“I’m sorry I have to say goodbye this way, not in person. My symptoms got a lot worse a week or so ago and I decided to do a process of voluntarily stopping eating and drinking in order to die faster and with less suffering.”
This opening to an essay from Dr. Irvin D. Yalom’s book Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychology stopped me immediately. The letter came from “Ellie,” one of Yalom’s patients. He said he knew she was dying from her cancer, but was still shocked to get the e-mail. Who wouldn’t be?
In my experience with the dying, I’ve never really gotten close enough to ask what it is they’re feeling or thinking as their time comes near. My first wife and I were in classic denial of her pending death these many years ago. As proximate as we came to grappling directly with it was a fleeting moment when she awoke from a frightening few moments of near complete stillness. All she said when she opened her eyes was that dying was proving difficult.
Thinking of Ellie reaffirmed my conviction that little is of importance in our daily lives save the love and respect we share with those closest to us. What I have learned in my stay here is somewhat of a mixed bag of the happy and the sad. Plan as we will, our careers, friendships, places where we live, and alas also the ones who ignite the passions of our lives all will eventually come to an end. Our understandings, contracts, vows, the bindings that lace up our lives will eventually come apart with time and happenstance.
And then there’s death. Ellie faced hers bravely and made her peace. The terms she had chosen to honor and follow were strong. Although her time was now about over, she had created and nurtured meaning in her life, had not allowed any sense of finality to fray what was important to her. Although her sacrament of grace was soon to be past, gone with the day without a proper farewell since such things are ultimately impossible, she held out her hand to try to connect one last time. She had chosen not to be one of those solitary folk sitting on the side with the wind in their face.
Ellie’s story brought to mind the advice of the Desiderata, a poetic writing written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann. He directs us to go placidly amid the noise and haste of this world and to remember what peace there may be in silence. Another bit of valuable guidance he gives is to “avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.” I have made considerable progress of late in following this maxim while distancing myself from political people. My sights are firmly set on cherishing those nearest and dearest to me, the jewels in my crown.
So even if death always has a way of spoiling the party and obviously comes for the archbishop and all the rest of us in various forms, I have to make a special effort to talk myself through its pain. I know that we all will leave the stage eventually, but like the good doctor, I am still shocked when it happens. I see many elderly on my own humble efforts each week to comfort the ill and try to get them to tell me their stories. I know they are still much more than their frail bodies and failing memories. I can reach out and touch them, feel their warmth, and hope that they won’t go this week. But you never know.
This frightening moment of departure, of course, is always the call that brings the final change. It can also provide the relief that the pain and suffering is finally over. We’re always left with little more than real awe that a living creature with eyes that see and a mouth that tastes is no longer there. I am a sentimentalist who has held a dying bird in my hands that has hit our window. As I have stood there in real awe with the creature nestled in my hand, I could feel the life depart and the colors fade. It is never an easy moment for those who watch and bear witness.
When I see a child who squashes a bug or takes the life of a bird, I ask if they can make such a creature that crawls or walks or flies, a creature that cares for its young, who feels hunger and cold, can sing with such beauty or show off such color. One should never forget to ask where it goes when it is knocked from the sky, trod under a boot, lost below the ice.
In trying to make sense of so much of the Ellies of this world amidst the “noisy confusion of life,” the many moments that can disenchant us, I frequently find contentment in the language of poetry that can often reveal so much more than prose. In her poem My Life Was The Size Of My Life, Jane Hirshfield entertains a kind of out of body hand-in-hand walk with herself, her “My Life.” If we think how we can step back at times and look at our lives from some companionable vantage point, we can sometimes see ourselves in new ways. In this poem, she ponders how her life compares with other lives:
“Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.”
But what about our own lives that are sometimes weighed down with the “sham, drudgery and broken dreams” spoken of in the Desiderata? Are all our vows, our trusts, our commitments to share and to keep no secrets to vanish eventually when the fog of time and disability no longer lets us honor them? Will those earlier times which we thought were so special and would never end now be fitted with curtains about to fall? Will the moment come when the lovemaking will end and we won’t be able to quite remember the last time? Will the terms of agreement we have signed with others be nullified?
As Hirshfield so kindly writes, though, our time is not to be spent fretting over the ineluctable but rather to continue to try our best to do whatever possible to savor the joy of life:
“Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off … our clothes on …
our tongues from …”
As I step back and wonder about Ellie, or Lilian, or Jane in the “memory unit” which I visit regularly, I know I can never break through the barrier that allows me to see them in their special place but bars me from entering their inner presence. These are private rooms that let the light in a little but will not permit other bodies from passing through. In the end, though, all we can drink in is the creature’s will to live rather than its need to leave, to sing rather than pen the note of farewell. Let us rejoice in the song of the bird and allow it to soar. When we have to pick up and hold any injured thing, let us hold it in a manner to keep its life intact. May the mark it leaves in our hearts help us find the way when our time comes.