell, should anything go wrong. She knows me well enough to understand why i would do that (Not letting her worry pointlessly). Providing everything went well, i would call her as soon as i could after surgery though..ps Just to let you know, your blogs are getting better all the time, KUDOS!☮

  21. DaydreamingCrow Says:

    I wouldn’t call. If I thought I was going to die I’d write a letter saying all my heartfelt goodbyes and final I love yous and an explanation as to why I didn’t call then ask that it be sent out should death be the result of whatever ails me.

    I have a few reasons for not calling. I wouldn’t want to cause my family worry over something they are powerless over. I would want the last images my loved ones have of me in their minds to be of me happy and healthy not sick and dying. Most of my loved ones are devout Christians and I’d rather not have them turn some of my possible last moments into a sermon. I hate talking when I’m terribly sick and in pain and my family would likely try to keep me talking as much as possible which would moment by moment bring me closer to the likelihood that I would say something hurtful.

  22. JBM Says:

    “Hi mom. I’m in Rock Springs. Oh, it’s in Wyoming. Yeah, just stopped off to refill the tank and have my appendix removed.”

    I would think it a worse thing to have passed on without at least talking to people who care. In this case I’d have probably done it, even without considering that I might die. It’s a heck of a story.

  23. LightninLew Says:

    I’ve never been in an emergency situation which I could relate to this, but I have been going to the hospital for some time now without telling my family. At first I had hoped it’d just be some blood tests, they’d know what’s up with me, then I could tell people if the situation was bad enough. Nope. I first went in January, that’s around 8 months of worrying that I’ve saved them. I am quite worried that if it does end up being serious, they’ll be offended that I didn’t tell them though.
    If I was in a situation like yourself, I think I’d probably write something. That way they wouldn’t find out immediately and be worried, but they wouldn’t think I’d neglected to think of them & if I died they’d have my last words.

  24. mimi Says:

    Jimbo (I’m assuming by your name you are male and this is a heterosexual relationship-if not disregard), the purpose of marriage is to create a financial and legal relationship. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion. You can’t skip that step and think the bureaucracy will make an exception for you. If you want those perks, you need to get married.

    If you respect those perks, ensure that everyone gets that same chance by supporting marriage equality.

    Back on topic: Would I tell my mother? NO. That batshit crazy woman would take the overnight flight over because she is nuts.

  25. Tom Says:

    So weird , I’m in hospital now and just had my appendix out. I just tried to go to toilet and fainted I’m now back in bed and can’t sleep. Thought I’d see what thunder foot posts I haven’t read and this is the first one I came to.

  26. Sadako Says:

    Well, I spent a year in Japan, a nation notorious for having severe earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and Godzilla attacks and typhoons and other delightful natural disasters. The nature of most of these disasters is that they are unpredictable–there is about a 70% chance of a 7.0 earthquake striking Tokyo within the next 4 years (and most buildings in Tokyo are designed to resist quakes in the 7.0-8.0 range, with newer buildings resistant to up to 9.0, but a 7.0 directly under Tokyo would result in millions of casualties), the JMA has hundreds of sensors trying to detect tectonic activity related to the next Tokai Earthquake (the 8.0 ‘Big One’ that has struck Japan once every 150 years or so for as long as Japan has had written records), but for all this, we can’t know when or where the next quake will hit. In such an event, I would have no way of contacting my family to let them know I might be dying in the next few hours–because that could have been at any time. Earthquakes don’t wait for decent hours and they don’t call ahead when they’re an hour outside of town.

    In my case, it was just something that I had to let my family work out themselves in the six months following March 11 and leading up to my departure for Tokyo–their daughter/granddaughter/niece would be going halfway around the world to one of the most geologically active countries out there, where huge earthquakes come around all the time, and there would be nothing they could do about it if another Big One came along.

    (Incidentally, one did–there was a 7.0 earthquake on January 1, 2012 which almost immediately went on international news. This quake, however, was 300 miles offshore; I didn’t even realize that it was a 7.0 quake, because at my distance, it didn’t feel any more intense than the 5.0-5.5 quakes we usually got every month or so. Of course, once I got on Facebook that night and saw everyone screaming ‘PRAY FOR JAPAN OMG ARE YOU OKAY?’, I realized it might have been a little bit bigger than my usual 5.4 tremblors.)

  27. Anonymous Says:

    I would tell my mom. We are very close and I tell her everything. That and I come from a religious family so I know my mom would find comfort in prayer (as would I).

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