That Gray Area Between Death and Life

I’d written about 300 words of a post about ethics and how like people gravitate to like people and then realized I just didn’t want to go there today.  But…Since I’m here…

A very good friend of mine just found out he has a brain tumor.  And he’s handling it amazingly well.  Some people would get that kind of news and be devastated, especially since the tumor appears to be secondary to a cancer somewhere else in his body that they just haven’t located yet.

But my friend is fine with it.  If this is his time, he’s okay with that.  He’s lived a good life.  No regrets.

What I can’t say to him, so I’ll say to all of you instead, is that I don’t think he understands that there can be a gray area between life and death.

When I was skydiving, I had no problem with the idea that I could die doing it.  If things went really wrong and I went splat, I figured it would be over in a minute or two.  (Turns out, maybe not so much, but that was what I thought when I started jumping.)

I had no kids, no one who relied on me financially, no pup.  It was just me.  And if that’s how I went out?  Okay.

But what I came to realize was that, thanks to the joys of modern medicine, it was much more likely I’d be seriously injured but not killed skydiving.  And that was something I didn’t want.  Chronic pain.  Months of rehab.  Decreased motion for the rest of my life.  The need for others to help me do the simplest things.

None of that was worth it to me.  I loved skydiving, but not enough to go through that. I didn’t want to live in the gray area if I could avoid it.

My dad lived in that gray area the entire time I knew him.  As I’ve mentioned on here before, he was very ill as a child and eventually lost his kidneys because of it, and was a dialysis patient pretty much my entire life until he died when I was eighteen.  (With a brief hiatus in there when he got a hep positive kidney transplant and then pneumonia and spent three months in the ICU and almost died and ultimately lost the kidney and part of a lung before it was all over.)

He lived in a world of daily awareness of the limitations of his illness.  Every single meal was impacted by the requirements of his disease.  And three times a week he spent hours hooked up to a dialysis machine so he could live.  On top of that were the inevitable complications.  For him those included water on the heart, low blood pressure, decaying bones, macular degeneration, carpal tunnel, two spinal fusions, chronic pain, and on and on and on.

I think we often see illness and think it’s an either/or scenario.  You get cancer and you beat it or you die.  You have a heart attack and it kills you or you recover.  You’re in a car accident and you have surgery and rehab and go on with your life.

But most people who get sick or are seriously injured actually live the rest of their lives in a gray area between life and death.  They’re not dead, but they’re never quite the same as they were before.  It drags at them and weighs them down a little bit more every single day until it becomes too much.

My mom is ten-plus years out from a successful heart surgery at this point. If she hadn’t had it, she would’ve died within a matter of weeks.  That surgery gave her years of additional life.  But she lives with the consequences of it every single day and she is not as active as she was before that.  And not as healthy.  She’s alive, yes, but there’s a quality issue that most people overlook.

I had a co-worker who made it to the five year mark with a glioblastoma brain tumor.  Odds of that were something like 5%.  You hear that and think, “Wow, he was one of the lucky ones.”  But he wasn’t.  He had no short-term memory for most of those five years.  A man who was one of the most brilliant lawyers I’d ever met, and for the last five years of his life he couldn’t have a real conversation because he’d forget he was having it and start over from scratch.

Life is rarely black and white.

Especially with illness, it’s rarely, you’ve got this and it’ll kill you or you get to go back to who you were before.  Far, far more often, it changes you, in big ways or small.

And most of us aren’t mentally equipped to understand that that’s what’s coming and prepare for it.

I hope for my friend’s sake it’s a black and white outcome.  I hope he gets to be who he’s always been or it’s over fast.

But I fear that’s not what’s going to happen, and that, while he might be fine with a black or white outcome, he’ll struggle with the gray space between.  As we all do.

(But until that actually happens?  I’m keeping that to myself.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to That Gray Area Between Death and Life

  1. kataar says:

    I hope the best for your friend *hugs*

    I also had the thought while reading this…this sort of life fact seems rarely present in the kinds of fiction I read. Maybe because no one wants to deal with this in escapist fiction. But I wonder if this could be used in the right way, in the right context, in a fantasy or sci-fi story to make a compelling character…

    • M. H. Lee says:


      Yeah, true. Sometimes putting a little too much reality in your fiction gets uncomfortable, but I have been toying with a chronically-ill chosen one idea for a while. Just not sure when I’ll get around to writing it…Too many ideas, not enough time. And if I want to be full-time at this someday I need to make “commercial” choices for what I write next. Hoping TT gives me much-needed insights and direction and then I’ll crank it for the second half of the year.

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