Archive for February, 2012

Testimony from the edge

February 27th, 2012

This past weekend I visited two old and dear friends, one of whom is expecting to survive cancer.  The other is not.  It was a sad visit, but not depressing.  I don’t think I’m quite ready yet to write about why that should be so, but it has something to do, I think, with my friends’ courage, decency, and gentleness, and also something I noticed when my mother was facing her extremity, that is, a lack of fear on the part of the dying about what we who fortunately are not yet in that situation find most terrifying about it.  There is something fortifying about being in the presence of a person who, having achieved a reasonably unflinching acceptance of what must be, is liberated to become more fully herself in the face of it.  It creates a space in which intimacy is easy, intimacy from each person’s core, while at the same time spontaneity and playfulness are encouraged.  People around the sick person relate to her and to one another in a manner which, in other circumstances, except for the unhappiness, we would look back upon as “having a really great time.”  We take joy in each other.  It is a reminder that joy and happiness are two very, very different things, of which joy is by far the greater because it is a species of love.  It’s hard to talk about these things without one’s cadences becoming biblical and one’s vocabulary becoming highflown.  When that happens, as it just now did in the last sentence but one, I feel I’m losing the real sense of what it was like, of what that sacred space was all about and what made it sacred.  It’s important to focus on particulars.  So… the conversation turned at some point to the question of an afterlife, as conversations tend to do in these circumstances, not so much because the dying person can bring any particular authority to bear but because it is presumed by the onlookers that it is as much on her mind as it is on theirs.  As if a dying person didn’t have plenty of more pressing things to think about.  My friend quickly and offhandedly said that she thinks it “remains to be seen.”  Someone asked her if she believes at all in any kind of deity, or higher spiritual power, or transcendent reality.  She got very quiet and thoughtful.  We all waited for her, while her oxygen machine flumped away in the background.  After a long, long pause, she said, “I think it’s very important to be nice.”

 

UPDATE: R.I.P. Jane Weed, 10:30 p.m. Sat. 9/1/12

Paging Dr. Kubler-Ross

February 16th, 2012

Due to current events in my personal life, I have been thinking again about how poorly our culture prepares us to deal with death and with people who are dying.  Not strange, I guess, for a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness.  People wonder why I put Thomas Jefferson in hell in To Join the Lost.  Mostly, it’s because of his hypocrisy as a slave-owner who not only knew that he was doing wrong, but knew the degree of evil that it involved.  But I could have put him there for this seemingly benign phrase as well, which shackles the body politic to a warped, limited vision of the human condition, easily subverted into greed, lust, and the quest for satiation.  A people dedicated to the pursuit of happiness is not going to have a lot of time and thought to spare for such unpleasant things as death.  They’re going to shove it aside into hospitals and nursing homes; prettify it in funeral parlors; hide it in closed caskets that no one is allowed to welcome home from Afghanistan and Iraq; have broadcast journalists censor it from Syrian twitter feeds as too upsetting for the average viewer.  We have no emotionally satisfying

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