More on mortality: living strong, dying well

It’s hard to think about the death of my sister Jane (below) without thinking of another death we faced together.

Our father, in his 90th year on the planet and his 20th year of widowhood, started putting the pressure on Jane and me to come to see him one Thanksgiving. As we were in different states and had families and other things needing attention, getting to Virginia required some doing. Our dad had two daughters in between Jane and me, but she was the executor of his estate and I was the one who brought comfort because I closely resemble my mother. We four daughters usually visited at different times in order to stretch out the audiences for his story-telling and generally keep an eye on him. This time he was adamant. He wanted the two of us there together.

In mid-January we got it worked out. Jane and I met in Atlanta, having to spend the night there because the Richmond airport was snowed in. We managed to get on the first plane to land in Richmond the next morning. After picking up a rental car for the drive to Dad’s home in Ashland we took him to lunch at the only place open in town. He was impatient to get back home. Once there he did his traditional monologue about his 12 flawless grandchildren, a reassurance, of sorts, of his posterity. Then he shuffled off to his room for a nap.

And that’s where we found him when he didn’t answer a call to dinner. Keeled over, on his knees at the head of his bed, where he had said his prayers for 90 years. Having  departed this realm in the midst of a conversation with God, all arrangements complete. He and God had long maintained a strong, conversational relationship.

Not all of us can engineer our departures so efficiently — you had to know my father. Or so gently as Jane’s closing days with her family around, singing hymns. But there are millions of such stories (some of which are in the book, Dying Unafraid, that was motivated by the first story above, if you’ll pardon a little blatant self-promotion here; it’s still in print.) The great majority of those stories happen not because the central character had an unshakable faith in some deity or other (although that does tend to help matters) or because he or she had mystical powers or superhuman strength and determination, but because the central character accepted his or her mortality. We’re born, we live, we die. The facing of, and preparation for, its eventual end often makes dying better and always makes life richer.

That’s the lesson of these two stories. Dying unafraid tends to happen to people who live unafraid. And who talk to their families and friends, and complete their advance directives, and make it clear what their choices are. This is equally true for the young and the old, the fit and the infirm.

What are you waiting for?

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