9 September 2009: Death is inevitable, so plan for it early

Death is inevitable, so prepare for it early

When it became evident my friend Denise was out of options in her battle with cancer, I brought up in conversation the myth of Sisyphus, which I had recently referenced in a column. Sisyphus, you might recall, is condemned to push a huge boulder near the top of a hill, only for it to roll back down, whence he commences his task anew.

I asked whether she found the myth symbolic of her ongoing ordeal.

“The hardest part this time,” she said, “is getting it started. I can’t seem to get traction.”

Until then, whenever Denise had experienced a decline, she was able to draw on her inner strength to push the boulder back up. This would be her last attempt, and with that, began the psychological/spiritual part of her final crisis: acceptance of her imminent end.

If one looks at this earthly sojourn as one with a temporary visa, perhaps he/she would come to understand that undue efforts to prolong life that has come time to end are a spiritual version of wearing out one’s welcome by overstaying. Tragedy happens and life can be snuffed out in a heartbeat; but for most, despite our hearts not being guaranteed one more beat, our ending will not be an unanticipated event. We can make plans for it, just as we plan for retirement. So given dying is the most consequential act in one’s life, it’s curious to see so many afraid to have that discussion and unwilling to plan for it.

An air-tight living will, written not when one is in the throes of emotion but rather in a rational state of mind, is the responsible thing to create. And for that same reason — being written while in control of one’s faculties — it should be the guide at the end when emotion tends to trump reason.

In my unit on Transcendentalism, I showed a video about Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the gothic tale, called “Terror of the Soul,” the title of which aptly serves as the description of the strategy of politicians and pundits who work to terrorize people’s souls: people like Sarah Palin with her overwrought fantasy of death panels and columnist Charles Krauthammer, who trivializes living wills in his column “The death counseling truth” by calling his “more literary than legal.”

Krauthammer goes on and denigrates a doctor who would participate in an end-of-life discussion as a “white-coat authority” who “nudge(s) you ever so slightly toward letting go,” should he/she professionally and compassionately tell the patient the truth of his/her imminent end. In so doing, your doctor morphs into a trinity of Dr. Kevorkian, Josef Mengele and the grim reaper.

Stephen Crane makes a poignant observation at the end of The Red Badge of Courage about the youth who, along with a number of his young comrades, ran when the firing began: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” The lesson is the youth isn’t a man until he realizes death is nothing more than death. Now, if we could only get non-youth to grasp that concept.

The Dalai Lama said, “Death, which we want nothing to do with, is unavoidable. This is why it is important that during our lifetime we become familiar with the idea of death, so that it will not be a real shock to us at the moment it comes. We do not meditate regularly on death in order to die more quickly; on the contrary, like everyone, we wish to live a long time. However, since death is inevitable, we believe that if we begin to prepare for it at an earlier point in time, on the day of our death it will be easier to accept it.”

Denise had a wicked sense of humor through which she viewed life’s inanities, ironies and absurdities. It helped her through her most difficult times. Nearing the end of her days, Denise, quoting a Monty Python character, quipped to her husband, “I’m not dead yet.” What’s not to love?

Denise and Stephen, my friend who passed over last October after his 13-month bout with the same cancer that killed Ted Kennedy, are done with their Sisyphian tasks. In their honor, I will carry two rocks to the top of a 14’er, symbolic of the boulders they pushed and so many others continue to push with courage and dignity time and time again near to the top of their mountains, understanding the rock will likely roll back down the hill, but if and when so, they will undauntedly begin the task anew.

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