A high school classmate of mine, diagnosed with end-stage cancer, wrote that in his despair he went online searching for the best end-of-life joke. This is what he came up with:

“Guy walks into his doctor’s office feeling a bit under the weather. The doc checks him out and says to him that he has cancer and has six months to live. The patient is understandably upset and says, Doc, what should I do? The Doc’s answer: Leave your wife, go to Kansas or some other God-forsaken place, find an ugly woman with seven kids who will yell at you all the time. But Doc, says the patient, how will that help? It won’t, says the Doc, but it will be the longest six months of your life.”

Not the most PC joke, perhaps, but my classmate reported that it brought a smile to his face, and got him to thinking.

“I laughed at this,” he wrote, “and it kept popping into my thoughts. Why was this funny? It seems to me it is amusing because it is the exact opposite of what we want from life. We do not want to prolong life in a way that is not satisfying. We want each day to be meaningful and enjoyable.

“I realize that I will probably not be able to play a round of golf at a desert resort, I will not hike the trails of Patagonia, not spend a week with my wife in Yosemite nor a river cruise in France. But what I can do is enjoy what I have. It may be just a dinner at a nice restaurant, some time with my kids, grandkids or friends, a walk in the neighborhood, or just sitting out on the back deck looking at the trees and sky enjoying nature.

“I am doing my best to do those things.”

Very profound. The hardest thing about death, it seems to me, isn’t its inevitability, since the alternative—a continuing and irreversible slide into ever-greater frailty and senility—is worse. Harder is the pain and suffering—both mental and physical—that so often accompanies the end of life.

But perhaps hardest of all is the knowledge that death is imminent. Which is why capital punishment and end-stage medical diagnoses are so cruel. Who wants to know when they are scheduled to die? For then there is nothing left to live for.

Except my high school classmate disproves that notion. He says that we live life day by day, minute by minute.

The past is gone, the future uncertain. Only now is immediate and real.

There is an old saying: “Death tugs at my sleeve and says, ‘Live, I am coming.’” Very true. Live now, live fully. That is the point of life. And when the time comes, living fully will make the end easier.

These are obvious truths, but it is good to be reminded of them.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...