Aging, chaplaincy, death, dying, pastoral care, psychology, spiritual care
A few weeks ago, someone wrote an article about his confrontation with the notion that we are all going to die. It is a very touching and deeply thought provoking piece. I specifically liked his statement that he had decided at one point in life that he wouldn’t die.
As I sit dying
So it has come to this. I am going to die. I wish I could tell you otherwise. I wish I had something more positive to say. For a long time things were fine. I reassured myself: I will not die. I reassured others, not so much by what I said as by my general demeanour. Don’t worry, I always seemed to be telling them, Nothing to be alarmed about, I will not die.
I have been thinking about this since I was a few years old, only a boy. A woman who’d drifted into our home and moved in with us, a real brokenhearted bundle of nerves, ran over her cat one day in the driveway. The cat died. It lay there and wouldn’t get up. It wouldn’t play or drink milk or anything. It was dead.My father explained it to me. He was delicate, careful with his words, almost apologetic when he explained it. Everything dies, that’s what he told me. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. I could see the embarrassment in his face, as if this whole unseemly business of dying and being dead was somehow his fault. Forgive me, he seemed to be saying, The cat has died because all things die; forgive me.After he had explained it to me, I gave it a great deal of consideration. I was even-handed about it, I weighed up the pros and cons as fairly as I could, but in the end I decided this sort of thing just isn’t for me. Dying – it’s fine for cats, it’s fine for other people (strangers especially), but it’s not the kind of thing for me.So I decided I would not die.Of course there is a lot to be said for dying, I know that. Think of the alternative. Consider the indignity of watching your own children and your children’s children entering the slow decline of a second infancy. Think of the endlessness of old age; the terrible strain on a diminishing circle of perpetual carers; the constant expansion of aged care facilities, until finally entire cities would be nothing more than gigantic under-staffed nursing homes, crowded with those who have lived forever but have forgotten their lives and even their names. Or even worse, imagine living forever without ever forgetting, tormented by wounds of regret for everything you ever said and did, so that everything hurts more acutely with every passing year, world without end.Living forever is not all it’s cracked up to be, even as a boy I could see that. In the long run, it makes a great deal of sense for other people to die, for everyone to die. I wasn’t naive. I reconciled myself to the fact of death. Yet pondering all this at the age of three or four as I looked into the eyes of the small dead cat, I thought the universe ought to make an exception in my case.And yet here I am, dying after all. How did it ever come to this?I went to see a doctor and he gave it to me straight. It is my heart, that’s what he told me. Apparently I have a condition that makes my heart wear out after the first seven or eight decades of my life. Subtract from that a few years for every unhealthy lifestyle choice I’ve ever made along the way: smoking, drinking, not jogging, using real butter instead of margarine, too much salt, too much sugar, too much of the wrong sort of fat, not enough of the right sort of fat, too many of the wrong kinds of drugs, not enough of the right kinds, too much sitting in front of the television, not enough rest, not enough vegetables, too many non-organic vegetables with all those nasty carcinogens sprayed all over them, all subtracting year after year after year from an already perilously short life. Taking everything together, I’ll be lucky if I get another forty years out of this heart. Less than thirty if my grandfathers’ lousy tickers are anything to go by. Bloody genes, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.If I knew what was good for me I’d be running around the block right now or lining up for a gym membership instead of squandering my remaining time sitting in a chair (subtract 4 years) having coffee (subtract 1.5) and a butter croissant (subtract 2) and writing down these dying words.What should I tell you? What can I say for myself? What message should I leave you from beyond the grave? That I should have used margarine after all? That organic groceries are really worth the extra expense, when you factor death into the equation? Or maybe something more personal: ‘Dad, you were right about death. I forgive you.’ How would that sound?No, death and dying notwithstanding, I guess all I’d really like to say is that I’m glad to have been alive. That alive is a very good thing to be, and I have not a single word to say against it. That I have loved songs and food and drink and night time and the way friends’ voices sound around a campfire in the dead of night. That I have loved animals, especially dogs and cats, and if I had ever got to know horses properly I would have loved them too. That I have seen whales, have witnessed their rolling bigness, and have loved them very much. That I have loved books and reading, have loved re-reading certain books and remembering what it was like to read them for the first time. That I have loved the faces of my friends (I hope somebody will remember those faces after I’m gone). That I have loved strangers’ faces too, old men and old women and beautiful women whose faces I fell in love with and never forgot even though I only saw them once, across a crowded room or in a train or on a bridge as I walked by. That I have loved my wife’s face and my wife’s words and my wife’s skin and the way my wife thinks when she is happy or when she is sad or when she is tired or first wakes up, wide awake and already hatching plans while I am still trying to dream. That I have loved my –My children.As I sit here now, as I sit dying, my heart slowly wearing out inside me, that is all I really want to tell you. I have loved all of it and I don’t have a word to say against it. To tell you the truth, I even love the things that I have hated. Doing wrong, being wronged, this whole miserable business of hurt and misunderstanding and mistakes. I have loved all that because I have loved forgiving and being forgiven. Yes, that’s what I have loved most of all. If I could do it all over again I would make all the same mistakes and let all the same mistakes happen to me too, if it only meant that I could have the chance, just once, to forgive, to be forgiven.Life is very wonderful, and the meaning of it all is the forgiveness of sins, that’s what I’d like to tell you. I am glad to have learned that. I am glad to have been alive and to have made so many mistakes and to have borne the brunt of so many too. It is wonderful, all of it.It is thirty years since the day my father explained death to me, since I looked into the wise dead eyes of the cat and understood. I’m trying, but I still haven’t reconciled myself to dying, not really. But when that faulty clock inside me stops ticking and there is no one about to wind it up again, I hope I will be able to die just as I have lived: forgiven.