The end came early and unexpectedly for my friend Sue, and in a few days I will join her family and fellow church members to memorialize her. Although she did not get all the years she might have fairly expected, she did her time well. Life set many challenges before her, and as most of us attempt to do, she met them head-on, expressing her resolve to accept the responsibility to get beyond them. Sue’s take-charge attitude served her well as she acquired an independent constitution from repeated practice at getting up after being knocked down. During her ending time, however, she was faced with conditions that she could not have anticipated and for which she did not practice.
Sue’s sudden illness placed her in a compromising struggle more painful and lonely than anything she met during her giving life. Extracting her from the clutches of the industry of death was very difficult. When the terminal nature of her condition became obvious, this proud lady lost her voice as her general control and treatment choices became secondary to institutional procedures. She was no longer a cognizant player in the last and perhaps most meaningful days of her life. Stupor-serving narcotics poured through her intravenously, and if she continued to live any longer in that body, she was a long way from home. Eventually we did extricate her from the cancer ward, and a meaningful, dignified, and conscious parting was afforded to my friend and me.
Dying is not easy to do, and, in fact, I have often felt the loss of basic functions and the deterioration of the mind and body to be the ugly side of life. I have had considerable practice at letting go of friends and family, and I have found that separation is more meaningful when, in spite of all the discomfort, dying is a conscious process. With my acceptance of Sue’s passing a profound sense of beauty soothed my pained heart. What we shared together in these last moments could not be quantified but did quench a deep pain in our shared experience of parting. This was not so different for me from the time of passing for my grandpa, my mother, my special cousin, and my closest brother. In looking back, I realize that an air of mystery that surrounded the deaths of these important people somehow encompassed me. The enormity of this mystery replaced some of the troubling sense of helplessness with which I was confronted during the difficult process of letting go. I could not grasp or understand it completely at parting time, but I could sense a door of sorts that was opened somewhere beyond what I could understand.
One particular evening during Sue’s last days was especially striking. A few of us sat at her bedside, along with her two dogs and her son, who lay red-eyed alongside her on the bed. In conscious awareness, we of her and she of us, we were together in our letting go. Together we were packing her bags for the walk between worlds to whatever might be next for her. There was a telling instant that lifted our tired and teary eyes. With a soft giggle from her frail and translucent body, she comforted us. Sue’s presence was almost regal as she signaled her acceptance of death. That soft laugh spoke to a faith and basic trust that clothed her in comfort, while equally clothing the rest of us. So it is with dying. Someone is leaving, and friends and family are equally participating in the parting. Conscious separation has always seemed important to me, and it can be one of love’s finest moments. Of all the many kinds of love, this love may be the kindest of them all. With all of the uncertainties on the bridge between one world and another, our trusting acceptance is what really allows a loving and lasting embrace.
Knowing how beautiful dying can and should be, I am reminded of my discomfort with extended life care facilities that seem to be showing up almost everywhere. My too-often visits to these places are difficult for me and I am too often left with a feeling of despair for the residents. Why are we dispensing all of the stupor-causing elixirs that keep us seemingly alive just a little bit longer? So many of the residents’ eyes seem to be looking out from their personal prisons where they do not recognize the jailers. Where are the families, the homes with grandchildren to which these elders might belong? What are we doing with this valuable human resource that can be so necessary, giving, and caring? Are some of us staying too long?
I remember how it was 40 years ago as one of 15 children on a chicken farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I felt deeply the presence of my grandparents. How they were valued and loved! Their wisdom was comforting, and their patience was kindly appreciated. The smells of Grandma’s cookies and Grandpa’s corncob pipe have never left me. Nor has the manner and way in which each of them died. The end of special people in a child’s life always comes too soon, regardless of how much time they may have had to prepare. The signs were obvious. Their skin was deeply wrinkled, mobility was an issue, and their presence at the dinner table was less and less predictable. Soon they did not come to the table any longer. There were a few visits from the family doctor, and chicken broth from the kitchen was delivered to their room. A respectful silence fell over the family during those last days, and one by one we were allowed to have our farewells. I sat by them and awaited our last eye-to-eye contact. My eyes floated in a moist puddle, while my grandparents’ eyes were surprisingly serene and kind. There together we confirmed our love and appreciation for each other. There was very little left for them in this life, but their faith seemed to be abundant. In their acceptance of death, I found perhaps the greatest gift that my grandparents could leave with me: the belief that there is more before us when we leave this world and that they will meet me there on a bright, sunny day!
Sue’s cooling hand remained in mine as death was taking her away. The air between us was powerfully charged as I shared in her death and reflected on my own. How will I die? How would I like those last days and hours to be when it is my turn? No, I would not like to linger. I would follow my mother’s lead when she requested to be present and conscious. She wanted to be aware. She knew that there were choices to be made, and she wanted to make the right ones for herself. I would want to avoid much of the business of death. I do not want to be afraid. Invasive operations and exotic treatments to give me just a little more time would not be my choice, nor would I want to extend my life by trading in body parts. I have learned that much can be gained by practicing for my death, and I can do this by valuing the way I live and abiding in the faith that there are other rooms in my house of life.
I do trust that there is more after this life, and with each conscious parting of a friend or family member I find more of the golden nectar of what is next for me.