I would imagine that either of the first two options (old age, lingering illness) would be preferable to sudden death. Sudden death would probably be the least painful way to go, but I'd run the risk of leaving without saying goodbye. Sudden death also seems so much more traumatic to the dead person's loved ones. I'd take additional personal pain to avoid giving my family additional pain when I die.
Some would say that as long as you live each day to the fullest, then you can die with no regrets. It's a great sentiment and all, but I know I'm not living each day to the fullest. Unless "the fullest" includes sitting on the couch and reading internet news stories, I think I'm missing the mark. I'm not out there doing anything bad, I'm not racking up sins on my eternal scorecard (or at least, not major ones), but I'm also not reaching, striving, accomplishing, or any of those other active verbs that would indicate I'm doing something with my time.
This point was driven home for me a few weeks ago when we saw the movie, "Up."
***Warning: Major Spoiler Alert!***
The movie starts with a montage of a happy young couple who meet, fall in love, get married, and spend their lives together. Ellie has this dream of adventure, and they make plans to go to Paradise Falls one day. But every day passes and regular life gets in the way of achieving those dreams - the money they were saving has to be used on a new roof, for example. Eventually, Ellie gets sick and Carl, realizing that they've waited too long, buys plane tickets, but it's too late - she is too sick to go, and eventually passes away. It is his regret that causes Carl to attach balloons to his house and fly away - if she couldn't get there in her life, at least her house could.
I sobbed through this entire movie. I'm sure that wasn't Pixar's intent, but Ellie's unfulfilled dreams struck me to the bone. I felt such pain for her - to have something she wanted her entire life, since she was a young child, and to not achieve it due to stupid life things, like house repairs and medical bills. They didn't magically have more money later in life, but when Carl saw that time was running out, he must have scraped the money together somehow. Why couldn't he have done that earlier? Were her dreams not as important to him, and it wasn't until she was dying that he finally clued in? Watching him suffer, alone, with his regrets kept my tears flowing.
Whether I die from old age, or after a long, lingering illness, or a sudden heart attack at 50, I don't want to die without fulfilling my dreams. If I died today, I'd know that I've spent the last 12 years doing the right thing with my time - raising my children. But I'd be sad to know that I never saw the pyramids, or helped AIDS orphans in Africa, or walked on the Great Wall of China. Or even Mount Rushmore, for pete's sake. The world is such an amazing place - I want to see all of it, experience all of the amazing things that the world has to offer.
Beyond that, I want to leave a mark. I want, to quote Gwendolyn Brooks, to "add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge." Or this quote, same source: "I just love to move the ball forward, even if it's only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out." I want to contribute something - I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. I feel like I have a purpose, a calling to Do Something, and I don't want to be done in this life without doing it.
I did not marry Carl. Ryan, although he was against me writing this blog for fear that I'd be too depressing, is fully supportive of me and my dreams. We had a long discussion after we saw the movie, and one of the things he said was that he doesn't have grandiose dreams like I do, so when our kids are older, he'd follow me and my dreams. So that's a "yes" to graduate school, or living in a foreign country, or whatever I come up with. Maybe even a trip to Mount Rushmore.
Until then, I'm going to focus on living today more fully. However I die, I want people to say, "The world is better for her having lived in it" or "She lived a full life" or even just "She will be missed." As long as they don't say, "She died? Bummer. Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" That would be a good way to go.