In early December, sitting in a small Episcopal church in Annapolis on an overcast day during a funeral for a friend, I listened as the widow noted that her dementia-ridden husband had referred to his dying condition as a “transition.”
I found this perspective remarkable. Her husband had experienced a fleeting moment of lucidity. He knew and accepted his destination.
Three of his closest friends spoke about his big personality, his unmistakable laugh and his ever-present smile. Though I knew him for only two years, I learned to appreciate his zest for life, his ease in making and keeping friends. He was a recovering alcoholic who was driven to help to help others.
One of his many retirement activities was serving as a tour guide at the U.S. Naval Academy. His son had graduated from USNA. My friend loved this gig. Then one day, as he was giving a tour—one, I am sure, was filled with joviality—he forgot a fact. He was stunned by his inability to retrieve information that he had voiced over seven years.
He stopped doing what he loved. He underwent numerous tests. His health continued to decline. He fell a few times. He began using a walker. But he still sought human interaction. He was the recipient of unconditional compassion.
I would bet that few of us, struck by impending death, would confess that our fragile state of being was in “transition.” Though it may sound like a euphemism, I think it represents amazing self-awareness. Also, the painful concept enables family members and friends to accept the inevitable end to a vibrant life.
We all experience transitions—call them sometimes disabling potholes, if you wish—in our unpredictable lives. I think about the onset of adolescence, a rough patch for me. I think about becoming a father at age 30 of my wife’s child by a previous marriage; changing diapers was the least of my worries. I think about accepting my mortality after a heart attack at age 48. And then I think about aging and the physical ailments that accompany fitful life as a senior citizen.
If you are emotionally intelligent about advancing into delicate stages of life, marked by milestone birthdays, you understand that words like hope, pride, joy, empathy and family can be invaluable guideposts. I will explain, mercifully briefly. After all, this is an essay, not a sermon.
Those of us engaged in managing our eighth decades understand that hope is a mighty feeling. Hopeful that our health is stable, our normal functions workable.
As I have learned since compelled to cope with balance problems, I cannot allow pride to interfere with asking for help climbing up and down steps at night. It is difficult for macho men to exhibit vulnerability. I foreswear fretting about a visible show of vulnerability.
Life is so much happier with a daily dose of joy. It too calls for being open to moments of laughter and the discovery of new experiences.
The expression of empathy by a friend or family member warms the heart and softens emotional pain. It seeps into your soul. The world seems brighter.
And, finally, the literal and figurative embrace by family provides comfort.
Transitions are unavoidable; navigating them takes strength. My deceased friend could plow through the fog of dementia to see the light and acknowledge his impending death. He found peace during a lucid moment.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.