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Vulnerable and Compromised: Pandemic ruminations on mortality and death

Our language of death, perhaps even our experience with it, has become pinched, withered.

(Image: Wendy Scofield |

Funny, I don’t feel vulnerable or even compromised—not at all. But that is what my family and statistics and science say: I am compromised and vulnerable. COVID-19 did that.

I have never thought of myself as compromised or made vulnerable by much of anything. The whole thing, frankly, sounds ageist and ableist to me, as though I’m being singled out.

Sure, I did turn 73 this April. So what? Lots of people will turn 73 at some point this year—maybe not as many as turned 72 last year what with normal attrition rates, but still a lot of them. Of all the people born in 1947 I have so far outlived 28% of them. I don’t, of course, think of it as a contest. But if I become the guy who beats the actuarial tables, well, “Okay, Boomer.” I want a big cake.

According to the best life expectancy calculator I could find, I shall have the opportunity to visit my 86th year. By “best” I mean the calculator that gave me a number I can (so to speak) live with. Different calculators give different results, so it’s good to check several and take an average. I’m not obsessive, but I do like those calculators that let me add variables to the calculation. Upping daily recreational alcohol consumption to eight drinks, for example, does tend to lower my life expectancy. It’s an added risk I’m assessing.

These calculators are usually sponsored by financial institutions specializing in annuities. They’d like you to click a permissions box so they can send literature, brochures, and the like. I’m thinking the numbers and variables used in determining one’s life expectancy are fudged upwards a little bit. You think that if I’m going to live that long I’d better get an annuity to cushion my golden years.

Not me, though. I have seven kids and I raised them all with the expectation they each will give me an allowance of $80 a month to boost my Social Security and my slim savings. It was $50 originally but there is inflation. I haven’t invoked it yet; I’m still too young. A couple of them have made a counter offer. They’ve promised to put me in a nursing home like those sometimes featured in 20/20 investigative reports.

Back to the virus: reality being real, I am older than 70 and statistically susceptible to coronavirus, significantly so. The latest numbers I can find report an 8% to 9% death rate among confirmed cases for people between 70 and 80. It pops up a bit for men compared to women. Overall, mortality hovers around 3% for all confirmed cases.

Besides my vulnerable age (trending as I like to think toward venerable), I have what is euphemistically called an “underlying health condition”: diabetes. I factored being a Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetic into my actuarial calculations. I still hit 86 years even with that accounted, and for every year I live beyond 73, my chance of surpassing 86 improves.

But, in my experience in 26 years as an adult-onset diabetic, no matter how well managed diabetes will always take something irreplaceable from its victim. It could be any number of things: eyesight, mobility, or both—not to ignore life.

For anyone with a chronic illness, life is always loss. Some of us know that keenly. But isn’t it that way for everyone? I keep thinking of a petition in the Great Litany: “From an unprepared and evil death, deliver us good Lord.”

It has been dropped from use, along with the petition for protection from “long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.” There are some things we no longer believe. Nobody wants a “prepared” death, not anymore. A “prepared” death assumes so many things we’d prefer not to think about—awkward deathbed conversations, composing memorable last words, final declarations of love, or making necessary apologies if needed.

What we most want, I’d guess, is a death that quick, easy, and unexpected. Go to bed one night and not wake up; not a problem. We want death without dread. So we’ve done what we can to make it friendly. We want the imaginary Kubler-Ross experience, a solemn room filled with murmuring loved ones and family, all saying soothing things. Watching the dying die, we think of euthanasia and call it a “mercy”. Dare you: try talking about death without the words “denial” or “closure.” Our language of death, perhaps even our experience with it, has become pinched, withered.

Nonetheless, life is essentially loss, an existential insult. We learn that early as we go through it and suffer from it. We lose pets, grandparents, or worse in our younger years and it never gets better as we grow older, the years becoming an accumulation of the stinging abrasions of memory.

I remember a snippet of Psalm 90: Teach us to count our days aright, O Lord, that we may know wisdom.

Yet the very next verse cries, with disjointed abruptness: Relent, O God! How long? Have pity on your servants!

My father took the poet’s advice and did not go gentle. Life at the end was all loss—his wife eleven months before, his job at age 90 (they made him retire but he bragged about getting unemployment), his driver’s license at 91 (I did that—that was me). He was outraged by encroaching infirmity and by death. We all should be outraged. God did not make us for death. It is the enemy of God, the last enemy, and so the enemy of our flesh. We properly count it as loss. I thought of that Psalm often, caring for my father as he neared death. Yet we may, if we count our days aright, count death equally as something more. And perhaps even come to think of it as a relentless pity.

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About Russell E. Saltzman 16 Articles
Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of state of Kansas.

1 Comment

  1. Amen. I dislike all the psychobabble & foolishness surrounding death. And that includes the Kubler Ross scenario & the pressure to sign paperwork that’s written more to protect hospitals’ interests than patients.
    You can’t even say someone died now. Instead, they’ve “passed.”
    Our children do owe us something & I’m tired of hearing older parents say they don’t want to be a burden. Be a burden. You have every right.
    My older sister has an auto immune disease & the medications to control that gave her diabetes. So she has at least three reasons to avoid this virus.
    You be careful & stay safe out there too.
    God bless!

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