Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Patients: #11, Can We Choose the Way We Die?

     My father died in the front passenger seat of his Cadillac one chilly afternoon on the way to a dinner theater with friends. In his left hand was a cup of coffee, which did not spill when his head slumped forward and his heart stopped.  He had been bragging that the coffee was "free" at the service station where they had just filled the tank with gas.  He loved a bargain.
     Never one to waste a drop, his arm remained suspended in the air with his hand clasping the cup until Betsy, who was at the steering wheel, pulled the car over and gently peeled his fingers from the styrofoam container.  Then, his arm thumped onto his lap like a broken tree limb, and he fell forward.  I'm sure that in his last moments he regretted wasting the coffee--not to mention the four theater tickets, which had been purchased in advance.  Better to have died after the show, when they had gotten their money's worth.
     Nevertheless, my father was given the death he had imagined.  Despite worsening heart failure, he'd insisted to the universe--and to anyone else who would listen--that it would do no good for him to waste away in a hospital, allowing others to watch his vigor draining like gas from a hot air balloon with a slow leak.  No, he would prefer go in the midst of anticipating a good time with friends, wearing an expensive suit and garish shoes (he never quite escaped the Italian immigrant's inclination to flaunt success), in the middle of telling someone else what to do.
     "You could have made it through that intersection!" he snarled at Betsy, for he was an impatient man, always cutting corners.  "The light hadn't turned red yet!"  Those were his last words, meant perhaps for God:  The light's not red yet, you can't take me!  Useless, of course, in the face of eternity.
     Mr. R. was a patient I had grown to love.  He hailed from Lochloosa, population 120, the fishing and frogging village where I live--but he was the one with a native's expertise, not I.
     He had never learned to read or write--forced out of school in the third grade by an abusive father who worked him and his brothers to exhaustion on their farm.
     "What about child-labor laws?" I asked him, and he shrugged his shoulders.
     "That wasn't no matter to him," he answered.
     He was beaten so often he began to think of the world as a cruel and caustic place.  He decided to circumscribe his existence, stay put, be happy with less.
     Mr. R., therefore, feared the outside world, with its hieroglyphic billboards and fancy-talking people.  He never wanted to travel beyond a ten-mile radius of home, preferring instead to tend his wildly fruitful citrus trees and vegetables, or fish from the dock of one or another neighbor's pond.
     Every other weekend in winter I would come home to find, on my doorstep, grocery bags filled with his masterful oranges, eye-popping-big Meyer lemons, or terrific fanning bouquets of collard greens.  He had a kind, generous nature, and was always giving me tips about tending my own anemic-looking citrus grove.  But you can't teach someone how to have a green thumb.
     The central experience of Mr. R.'s life was the loss of his 16-year-old son, his only boy, the core of his being, raised with a degree of tolerance and compassion Mr. R. had never known and therefore was able to experience only through his own child-rearing.  The boy was--as is the case with many a first son, in relation to a father--the exemplar of his life.
     It seemed to me that Mr. R. had never forgiven himself for the boy's death, his drowning in a local pond thirty-eight years ago, his never having learned how to swim, his beautiful boy-body dredged out of the water and buried too soon, far too soon, and causing the kind of grief that frays one's nerves, one's conscience, and one's very being.  He spoke about it with me, but as far as I know, no one else ever brought up the tragic incident, or allowed him to vent his pent-up fury.  He did not go to church. How dare God do this to him?  How dare he steal from him the chance to raise a boy right, and to get something in return?
     I was saddened--though, perhaps, not truly surprised--to learn that Mr. R. himself died two weeks ago, drowned in a local pond, having himself never learned to swim.  A terrible shame, in this land of swamps and lakes and ponds and waterways.
     Instead of fishing off the dock, he had taken, for once, a canoe out to the middle of the water.  Instead of sitting quietly, he may have stood up to scan the water--verboten in a canoe--tipping the the whole shebang upside-down.  Or, maybe he got a really big one on his line--a 20-pound-2-foot bass, for instance, very rare, an astonishing catch--and it dragged him in, tipping the canoe, trapping him underneath.  It pulled him under as though it had been his own very son, longing, at last, to have his father returned to him.
     This is my fate, Mr. R. may have thought.  Now my boy's suffering is redeemed.  Now I can rest in peace. 
     My first reaction, on learning of Mr. R.'s death, came in the form of the oft-quoted T.S. Eliot lines, from "The Hollow Men"--

          This is the way the world ends
          This is the way the world ends
          This is the way the world ends
          Not with a bang but a whimper

