OK. Before you boldly immerse yourself in the death defying feat of reading about the great take-aways of my quixotic experiment of practicing for my dying for over four years I’ll tell you. I got it straight from my mentor Stephen Levine’s book, A Year To Live.
But what if Death is sudden? What if I don’t see it coming? You’re driving home and the car in the next lane blows a tire, swerves into your car and you feel the vehicle being crushed, what famous last words might be elicited? I suspect it might be the Great American Death Mantra: “Oh Shit!” or in French, “Merde”.
What will my last words be?
Two years ago I spent time in an Emergency Room being scanned, splinted and stitched. It was a close encounter with Death and the experience that prompted the “End of My Year To Live Experiment” that lasted over 4 years. One year later, I spent time in a different Emergency Room being treated for Cellulitis (a deep tissue infection) in the right lower part of my face and jaw, and the related soaring high blood pressure. What wasn’t being treated was the underlying Lyme disease that left my immune system incapable of defence. The locus of the infection was debris in my jaw from the trauma of the fall. Also not being addressed was that my head felt suspiciously like the concussion sustained at the same time.
I could read nothing of any length, grateful for audio podcasts and short stories. I wanted to play music but couldn’t, not even spoons or washboard. Most telling of all was that I could not remember the tai chi sequence. As with the concussion, I watched the brain. As I continued doing gentle moving exercises I noticed what seemed like an ’empty’ spot. Yes, a small yet darkly empty area in the upper right part of the brain. It was also encouraging to see, or feel, healing activity going on. In those moments was a glimpse of dementia. Is this what is to be?
These Years Getting To Know Dying And Death, What Have I Learned About Living?
Often attributed to The 14th Dalai Lama, Aldous Huxley or Mr. Rogers, “Be Kinder” is the advice for living a better life. I’m not going to argue. No, a little kindness goes a long way and it’s a great start but it’s more complicated than that.
For months, healing from Lyme brain and after, I sifted through old journals and scores of other references for hints about what I’ve learned. Lists of topics, snippets of stories, notes, post-its that all became too much, important things but too specific. For examples: ‘No giving un-asked for advice’. Or, ‘People are more important than things.’ These are worthy lessons but I’m looking for something more foundational. Here goes.
Impermanence this seems so obvious yet when we encounter ‘impermanence’ as ‘change’ it’s
not necessarily so easy to accept. The iPod died a month ago and now the iPad, as old as MindfulDying.com, is also succumbing to its end. The 100-year-old oak we rested against last winter is now flat on the ground. Knowing impermanence deeply is a stop-gap when unhelpful thoughts arise or emotions tempting damaging actions. Knowing impermanence in the natural cycles of Nature, of which we are part and parcel, comforts me as I picture this dead and decaying body nourishing flora and fauna. Death delightfully expressed as “Participatory Shapeshifting” in the book Being Salmon: Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild by Martin Lee Mueller brings sharp focus to the interdependence of everything in our environment. This is #1 because how we relate to all of Nature, including each other, informs how we live our lives. Do we relate with respect and moderation or with entitlement and greed?
No Clinging, and the relief of suffering. Perhaps the hardest but most powerful thing to learn because it’s often not obvious at all. FYI, I first started learning this 30 years ago and 2 years later began teaching. What I taught then is not what I teach today.
My introduction to this concept was from the Roman Catholic St. Ignatius who advises in his First Principle and Foundation: “As far as we are concerned we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.” Take a break. Prefer? Who doesn’t prefer? Personally, I prefer truffles and red wine to kale. but I don’t cling to them. We can love others with our whole hearts but clinging, or cultivating an inordinate or dis-ordered attachment is the picture of preventing the very ones we love from being themselves. It’s selfish.
It wasn’t until, during a particularly challenging time, I picked up one of my Buddhist books and read “The root of all suffering is greed, aka envy, selfishness, stubbornness like holding a grudge, having to be in charge, being prideful instead of humble regarding one’s good health or wealth, or wearing an illness as an identity, and on and on. We can hold onto losses, as in the loss of a loved one, hold it gently, treat it as precious. But as soon as we won’t, or can’t let go it becomes all about me. I can’t go on. I can’t do this. We complicate our grief to the point that the loss becomes like an empty tomb and all we have left is suffering. Be open to change. Expect the unexpected.
Is It A Problem Or A Condition? The difference is the degree to which I have the ‘agency’, the power, means, or authority to solve this. It’s a worthy question. I’ve gained 10 pounds. There’s bullying going on in my child’s classroom or in my workplace. I’m chronically constipated from the medication I’m taking for something. Plastics are killing our Oceans and the life in them. I hate my job. I have a life-threatening problem or condition?
Categorical and Contingent Desires A recent addition to my toolbox of ways of considering. Categorical desires are those that give us reasons to keep on living. Contingent desires are those things we might as well entertain as long as we’re living but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive. I see that my categorical desire(s) have changed over time. More importantly, defining my contingent desires has helped enormously in ordering my days and to-do lists.
My husband and I planned on taking a big trip this coming year. When I was mostly recuperated from the Lyme brain of last winter my husband pronounced “I think we should go this year… and I think you know why.” Four months later we tallied up many new experiences and while traveling is not what I live for I love doing it as long as I’m living. My days have also been re-ordered to make more time for play.
Having been in an Emergency Room two years in a row, my one year categorical desire was to live without getting any tick bites and staying out of the Emergency Room. I made it. I treated the tick problem by putting tick traps all around our property at three different times to coincide with mice and chipmunk nesting. My intention is to do the same this year but with a different categorical desire.
One Last Thing Beneath all this rests the power of Intention; a determination to act in a specified way, with purpose. Having one’s attention or purpose firmly fixed.
‘To act in a specified way’ is intention not a goal. It’s the ‘How’ I do. My goal was to spend the last month of employment caring for my 18 patients, transitioning them to a new RN, without doing any new admissions or taking on any new patients. My intention was to behave in a kind, respectful and gentle manner with the Clinical Supervisor as I asked support for my goal. In the midst of a disagreement, rapidly escalating to something more, I took a deep breath and thought about my goal and my intention. My goal was to get the job done. My intention was to do so without a fight. I stopped, thought about my words, lowered the tone and volume of my voice, gently acknowledged what was going on, put some options on the table and shut up. My grandchild is playing outside in the snow hoping for someone to play with. Instead of washing dishes or chopping vegetables I put on snow clothes and “want to go out back and play?” With a smile the size of the sun she says “Is that because I’m more important than things, Grandma?”
“Famous Last Words”
I have seen many die, surrounded by loved ones, and their last words were “I love you”…. I’ve also seen those who could not die in peace or found some deeper truth only as the light in the body diminished, leaving so much left unsaid and incomplete. I’ve seen some die blessing all around, and others begging everyone’s forgiveness. Although the latter might not seem a ‘preferable death’ for the person who previously found it impossible to address unfinished business, it was an important evolutionary step, a breakthrough access to the heart. It was, as one widow put it, ‘a very late beginning’. Others decide to avoid the ‘last minute rush’ and begin now.
Once again the teaching is clear, prepare now for death so as to intensify and fulfill your life. Don’t imagine your endorphins are going to do it for you ‘when the time comes’. When the time actually comes, what is found then will be what is found now. As Ondrea says, ‘We die the way we live’. (A Year To Live by Stephen Levine)