Dying Well

(August 18th, 2014)

I have a little blue journal that I carried with me in the days following my diagnosis. Much of it is boring notes about appointment times and locations, questions to ask the doctor, and phone numbers to call. There are other things recorded there as well. I was scared in the days leading up to my treatment. It shows. I will keep most of it for myself.

I’m not sure it would make for very pleasurable reading. In many places I just recorded strings of questions, all unanswered. One strand revolved around the very ordinary worries about dying. I think everyone when facing their mortality asks such questions. How much longer do I have? How does one die well? How does one live well?

Towards the end of the page, and after many questions, I summarized my thoughts (rather dramatically). 
God, How does one die well? Oh, that I was too busy to watch, too busy to see how it is done.
How often do we watch people die? How often do we watch closely, intently? How often do we want to learn from it? I try to avoid watching altogether. It is uncomfortable. Intentional blindness helps to ease the awkwardness. I don’t ask myself what I hope to repeat or avoid (beyond perhaps the simple physical miseries). I don’t look to understand how one faces that step. I don’t watch people die.

I may have been in a bit darker mood when I first asked these questions. But I am in a much better mood these days. At the moment I’m taking the important step of resting my foot (and enjoying a little Bombay Sapphire). From this enjoyable space I’d like to explore the last thought scribbled on the page.
Can one work backwards? In graduate school I set out the time-line from the last day (graduation) and made my schedule backwards. I was able to make sure my progress was moving along, that all would get done by the end. Is there a way to translate this pattern to life?
I suspect that life is too messy to simplify into quantifiable goals. I can’t image myself lying on my deathbed with a gummy grin and a checklist saying ‘yes, yes, check, yes. All done and time to go!’ But I do think we do something of the sort on smaller time–scales. We will get through high school. We will have friends. We will attend college. We will graduate. We will get a good job. We will get a better job. We will be settled professionally. We will travel. We will know ourselves. We will get married. We will have a family. We will. We will. Check. Check. Check.

Of course, your checklist may be very different from the one above. It doesn’t really matter. They are all imaginary checklists. They are the checklists that we imagine will happen. They are the lists of successes that we imagine will bring us happiness. And that is the problem. The lists aren’t really about living well (much less dying well). The lists are about guaranteeing happiness.

But dying well must be different. In a way it must be the opposite of the checklist. To die is to let go of things. To die well must be to let go of things well. You must let go of your physical abilities. You must let go of your plans and desires. You must let go of the people you love. They must be free to live without you. All these things you must give away.

I wonder if ‘living well’ is that much different? (Or perhaps we just die a little bit each day.) How often do our checklist fall into perfect place? How often do we have to let go of hopes and dreams or even the ones we love? Maybe it is all the same. Perhaps living well is to let go of things well.

Stephen Hawking once said, “…If one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well.” He advised those in similar situations to himself to train their minds on what they were able to do and not on what they could not do. In other words he advised them to let go of all the hopes, frustrations, dreams and disappointments wrapped up in their disability. I would normally say ‘you first, professor.” But in this case, it would appear that he has.

At times I have failed to let go, failed to give away some hope or desire. It has never made anything better. It robbed me of happiness and time. It made me psychologically disabled.

I need to learn how to let go of things well. But it is hard. Especially when I know I deserve so much from this life! It is hard when all my life wraps around my desires. It is hard when all my thoughts begin with “I” and “want.”

It has been said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” I wonder how true that is. 

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