On Death And Dying

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

A few months ago, I'd been asked to give a talk at the local library. Arriving early, I began to chat with the fellow in charge of the Speakers' Program. He told me that the previous session was a first - the first time not one single person showed up to listen. What was the topic I asked? Death and Dying he answered.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. Death and Dying have become taboo topics. Half a lifetime ago, I was told that I was dying. Curiously, I completely blocked the doctor's bad news. Later that night, as my wife quietly sobbed by my hospital bed, I asked why she was so sad. You're dying she said. I AM?! It came as a complete shock.

I then spent the next few days going through all the other stages recorded by Kubler-Ross…from Denial to Bargaining and so on down the list. But since I somehow recovered, I never had to work my way to the last stage - Acceptance. And that would have been hard to do. No one in my family ever lives very long (we usually look pretty good at our funerals), but I was still too young to go…even considering my short-lived genes. I figured I still had half a life left. I wasn't ready to go. But now, having passed through that second half, I am.

Something I realized during my first bout with the Grim Reaper, though, was that it's not wise to tell your friends. Where people had been coming to the hospital for fun visits, suddenly that all stopped. Those who did show up looked as though they could already see me laid out. And when I unexpectedly took that turn for the better, returned home and tried to start living again…my friends wouldn't let me. I'd walk into a group and they'd all stop talking.

Going to a party, an invisible sphere of gloom followed me around. Nobody laughed when I was within ten feet. Bummer. So then, just a few months ago, I forgot my own advice about never telling friends and let news of my approaching demise slip. Somebody on a computer chat line asked what you'd do if you only had one or two years left. Figuring I was something of an expert, I answered that I was already embarked on a plan of paying only the minimum amount on my credit cards. This lead to one of two responses: There were those who said I was joking and there were those who suddenly avoided me; like death is something you can catch.

Actually, we're all in exactly the same boat only I have a better idea of its departure time. I've stopped with all my physical exams. I already know I don't have to worry about the shelf life of my purchases, and that I'll have to start wearing six hats at once if I'm to have any hope of wearing them out. Other than that, I'm simply continuing on my merry way. Yes, I said merry way. Which leads me to my question: Why is it everybody else seems to have such a hard time with the concept?

Researchers who study such things, report that death bed regrets almost always revolve around things that weren't done as opposed to things that were done. That you'll regret having cheated someone seems less a possibility than that you'll regret never haven't gotten his wife to cheat too. This is, perhaps, why so many people (taught from childhood to put off present pleasures for future gains) get so sore at checkout time.

An older lady recently told me that she and her newly retired husband had finally started to plan the ocean voyage about which they had always dreamed. Then they decided that the money would be better spent if put into their grandchild's college fund. I couldn't blame them. Put off pleasure that long and you forget how to enjoy it. That's why it's usually best to do most things when you most want to do them. Does that mean: Live for Today? Not really since there's always the possibility you'll wake up tomorrow with a really bad headache. But do try to keep some notion of balance in mind. There's a time to drive a sports car and that time is definitely sooner rather than later.

Something else I've learned is that religion is of no great help at the end. People will go through life sacrificing all the fun stuff (except for maybe pestering Gays), believing that you die and things get better. But do they really believe it? I have my doubts.

A few years ago, I went to a gathering of Nicole Brown-Simpson's family and friends. One after the other, they said things like “She's in a better place now” and “She's smiling down on us”. If they really believed all that, why are they still so keen to get OJ? I should think sending people to Waikiki in the sky would be a good thing. And I had a sister-in-law who was one of those Seven-Day Whatsyacallits. Whenever there was a six-second delay in the conversation, she would proceed to try and convince everyone that all this was merely a prelude to the party. I suspect she was really trying to convince herself because when her terminal cancer was diagnosed she went bonkers. Why me and not you - I never did anything!

When I heard the news (and being naive enough to believe what people say) I was very happy for her and tried to phone to say, “Congratulations you're on your way”. But my wife dissuaded me and it was a good thing. In the final few months, there was no treatment too painful, or costly, or just plain crazy that she didn't try it. Now tell me, does that sound like somebody who believes they're going to a better place.

What I thought I would miss most as a youngster facing my first brush with death was the fun of living. Alas, now that I'm an oldster, I've learned that fun is a function of age. One would have to lead a pretty gruesome life to say their golden years are truly golden. Just try to name six things you can do better at sixty…besides maybe recalling the good old days.

But what about missing out on all the promise of the future; the Dick Tracy wristwatch telephone and the 3-D TV? Well, just keep in mind that the human mind hasn't evolved much since Cambrian times. A lifetime of looking forward to the world of the Jetsons loses something when you realize that it will be inhabited by the Flintstones. The media may get better but the messages will remain the same…at least until computers take over the world.

Having been fortunate enough to get a shot at life's second half (and having used that time to live not merely exist), I can now see that Freud was right. We really do go from Eros to Thanatos. One by one the hot flames cool to a warm glow, and drifting off seems a very pleasant prospect indeed. So what's with the taboo? Since Philosophies of Life tend to be autobiographical, I tend to think it may be reflected in that line from Old Man River "…tired a livin' but scared a dyin'…."

Look At It This Way

Trying to live a "good" life that involves missing out on all the good stuff will only make going that much harder. Instead, try to approach the end with a sense of finished business. But what about that fear of death that comes from a fear of the unknown? Well, I can clear up that little mystery. You already know what it will be like. When you die, it will be exactly the same as it was before you were born…not such a scary time after all.

You may contact the author directly (if you're quick) at DrSBMason@aol.com

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