This week an old and dear friend of mine died of terminal lung cancer. She was 85 and lived a very full life as a professor of literature, a poet, a gardener, an ocean swimmer, a daughter and a friend to many. I was fortunate to be able to visit her a few weeks ago in California while she was still ambulatory and able to say a few words and share a few memories. The world always feels to me like there’s an empty space and a loss of energy when someone close to me dies.
Without meaning to be morbid, I must confess that dying has been on my mind somewhat this past year as I fought my own battle with fourth-stage cancer. Apparently, I am not alone in my thoughts: There is a national conversation taking place about the process of dying. We are debating how much control people should have over their own death; whether they have the right to end their own lives if they no longer wish to live; whether doctors should have conversations about death with their patients (and whether or not they should be reimbursed for those conversations); and what constitutes quality of life when you have a terminal illness. The list goes on and on.
Today there was an editorial in the NY Sunday Times written by Oliver Sacks, one of my favorite “science” writers and observers of human behavior. A professor of neurology at New York University, he has written many famous books about unusual human phenomena including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He is now in the process of dying from terminal liver cancer that is now in its final stages. He has already written and published several articles about his own process of dying and I have hung on every word he has written. Yes, partly because I came too close for comfort this past winter myself, but more because I am fascinated by how clear-headed he is about the process he is experiencing and sharing with us. No one wants to talk about death; yet, he does. In fact, I wish I could have had a few personal conversations with him this past winter as I contemplated my own demise.
Mr. Sacks finds that he is comforted by what he refers to as the “physical world” and explains how he wishes he could be around for certain discoveries in nuclear physics that are on the brink of happening. He explains how his beloved “element-friends in England” each year send him the corresponding element to each of his birthdays. So this year, for example, they sent him “a realm devoted to lead, element 82” for his recent 82nd birthday. He also cherishes a “beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.” He shares that he wants to be wheeled outdoors to gaze upon the night sky when he is close to death. So do I.
I am currently reading a book entitled Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, which the author, Gary Geddes, subtitled “An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas.” I am a sucker for pilgrimages of any kind that satisfy my wanderlust and my search for the meaning of life. This is about a personal journey undertaken by the author to trace the path of a legendary monk from Afghanistan, named Huishen, who journeyed across Asia and finally to the Northwest Coast of the Americas long before the Europeans arrived to share spiritual teachings about Buddhism with everyone along the way. The author finds scant evidence to support this legend, but is determined to find out for himself whatever he can. Last night while reading, I learned something that surprised me. Although the Chinese do register births, they do not record the deaths of individuals. No Death Certificate is issued. Thus, in more than one monastery where he hoped to obtain some information about Huishen, there was none.
This practice in China, which continues today, caused me to pause. It seemed such a huge contrast in cultures; one that I had never known existed. Here in the Western world we have made death more and more of an event. Even though we still haven’t agreed on the details, we do seem to agree that honoring the death of a loved one or important person is part of our culture. And now, thanks to enlightened souls like Oliver Sacks, we are being provided with a peek into a personal experience that still has us transfixed, but is becoming less and less of a mystery. I, for one, am encouraged by the greatly diverse and unique experiences people have as they are dying, and that there is not one best way to die. It would make me very sad to think that the end of a life would not be noticed or honored in some way. I hope that I can one day make the process of dying a meaningful one for myself and my loved ones. I pledge to support anyone else’s choice to do so to the best of my ability.