DEATH - The “Sugar” of Life by Barbara Coombs Lee
"As Epicurus observed many centuries ago, the art of living well and dying well are one."
Along with millions of Americans, I watched last year’s public broadcasting series by Bill Moyers about death and dying. Of the entire 5-part series, one short segment hit me hard and stayed with me. It came when Moyers interviewed Bill Bartholome, a pediatrician facing an imminent death from throat cancer.
Bartholome generously talked on camera about his inner experience as he got closer to death. He was getting closer both as in “sooner” and closer as in “more friendly with.” He talked about what it’s like to live “in the light of death.” Not expecting to see another Spring and then seeing one, he experienced it as an incredible miracle. He said, “Death transforms living in ways that we in this culture do not understand. I think we need to think of death as sugar, as something that gives life that pizzazz. Makes it sweet.”
Who among us doesn’t yearn for the sweetest life, yet simultaneously work to shut out all thoughts of death?
For the past seven years I have had the great privilege to work in the field of care and choice and to serve individuals at the end of life. In that time I have learned that people who are passionate about their manner of dying are equally passionate about joyful and richly textured living. There seems to be something liberating about coming to terms with death. My own experience is that knowing death, acknowledging our ultimate rendezvous seems to free me to taste the full, rich sweetness of life.
As Epicurus observed many centuries ago, the art of living well and dying well are one.
Here at Compassion in Dying our volunteers are committed to both. They help clients to live well for as long as is humanely possible and if there is no longer the possibility of “good” life, to die on their own terms.
The night my friend Penny Schleuter died I asked her why she decided on this particular night to use Oregon’s assisted dying law. She answered: I have finally gotten to the point that I don’t feel I’m living, but just existing. Weakness and fatigue are really bad and cannot be controlled. But the biggest problem I have is continuous running of bowel matter through tissues that have broken down. I am never clean. Soon I’ll need constant physical care, turning and feeding. This prospect, and knowing it marks a relentless progression toward death, is more painful than any of the pain of cancer.
People like Penny are Compassion’s most treasured and expert teachers. They cherish liberty, dignity, integrity, mercy, justice and responsibility. They approach their deaths with eyes wide open. Grieving certainly for the loss of all that is of this life, they are still bravely and surely engaged in the process of their transition.
Penny understood the circumstances of her death to be very important to the meaning and story of her life. Like the last act of a play, her dying was central to her life’s message and definition. It was fitting and consistent with her life as an independent woman and a teacher. It was not just a random detail at the end.
My own life path may lead to another kind of death, consistent with my own beliefs and values. Compassion volunteers help each individual die in a manner consistent with her life and character. We have no interest in the particular choice made, so long as the person truly is afforded a choice.
Rev. Paul Smith wrote about ministering to Arthur Ashe as he was dying of AIDS. In his book Facing Death he makes the simple yet elusive point that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. When we live as though death is the worst thing that can happen to us we must be in constant fear, because death is an inevitable and defining part of being human. Giving in to fear, we stand to lose something even more precious than life itself. We stand to lose our passion for life and our call to savor it every day to the very core of our being.
It is often said that as we age we display the traits of character we always have—only more so. I am one in that flood of postwar babies now occupied with aging. So I will soon begin the process of becoming “more so”.
The prospect is both exhilarating and alarming. More joyful, more full of wonder and curiosity, more passionate, more kind, more open—these are easy to consider. But more bitter, more insecure, more possessive, more envious or vain? Who wants to grow old to be like that?
It is not aging itself but character that determines the quality of our later years. We owe it to ourselves to build a character that can see us to our end in grace and good spirits. Whether we become old trolls or old elves seems to be entirely up to us.
Through my work with the dying I have discovered that embracing the certainty of my own mortality helps achieve the right balance in becoming “more so.” If I can stand it, I try to bear in the back of my mind that this may be my last Spring, my last Summer, my last Winter. It brings out the elements of character I value most. I’m counting on a friendly relationship with death (along with its twin, a friendly relationship with the divine) to guide me through an exuberant life to a sweet old age.
One Compassion client, Norma Ruiz Davis, was a poet whose zest for life and awareness of death rose to the level of art. She published this poem two years before her death:
COME DEATH walk toward me in your flower-printed silk and fine mossy velvet or in your impeccably tailored black suit. come in all your perfection extending your hand and saying your name draw me toward you as my close friends do hold me elegantly still in dance position then waltz me away glancing over your shoulder once and with the smallest gesture let them know how much I liked to dance
Barbara Coombs Lee is President of Compassion in Dying Federation, a national organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life. Its local affiliate, Compassion in Dying of Oregon, counsels and guides clients through end-of-life choices including legal assistance in dying under Oregon law.