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Saturday, April 30, 2011

On death and dying

image: Points of Departure - Margaret Elliot. Tony Carr Collection - Sydney

An email from a friend:

Before I Forget…


We are all born with a ticket in our hand. It says ‘Destination: Death.’ It does not state how long the ride will be, whether we will travel first-class or third, or whether we will get a window seat or not. Just the facts: we are born and from that second on, the only other certainty is that Death will ultimately clip our ticket. We’ve all got a ticket to ride. One way; non-refundable; delivery guaranteed.

Message From a Fellow-Traveller:

Gidday. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me, I’m Richard. I’ll be 62 on June 26. I have prostate cancer with metastasised tumours throughout my skeletal structure; terminal. Also, I have ischemic disease of the brain, (in the white matter), mainly affecting my memory. It too is both progressive and irreversible. Them’s the breaks.

Every day, chunks of my memory break off like great ice floes from a frozen continent and crash irrevocably into the sea of nothingness and unknowingness, there to melt into useless slush; cold, deep waters indeed. I know this is happening because people talk to me about things I should know of and remember, but don’t and can’t. It’s a frightening thing – and tinged with sadness, too. Memory is much of ‘who we are’. If I lose all or most of my memory, who will I be then? I don’t know – but certainly not the ‘me’ that is sitting at the keyboard right now typing this message. I hope that the cancer kills me before the ischemic disease progresses much further.

I’ll use ‘TIP’ as an abbreviation for ‘terminally ill person’ (or people).

TIPsters like myself devote a fair amount of time to thinking about death – though often, not in even a slightly morbid fashion. It engages one’s intellectual interest. What will it be like to die? I don’t know and I may never know. I do know that all the genuine experts on the subject are already dead. We all have to fashion our own path to death. But I am very curious about it all. How could I be ‘me’ and not be curious? It is the very last and greatest adventure, I guess … but one with an unknown ending: Indiana Bones and the Temple of Whom? Or where.

The body accepts the need to die before the mind does. Resolution comes when the mind accepts that simple fact of life and death – or goes mad denying it. Once accepted, TIPsters can get on with the business of living well and dying better.

Believers in a deity might be happy to die in the belief that they will get their reward in a life hereafter. Atheists – and I am one – cannot or do not share that belief. This has a sad corollary: we do not have the comfort of believing that life’s wrongs are all neatly remedied in the hereafter. How sad. But, having given it all much thought, I can only see the concept of divine justice as a convenient human construct. Frankly, the Universe, my dears, couldn’t give a damn. What we have is what we get, then finis.

Well, maybe not. Surely if we have lived, no matter what we have done with our time or life, we have certainly changed what would otherwise have been? The very fact of our existence is a guarantee of a kind of immortality: the world would be different had each and every one of us not existed. I find quite some comfort in knowing that. But I do believe that death marks the end of all consciousness, for ever, in every dead individual. I know, of course, of the stories of ‘near-death’ experiences. Classically, the person experiences a tunnel-like dark environment, with a blinding white light at the exit end. Often, they see white-clad figures who speak encouragingly to them as they approach the light. To me, it all sounds remarkably like a baby’s trip down the birth canal. The white-clad figures are probably the medical staff who orchestrated our birth; the encouraging voices are probably saying ‘push’ to an exhausted mother-to-be. So it seems to me. Having been born stupid and worked assiduously at graduating from being a halfwit to a complete idiot, I’ve had a few near-death experiences of my own, by the way. They usually involved things like cliffs, power lines, deep water, etc. Life is for living, after all!

TIPsters watch people a lot. Do they treat us differently now that they know we are dying? Yes, they do. It’s almost like we are already dead at times. Some folk hold conversations in which the TIPster, though present and the subject of the conversation, is simply ignored. How extraordinary! People also tend to get a bit tongue-tied at talking about death or dying; especially with or to TIPsters. It’s the last great taboo. How odd, because it’s the only thing I know for sure that every other person on the planet will share with me: death. Still, maybe if we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away, eh? No chance. As I am now so you shall be. The bell tolls at the right time for all of us. So even if you go like the clappers (sorry!), death will find you when it will. Given enough rope, even campanologists eventually die.

