I have a dear friend, Mark, who may be one of the most compassionate, kind, and intelligent people I know. He is also very tall and absurdly handsome. (How he will guffaw if he reads that last bit!) He tells many interesting stories, and this is one of them: Once, back when he was a medical doctor, he had to break the news to a woman that she was going to die. There were treatments available, but they were highly unlikely to change the outcome and would make her remaining time on earth pretty awful indeed. But, you never know. They might make a difference. A small difference. On the other hand, should she choose not to undergo treatment he promised her he would see she was pain-free and that her death would be gentle. She pondered awhile and then asked Mark what he would do in her situation.
Mark answered the woman honestly. He told her if he was in her situation he would go home, put his affairs in order, say everything that needed to be said to whoever needed to hear it, love those around him deeply, and marvel and delight at the miraculous world we live in until it was time to go.
The woman decided to do what Mark himself would do. She went home and lived fully for the time remaining to her.
Later, her son wrote an article in a New England magazine about his mother’s last days, how graceful and calm they were, and how deeply grateful everyone was for Mark, whom he named, for his profound understanding and care, which enabled the woman to transition without fear or pain.
Well, the medical powers that be were not pleased with Mark. They hauled him before a disciplinary committee and he damn near lost his job. It was very hard.
This was years ago. Maybe there are more enlightened folks on medical boards now. I hope so.
This conversation arose when my husband was telling Mark about our decision not to take drastic steps to extend the life of our beloved dog, who has been found to have a mass on his lungs and another on his liver and, well, that pretty much says it all. We were offered biopsies and surgery and maybe chemo and all sorts of stuff. But the truth is my pup, Bailey, doesn’t know he’s sick. What he does know is that he is TERRIFIED of vets. Always has been. The idea of him spending his last months in terror is unthinkable. He isn’t in any pain, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure he stays that way. When I can’t, well. You know. All of this is agony.
At the same time, quite recently an acquaintance was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Stage 4. The doctors, I am told, informed him that, much like Mark’s patient, there were treatments available but they were unlikely to do anything more than make his final few weeks pretty awful. This man decided to go the treatment route because he was full of the passion of life and of love and just couldn’t imagine (I think) leaving so soon. He passed away about ten days ago, and from what I understand his final few weeks were, as expected, pretty awful. But maybe not. I don’t really know what he was thinking, do I?
To be clear, I don’t think there are right or wrong end-of-life decisions. We do what we feel is right at the moment. What we feel is right for us in our bones, in our heart, in our souls. And I don’t think any of us really know what we would do when faced with that decision ourselves, until… well… we’re faced with it.
But here’s what I hope: I hope that, when my time comes, and if I am lucky enough to know I have a few weeks or months before the moment of transition, I hope I will go gently. I fear I might grasp and struggle and flail, because dying is scary, and I don’t think I’m very brave. But I hope I won’t. I hope I will have trust.
I remember reading an essay years ago by Barbara Brown Taylor called, “Leaving Myself Behind.” In it, she talks about finding a stunned bird, a cardinal, on the side of the road one day as she was driving. She rescued it, tucked it up “in a little hammock I made for him in the hem of my blouse.” The bird gazed up at her with his dark, frightened eyes. He was confused, dazed, had no idea he was now safe, cared for, and screamed like hell when released a while later to a welcoming bush. She then talks about what some people think is heaven, and what others don’t think is heaven, and about her father, Earl, and his passing. She writes: “…the next day, I was thinking of him when I felt him take off like a rocket. For about three seconds, a wave of pure bliss washed through my body. Then I knew my father was gone. He had left all his Earl-ness behind.” She talks about her own hopes for the afterlife, whatever that may be, and she ends with this:
“If it is true that most of us give what we want to get, then in the end my highest hope for heaven is simply to be rescued when my time comes — plucked from the roadside where I have fallen, struck dumb by all there is to love and grieve in this world — and gather into God’s own safety, whatever that turns out to mean. I am willing to forego the details, as long as I know whose lap I am in.”
I cried the first time I read that, and I’m crying now. To be rescued. Ah. Ah. Like Bailey, my rescue-pup. Like me, rescued by the love of My Best Beloved and that of my rescue-pup. We rescue each other, and maybe that’s “God,” too. We are all so fragile, so hopeful, and so frightened and so brave. Our whole lives are fragile liminal spaces between one way of existing and another, ever-changing, ever-being born, ever-dying.
Will I go gentle into that good night, as Dylan Thomas advises against? I hope so. Thomas speaks from the heart of humanity’s cry for more, more! Life and life and life!! I understand that. And when faced with the death of someone we love, what other cry is there than, NO! Not yet!!
Still, as much as I understand Thomas’s plea…
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I prefer Sojourner Truth’s belief….
And when I get home… whoosh…., I fully expect to see this face…