Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death as a Way of Life

Having anticipated spending the weekend engaged in tea-leaf reading with harbingers of Mr. Death, I was surprised to discover instead living as a way of dying, in a way that applies to all of us. We treat death as Benjamin Franklin's joke, something unpleasant and unmentionable, rather than as the useful nudge to live, just as taxes are a necessary means to share.

Perhaps it helps that I am a mere four years away from the age at which my father died, although I am a comfortable 35 years from my father's father's age of demise.

My father died "young," or so his contemporaries said. I was just about to become a father for the first time and my middle-aged father did not seem young at all. Now it he seems to have been too young to go; at nearly his age of death, I still have some living in me. I think.

My grandfather, on the other hand, voluntarily decided not to undergo a third operation that might -- or might not -- have extended his life an uncertain span of time. He knew it was his time to die and given his advanced age nearly everyone, save for those of us who loved him and still miss him, would agree.

Most people I have known who were aware of death's impending arrival at old age were ready, almost anxious for it come, to be done with physical decline and pain, to end resistance to nature's course. This past weekend, however, I came across what seemed to me an entirely new, Zen-like approach.

A sick person within range of a reasonable age for a man to die -- no matter how unreasoning death will always feel to those who have loved him -- had given his family, and perhaps himself, a few scares. The fear and shock was perhaps enough that he seemed to embrace his fate -- one that's not imminent, yet feels closer than the demise of his youngest child -- with a joy and matter-of-fact calm that seemed to imbue his household with a way of living that is very much in the moment.

Because I am closer in age to the person who is ill than I am to my grandfather's age of death, the picture I took in seemed a reality not to be ignored: this is more or less how I will be when I get closer to my turn.

Then I was struck by how the healthier living, those whose dying seemed likely to stretch out for decades beyond even my time, were living day to day, even with an awareness of Mr. Death they had not had before.

There were tears and laughter and worry, of course, but fundamentally, as a grounding of all that was going on there was an air of letting go, of living to the fullest in tiny ways, of a normalcy that might have seemed unnatural were it not so wise.

Why not? We are all dying. If only we were more forcefully aware of it!

I could walk out and get hit by the proverbial truck. I might have a deadly disease incubating in me as I write. My body might just tire out inexplicably one night.

Am I ready for that? Have I let go of my resentments and angers and worries and fears, my navel gazing and self-pity, to replace them with a serious but not humorless sense of purpose and focus on the things that, to the best of my knowledge, are important?

It seemed, and perhaps I idealize, that the household of the man I went to see was trying to let go and live. Or rather, to take on dying as a way of life.

If I were on my deathbed -- or my death computer chair -- that is how I would like life around me to be. Indeed, I am in death computer chair and I feel a greater urgency to focus on what is important.

Excuse me, then, I have to go do some work.


Anne said...

Your weekend reminds me of my own father's death, it was a time of a few weeks in which we were all aware it was "time" and we made ready and were. Which makes the contrast of an unready death a specter.

Jerry said...

My life is in the hands of a Doctor whose name I can't pronounce let alone understand a fucking thing he's telling me. I guess it would help if I could hear better. My wife says it's so funny to hear us interact. I imagine it is. It's hard to laugh when you're frustated. When I leave his office I head directly to a dive where 2 or 3 martini's help me understand. Maybe if Dr. Huang had vodka in his office I could finger him out. :)