Some folk have asked me if I’m angry about dying at a relatively young age. No, I’m not. What possible good would it do? And who would I be angry at? Sure, I look at my family and friends and regret that I will be leaving them, but no more than that. No bitterness, no ‘if only’ rubbish or mad attempts at weird diets, faith healers, novenas, charms, witch doctors of any and every kind, alternative healers, or any hocus-pocus at all. I’m dying. I know it and accept it. Anything else is madness.

I mentioned watching people. TIPsters have to be careful. There are people who care for us, who hurt on our behalf. We must reassure them that ‘everything’s okay’ and that we are not in too much pain. If we cannot ease pain for ourselves, we can at least do so for others. We can also talk about dying and death and make friends realise that we have come to terms with it, so that they know it’s okay. I tell some appalling jokes about death and dying, the whole purpose being to make people lighten up and laugh a little. But I’m a Celt, and we find it hard to take much seriously at the best of times. As I often say, I’m only dying. It’s nothing serious like becoming a naturalised Australian. I have also said that when Death comes for me, I’ll look him in his spectral empty eye-socket and say “You’ll never take me alive, you know.” Well, what else can I or should I be doing? Crying? No thanks.

But seriously, other people will still feel pain after we TIPsters have ceased to feel anything. It behoves us therefore to be kind – and thoughtful - to those we will leave behind. Reassure them, hug them, let them know that it’s all okay with and for you. Be an adult. Care. Lie a little if you must.

People who die suddenly are sometimes perceived as lucky. “He went to bed at night and didn’t wake up in the morning.” Well, luck is how you see it. Certainly, such people avoid a lot of physical pain by dying in their sleep. But they lose too, the opportunity to hug those dear to them and say “I love you” to them. Who is to say which one is the ‘better’ death? The price of foreknowledge of death is paid in coin of a harsh currency; but it has its compensations, too.

A reflective state is one of the recognised steps in the protracted dying process. A weighing and balancing of weights, an accounting in and of life’s ledger; a summation, if you will, of one’s victories, losses and draws. As an atheist, I find it easy to thank Mother Earth for sheltering me for 62 years. She has given me everything. Earth can happily survive without people; people can’t survive without Earth. She is the perfect landlady par excellence. But in the end, even she calls for the quitrent to be paid: death is the quitrent. Thanks, Earth, for giving me a home. I sometimes have sneaked into parks and reserves and planted things (no: not that stuff!). Earth needs us to help pay the rent properly; each and all of us, often. If we don’t we’ll lose our home; simple, brutal and factual.

Should I forget you, friends, family, acquaintances, it will not be because I choose to. I already know that you know that. I feel sure that, though the memory slate will be progressively and irreversibly wiped clean on its exterior, deep within my damaged brain, the paths of love that memory has scoured out will remain, though they will be unable to be accessed. Perhaps – and I certainly hope so – in a coma before death, I shall walk those paths again. But even if I cannot do so,

be assured: the love and goodwill remains strong and indelible inside me. It anchors me.

I can’t and don’t bleat at what life has dished out to me. Why should I? I have lived and still am living. Every day and in many ways, some old, some quite new; but all part of an exciting life. I do weep, rage and rail at a God I no longer believe in for the damage little children undergo, in body, mind or spirit. Oh, suffer the little children indeed! It is so cruel and so obscene. No God either could or would allow such dreadful things to happen to children. So I am an atheist. How could I not be? It is either that or accept an unjust God. I cannot do so.

Would that memorable, immortal and novel words of wisdom could flow from my fingers and mind into this keyboard. They can’t and don’t. I know only this: if you would truly find salvation, seek it within yourself. We are real; there is no act of blind faith necessary. We exist: We are who are. Be gentle to yourself; be gentle to others. Be gentle to the planet. Never stop learning, enquiring, marvelling, wondering. Be brave, for as long as you can, as much as you can; all things end - in itself a benison and a blessing, surely? Pain ends, just as life does – and often at the same time. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Life itself is a wonderful, ongoing adventure, all the way through: enjoy the ride. I know of no other one.

Now, here comes the conductor. All tickets please!

7 June 2008

PS And Before I Forget: I love you.

- an old email from an old friend

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