     Can we choose the way we die?
     I think, in fact, we can.  Our deaths are not accidental, but pre-configured in our lives, part of the pattern of who we are.  As we live our lives, we are spinning, strand by strand, the web which will catch us in its cradle, finally, when we fall.
     We may not be able to speak of our final fate, or--as in the case of Mr. R.--it may be spoken about indirectly, and only with those who are open and able to hear, and not superstitious, and unafraid of that vast beyond, which exerts its relentless pull from some future venue whether we admit it or not.
     Mr. R. told me, in so many words, that the only expiation for his guilt would be for him to meet his son at the time of his death, joined together in suffering.
     My father, not wanting a forewarning, put his order in with God:  Do not make me waste away slowly.
     Most of my patients who die are given deaths that make sense in the context of their lives.  I am often amazed at how the pattern of life fulfills itself in death, like a great mandala colored with intricacy and detail, in which the last bits of its circumference are closed off with one final stroke--then it's finished, the edifice of a life, complete.  Afterward, it's supposed to be brushed away, Tibetan-style, empty space, making room for something new, the generative miracle of existence constantly renewing itself.
     Our deaths are there, waiting for us. They provide a prospective function to all our endeavors--go here, they say, go there, your destination is far away, in that direction--but not so very far that you can't see.  
     Our deaths are admonishing us to live.  If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear yourself giving hints, in regular conversation, about the details of your final passage--pointing, over there, to where you're headed. 

  
     

5 comments:

  1. HEY DOC, YOU EVER HEARD THE SAYING "IT AIN'T OVER TILL THE FAT LADY SINGS"? WELL I TRULY BELIEVE IT, AND I AM SURE SOMETHING REAL GOOD IS COMING YOUR WAY...CALL ME THE ETERNAL OPTIMIST, AND I ALSO BELIEVE WE CAN CHOOSE TO LIVE, WE CAN CHOOSE TO DIE, WE CAN CHOOSE TO GROW OLD AND WE CAN CHOOSE TO STAY YOUNG.

    LIKE YOU HAVE DONE SO WELL.

    MAY GOD CONTINUE TO BLESS YOU EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE AND YOU KEEP ENJOYING LIFE.

    LIKE I SAID "QUE SERA SERA"

    TU MEJOR AMIGO EN TODO EL MUNDO

    THE REAL SECRET ADMIRER**

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  2. We are meaning-seeking creatures and one of the ways we discover meaning is through stories. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. So it is logical we would want the end of our lives to be coherent with the rest of our story.

    I'm not sure this is always true, though. Or maybe it is true, but it takes a good deal of imagination, love, faith and hope to discern it.

    Thomas Merton died at age 58 while he was in Asia exploring the connection between Eastern and Western mysticism. He died because he got tangled up with an electric fan while taking a bath.

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  3. Doc, Thanks for publicly remembering such a good man. It was my pleasure to assist in his healthcare for the last 7 years...or was he assisting in our healthcare? He provided us with copious amounts of tasty,juicy, Vitamin C for the winter, knowing it would keep us away from illness as we went through our day. I will always remember him for standing in the exam room doorway, coffee in hand, directing traffic and telling me how many more cups he would drink before his turn. He was good-hearted,generous, patient,grateful and kind. He was a teacher to all, but maybe was not aware of what he taught. His illiteracy did not hold him back, it made him succeed in other ways, ways that today's society don't usually see, and maybe he did not see. He made his mark on this Earth, even if it was trying to teach that woman Yankee Doctor how to grow citrus...if I remember correctly, he succeeded at that...

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  4. I didn't know Mr. R. He sounds like a wonderful man. When we look at death from the outside, objectively, we can sometimes see how 'the pattern of life fulfills itself in death,' as Dr. Colasante wrote, and as maybe happened for Mr. C.
    But when we contemplate our own death, from the inside, there is a horror about it that is very natural and denying this, by standing outside of it, seems dishonest. As if we are using someone else's death to try to comfort and distract ourselves from our own terror at our inevitable death. But there is no natural consolation for it, only a supernatural one; only faith in a transcendent reality can come to grips with it. For this reason I prefer the poem "Aubade" by Philip Larkin to T.S. Eliot. Larkin was a man who saw the human, natural horror of death precisely because he rejected religious faith. This poem about death contains the unforgettable line:
    "Most things may never happen: this one will."
    He continues:
    "And realization of it rages out in furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can't escape,
    Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house."

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