For our first fifteen years together, any time death came up in conversation, our unspoken assumption was that I would probably die first. Of course I would die first — I'm twelve years older than Stephanie, and never took care of myself. I've never intentionally exercised, and never eaten healthy except for the meals Stephanie cooked. For all my adult life I habitually overate until I maxed out at 360 pounds, which is jumbo-sized indeed. I've lost weight since then but I'm still fat, still don't exercise, and don't usually walk any further than the bathroom or the bus stop. There's also a history of cancer in my family, which took my dad and one of my brothers. By all rights I ought to be in poor health indeed, but instead I'm generally well for a 60-year-old man. There's a touch of gout and high cholesterol, both well-managed by prescription meds. Other than that, I'm as fit as a fat fiddle.
Stephanie, on the other hand, was raised with a healthy and balanced diet. Her parents are both alive and in good health, in their 70s. Her mother is a great cook, and Stephanie was a great cook herself, feeding both of us wonderful and healthy meals for all the years we were together. She exercised, walking by choice and joining a gym in her 30s. She was in excellent health until she got late-onset diabetes at age 29. So she watched her sugars and poked her fingers and took her insulin and did 90% of what the doctors told her to do. Her A1Cs (the test that tracks long-term sugar control) were pretty good. Despite the diabetes, she remained in pretty good health until her early 40s.
And then, the troubles began. She had an odd, unexplained infection on her leg, which made it difficult for her to walk. After a few months of hesitation, she saw her doctor, and was prescribed some antibiotics, which didn't work. She was eventually admitted to St Mary's Hospital, where a surgeon cut the infected tissue out, leaving a scar on her leg but, more importantly, leaving Steph able to walk painlessly again.
She went back to near-perfect health, until a couple of years later, when she got another unexplained infection, this time on her back. Again it was resistant to antibiotics, so again they cut it out with surgery, and again she recovered fully and went back to a normal life.
Then, with no warning and for no reason we could ever ascertain, her kidneys failed, so she underwent surgery to install a catheter, and went on peritoneal dialysis seven days a week. Then came an infection in her foot, which eventually spread to the bone, necessitating the amputation of her left leg below the knee. After the amputation, there were complications that landed her in a nursing home for months.
Everywhere she went after the amputation, from the bathroom to baseball games, she went in a wheelchair. And still, the scary diagnoses kept coming. A heart condition sent Stephanie to a cardiologist monthly, and put her on more medications. Vision issues brought her to an ophthalmologist every six weeks, for injections into her eyeballs, which were as icky and uncomfortable as you'd imagine, but which brought her vision back to near-normal. The kidney disease compromised her immune system, so there were frequent and recurring infections, and there were other assorted medical nightmares — all of which I might detail at length someday, but not today.
For today, my point is only that it's ridiculously unfair. For no known reason, Stephanie's health began fading in her early 40s. The new assumption between us was that her life was going to end earlier than we'd thought. Even at my most pessimistic, though, I wouldn't have guessed she'd be gone in 2018. And yet, there she goes.
Why didn't Stephanie have a chance to grow old? It's a question that eats me alive some days.
I work for a life insurance company, and it's my job to perform a final audit on new policies we issue, ensuring that all the financial details are right and that we've spelled the customer's name correctly, etc. Some of our applications ask questions about the policy-holder's health, so my employer can calculate the risk of issuing the policy. In any given week, hundreds of these policies cross my desk, and frequently they're for people older than Stephanie, sometimes much older, who answer all the health questions "no," meaning they're in perfect health. For example, a few days ago I processed policies for a married couple, where he's 91 with one minor medical problem, and she's 89 with no health issues at all.
My commute to and from work takes me past two city parks, and I sometimes see old couples (younger than me, but that's still old) walking together, maybe holding hands. I'm happy for them. And yet … Stephanie was 48 years old. Forty-frickin'-eight. That's supposed to be middle-aged, not the end of it all.
I'm too zen to be angry about this. It's fate, the luck of the draw. But part of me wants to be angry, and it certainly smacks me full-force in the head, every time. I tell myself that these people I'm envying, these old and healthy people, might have more years on this planet than Stephanie had, but she had more happiness than most folks, squeezed into fewer years. I tell myself that, and hope it's true.
If there was a way, though … If there was an option, a form to file or a box to click or a god to ask … I would give everything I have and everything I ever had and everything I might have in any future, to have absorbed all of Stephanie's health problems, and let her have all of my health.