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Thoughts on Mortality: Document Early, Often, and With Gratitude

Earlier this year, I lost a good friend to pancreatic cancer. Although we all saw it coming, her family and close friends still took it hard when she made her transition.

Another friend died over the weekend after suffering from liver disease. Recently, someone with whom I worked was at an event where it was painfully obvious that he is suffering from dementia. In an online conversation with another group today, someone noted that another former colleague was unable to attend because he is too far gone with Alzheimer’s.

I sat staring at the computer, unable to write, unable to wrap my brain around these losses. Some of these folks were old enough to be my parents. Others, younger than I.

When I was in college, I remember my mother losing a number of her friends while in her 50s to illness, accidents, or to unknown causes.

“I need to hurry up and turn 60,” she would say. “These 50s are dangerous.”

I am so there.

Today’s news drove home to me the importance of recording our history, whether in diaries or journals, video and audio recordings, or on slips of paper we keep in photo albums because we don’t know what else to do with them.

We always think there will be time to get the family stories, to interview that source for a key anniversary, to tell our children and grandchildren what it was like back in the day.

The latest colleague to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s has been an amazing source of historical information over the years about civil rights leaders, politicians and officeholders. He would always give me far more information and anecdotes than I needed for any one story and the latitude to use his comments as needed.

To know that all of that is locked away in a brain that refuses to let him call them forth, or remember how, is difficult to fathom.

My mother celebrated her 89th birthday on Sunday. And while she is forgetful and has to be reminded several times about what is going on today, her memories of her childhood and young adulthood are clear.

And I’ve begun writing down details as she retells the stories – so that I don’t forget when she does.

There are times when I catch myself being annoyed because she is telling a story that she has told dozens of times to the same people. They all smile, wink at me and let her tell the story as if they were hearing it for the first time. Sometimes I have to fill in names or correct details, because I’ve been hearing them all my life, but Mama enjoys the attention and the “wisdom” she gets to impart to her adoring audience.

I know the time will come when I would give anything to hear those tales again, to help her fill in the gaps. And I silently thank my friends for their love and patience in letting her regale them – without interruption – with those same old stories.

My former colleague would need only one question before he started talking and would just give me tons and tons and tons of direct and indirect information, asides to other stories, connections to people related and unrelated to the topic.

I recently left messages at his home, asking him to write a piece for a journalism review. Untypically, I got no reply. I assumed he was on vacation.

Today, I read the news about his health.

So, while the Affordable Health Care website problems, the NSA spying scandal, the start of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s jail term, Chris Brown’s latest arrest and Jay Z’s response to the Barney’s brouhaha are all at the top of the news today, the headline for me is tied to a much simpler, more personal story:

Document Early, Often, with Gratitude.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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