Death, Dying, and Heroes
Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear people say that they’re not afraid of death, just of dying. I think this is heard more frequently than it used to be. The news that consciousness does survive the destruction of the organism that houses the brain, and survives the brain’s demise, has spilled into public awareness. The last ones to get the news will be the professional opinion-shapers: the philosophers, theologians, social scientists, academics in the humanities and writers of reviews.
The rest of us have got the news: in death we leave the body, go through a tunnel toward the Light or, in the less desirable cases, toward the nether regions with clusters of demons nipping at our disembodied heels. So, for ordinary people, there’s less fear of death than there used to be in earlier eras — the “heavier” eras — as I call them.
So, if death is ordinarily not that bad – a big relief, even – why the dread of dying?
Ah, that’s another matter. When, some years ago, I was told I had cancer, I was not – so far as I could tell – afraid of death; I was mortally afraid of doctors. In retrospect, though I didn’t die, I was right about what to fear.
My father-in-law died September 16, 2017. Yesterday, as of this writing. The time he spent dying, like the time he put into living, was the biggest success of its kind I know of. Only my own father’s dying matches it, in my experience.
L.B. Martin was a man whose words didn’t outreach his actions, whose aims didn’t outreach his efforts to achieve them, whose hopes matched his resources. Jerry tells his father’s story and I won’t try to match a son’s recollections. The girl he first loved at age 19 is the one of whom he said, “We were married 67 years and it was not nearly long enough!” People seldom fooled him and he didn’t try to fool them either. He had the picturesque speech of his Texas youth: intelligent, wry and unembellished. A good teller of stories with a beat to them, he didn’t try to know less than he could or more than he needed to.
When the love of his life died, he went into as deep a depression as he was capable of, but did not take offers of hospitality and cheering-up from people he deemed “her friends.” Bit by bit he formed his own more modest network, of people he walked with or met at tai chi class. He was gracious to people who helped him in the retirement facility and became popular with the staff. He resisted more intrusive care as long as he could, but was genuinely fond of and grateful to most of the care-givers on which he came to depend.
We don’t sing of the heroism required for navigating old age. Unlike the courage of which we do sometimes sing, it’s not a tale of powers won but of powers lost, little by little, till the losses start to cascade. The men and women who keep their balance on an ever-shrinking terrain have learned to respect natural force – not just as it surges but also as it ebbs. What subtle realism is mastered there!
Last week, we were getting word from his care-givers of a succession of bodily disfunctions that finally came to call for hospitalization for L. B. Was the trouble in the gall bladder? An infection that could be drained? A stone that could be cut out? Was it in the lungs? Was it in the heart?
The trouble was not in any of those organs. As Tolstoy wrote about Ivan Ilyich, the trouble was Death. Fortunately, Americans have learned, with hospice care, to allow nature to take its course.
We flew out on Friday the 15th, his first full day of hospice care in his room in the retirement facility. What happens with hospice care is that the struggles of a dying system are eased, so that one doesn’t fight despairingly for breath, or choke on bodily fluids or wait miserably for hygienic helps that wound the dignity. The care arrives in rhythm with the needs.
Saturday morning one of the care-givers said that the dying will hang on till something they are waiting to hear is said or someone they wait for arrives. So, she advised, say what you haven’t said or tell him that all is well. Then he can let go and pass away.
We tried that sort of thing for a while, but it did not seem to fit the case before us. He was not waiting for any word or sign from outside. He was an athlete who knew his body well and had the patience to allow it to take the time it needed to shut down.
He lay there, in unreserved surrender, all the cares of householder, provider, husband and father washed from his face.
He looked like he really was,
a young prince.