Living Passionately and Preparing For Dying

Rabbi Heschel

Looking at elder faces and looking into their eyes.

Is anybody home?

Looking at my own face changing, wearing wrinkles and splotches these days.

Passing through time

Sometimes hearing echoes of other lives not visible through these eyes, now.

Seeing Death As A Triumph Not A Failure

This is the title of an article I almost didn’t read because of the title.  It feels a bit out-of-date to me.  But the tag line read “the denial of death leads to the demise of the art of storytelling”.  In my world, this is reasonable cause for panic, a potentially cataclysmic event.  Visions of dystopias dance through my head. I read the article and remembered that, every now and then, I must remind myself why I’m so passionate about helping people prepare for the last great adventure of this life.

We have, especially over the last 75 years or so, been distancing ourselves from the personal experiences of the dying process and death.  It’s not intentional. It’s an adaptation to our environment, culture, population density, scientific discoveries, medical care, etc.  The traditional funeral is a thing of the past.  These days, roughly 75% of our dead are cremated, often within a day of the last breath.  And vulturesI hear that the population of vultures, on whom the Zoroastrian Parsis of India depend to consume their mortal remains, is collapsing. It’s safe to say that their practice will change.  Gone are the days when families were three generations deep, birthing, living and dying together. That was fertile ground for ripe storytelling; fodder for the Bards’ songs; the passing on of our collective oral history. No criticism implied. We’re doing what works for us.  It’s OK to keep the dead on ice until family and friends can gather, or the ashes in a cardboard box. It’s no longer practical for many of us to accompany the dying through their death.

I think that’s why that tag line festered in me like a dirty splinter.. It’s not the denial of death that is going to kill storytelling. After all, polls show that we all accept the fact that we’re going to die some day.  The potential to slowly strangle storytelling is our becoming people who neither observe nor participate in the process of the dying of another, face to face, heart to heart. And the dying person is more often not in a storytelling mood when hospitalized with tubes in every orifice, or when consciousness depriving medications are coursing through their paper-thin veins.  Many of us will still spend a large part of our own dying at home, not realizing that we are dying.  And this is the part, I think, we’re depriving ourselves of.

Living With The Invitation From Death On The Bedside Table but When Does The Dying Begin?

Looking into the eyes of so many elders, patiently, peacefully, and often with a smile that implies that they know something that I do not, it’s hard to believe that there are some people who are still afraid of Death.  It must be because many of us never experience the intimacy of gazing into eyes that are over 90 years old. These are the ones living in the aura of death, sometimes for a very long time. They’re comfortable, curious and ready. Sometimes they’re frail and totally dependent and other times still writing books and going out to lunch.

I recently met a 97 year old woman who had been living at home until she lost her ability to swallow without food getting caught in her esophagus. This causes lot of coughing as the body tries to keep the food from going into the lungs. After no food for several days, and a few diagnostic tests, she now has all of her food pureed. “The meatballs are OK. The pasta needs more sauce. But no more pizza for me. They tell me it’ll turn into a big lump.”  She wanted to know why her ‘problem’ wouldn’t just get better. Just like every other malady she’s recovered from in 97+ years, I think.  It was a bit like when a too young child asks what puberty is and we dole out information sparingly. The body goes through changes, I say.  And some things don’t go back to the way they used to be; like the wrinkles and splotches on my skin.  My lady laughed as we looked at each others wrinkles and gazed into each others’ eyes.

During one conversation, her daughter mentioned the close relationship between my Lady and a granddaughter who had died at age 12.  “I still see her sometimes. Not like a body. Like a sparkle of light flitting by and I know it’s her. Do you know what I mean?”. She looks at me, mischievously quizzical, daring me to tell the truth. Ignoring the eye-rolling of her daughter, we confirm that we’ve found a kindred spirit and giggle as we share our secret stories we believe to be glimpses of another life, beyond this one.

Living In The Aura Of Death: An Under-appreciated Time

“We’re always coming or going, Grandma”. Wisdom from the mouths of our little ones. Granted that she may have been referring to the transcontinental travel over the previous year, or all the new places she’s been visiting, or the seemingly interminable car trips to see grandmas and grandpas, but, there have been enough hints to lead me to suspect that those who are much closer to birth, than I, still retain a latent memory of another life.

We were traveling in Italy over the Christmas holiday and doing what one does when in Italy. We ate pasta and pizza, radicchio and fennel, tiramisu and gelato, and drank plenty of wine.  We also visited ruins, walled Tuscan towns, and churches dressed up in their holy day finest.  At the first church, our little one approached an alter and announced that she was going to pray for J.C. (no, the first name is not Jesus, but in the interests of privacy and good karma, we’ll use initials only).  At the next one, we asked who J.C. was. “He’s my friend”.  OK. Imaginary friends are common among 4 yr. olds. Probably very common among little ones who go to pre-school where there are only three classmates who speak her language: Ellie, Marcos, and Lucas.  So J.C. is imaginary, big deal.  John Craven

Curiosity being what it is, we ask for a bit more information about this guy. And with the gentle, yet dismissive demeanor that only an old soul can get away with, she educates us. As though it would just take too long to explain now, with a flip of the lip we’re told “J.C. has lived many lives, don’t you know?”  We put some $$$ in the offering box, and the three of us knelt down, lit a candle and prayed for J.C.

Living While Dying = Living In The Aura Of Death

This is where we’re at risk for contributing to the demise of storytelling.  Unlike Birth, Dying is often subtle and we dismiss the signs as insignificant, just getting old.  And we miss the moment of the dawning of the aura of death.  It’s OK.

Unlike Birth, where we gain a baby, Death feels like a loss.  How many of us have heard our children holler at us “I didn’t ask to be here!”  Or maybe it was me, in anger and frustration, flailing against the injustices, calamities and losses leveled upon me by the gods, misfortune, and birth.  Or how about the refrain “I’d rather be dead than …. be here.”

A few months ago I mentioned to our son that I was toying with the idea of getting another dog.  This was around the time of the posting about our friend, Rhonda, and the Gordon Setters we used to raise.  His response was a mindful “Wow, that’s like a 15 year commitment Mom.”  And there it was. The delightful acknowledgement of the aura of Death.  The continuing of the life cycle.

When I look into the eyes of those who know they’re dying and have no fear, I know that they’re not seeing death is a loss.  They’re the ones who are ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Listen carefully … and pay attention with the ear of your heart.

These are the opening words to The Rule of St. Benedict. It’s the rule followed by all Benedictine monks, male and female, “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome”.

It was The Rule that helped bring order to the chaos of my life when I often felt like flailing.  No more chaos than anyone else’s life. It’s the everyday stress of doing what needs to be done, nurturing what needs to be nurtured, interacting with others, some upon whom we depend, some who depend on us, and always being ready for the unexpected.

Thirty five years later, I see that St. Benedict’s Rule is another interpretation of Living Mindfully: be still and listen carefully with the heart; pay attention; cultivate wholesome thoughts, intentions and actions; practice humility, hospitality and generosity; don’t take myself too seriously; nothing harsh, nothing burdensome, one moment at a time.


*The photo is of one of heroes, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Heschel who inspired the Page “I Asked For Wonder”.  **from TEDtalks,  Isabel Allende on How To Live Passionately: no matter what your age.

***If you have not read The Last Day Of Her Life, it’s posted on our FaceBook Page.

“With Alzheimer’s’…it’s extremely difficult for one’s body to die in tandem with the death of one’s self.” A Powerful read! Rich in experience. A multiplex of issues. And it happened in Ithaca. Being mindful before she lost her mind.