- The Sugar of Life
by Barbara Coombs Lee
"As Epicurus observed many centuries ago, the art of living well and dying well are one."
with millions of Americans, I watched last years public
broadcasting series by Bill Moyers about death and dying. Of the
entire 5-part series, one short segment hit me hard and stayed
with me. It came when Moyers interviewed Bill Bartholome, a pediatrician
facing an imminent death from throat cancer.
generously talked on camera about his inner experience as he got
closer to death. He was getting closer both as in sooner
and closer as in more friendly with. He talked about
what its like to live in the light of death.
Not expecting to see another Spring and then seeing one, he experienced
it as an incredible miracle. He said, Death transforms living
in ways that we in this culture do not understand. I think we
need to think of death as sugar, as something that gives life
that pizzazz. Makes it sweet.
among us doesnt yearn for the sweetest life, yet simultaneously
work to shut out all thoughts of death?
the past seven years I have had the great privilege to work in
the field of care and choice and to serve individuals at the end
of life. In that time I have learned that people who are passionate
about their manner of dying are equally passionate about joyful
and richly textured living. There seems to be something liberating
about coming to terms with death. My own experience is that knowing
death, acknowledging our ultimate rendezvous seems to free me
to taste the full, rich sweetness of life.
Epicurus observed many centuries ago, the art of living well and
dying well are one.
at Compassion in Dying our volunteers are committed to both. They
help clients to live well for as long as is humanely possible
and if there is no longer the possibility of good
life, to die on their own terms.
The night my friend Penny Schleuter died I asked her why she decided on this particular night to use Oregons assisted dying law. She answered: I have finally gotten to the point that I dont feel Im living, but just existing. Weakness and fatigue are really bad and cannot be controlled. But the biggest problem I have is continuous running of bowel matter through tissues that have broken down. I am never clean. Soon Ill need constant physical care, turning and feeding. This prospect, and knowing it marks a relentless progression toward death, is more painful than any of the pain of cancer.
like Penny are Compassions most treasured and expert teachers.
They cherish liberty, dignity, integrity, mercy, justice and responsibility.
They approach their deaths with eyes wide open. Grieving certainly
for the loss of all that is of this life, they are still bravely
and surely engaged in the process of their transition.
understood the circumstances of her death to be very important
to the meaning and story of her life. Like the last act of a play,
her dying was central to her lifes message and definition.
It was fitting and consistent with her life as an independent
woman and a teacher. It was not just a random detail at the end.
own life path may lead to another kind of death, consistent with
my own beliefs and values. Compassion volunteers help each individual
die in a manner consistent with her life and character. We have
no interest in the particular choice made, so long as the person
truly is afforded a choice.
Paul Smith wrote about ministering to Arthur Ashe as he was dying
of AIDS. In his book Facing Death he makes the simple yet elusive
point that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.
When we live as though death is the worst thing that can happen
to us we must be in constant fear, because death is an inevitable
and defining part of being human. Giving in to fear, we stand
to lose something even more precious than life itself. We stand
to lose our passion for life and our call to savor it every day
to the very core of our being.
is often said that as we age we display the traits of character
we always haveonly more so. I am one in that flood of postwar
babies now occupied with aging. So I will soon begin the process
of becoming more so.
prospect is both exhilarating and alarming. More joyful, more
full of wonder and curiosity, more passionate, more kind, more
openthese are easy to consider. But more bitter, more insecure,
more possessive, more envious or vain? Who wants to grow old to
be like that?
is not aging itself but character that determines the quality
of our later years. We owe it to ourselves to build a character
that can see us to our end in grace and good spirits. Whether
we become old trolls or old elves seems to be entirely up to us.
my work with the dying I have discovered that embracing the certainty
of my own mortality helps achieve the right balance in becoming
more so. If I can stand it, I try to bear in the back
of my mind that this may be my last Spring, my last Summer, my
last Winter. It brings out the elements of character I value most.
Im counting on a friendly relationship with death (along
with its twin, a friendly relationship with the divine) to guide
me through an exuberant life to a sweet old age.
Compassion client, Norma Ruiz Davis, was a poet whose zest for
life and awareness of death rose to the level of art. She published
this poem two years before her death:
walk toward me
in your flower-printed silk
and fine mossy velvet or
in your impeccably tailored
come in all your perfection
extending your hand
and saying your name
draw me toward you
as my close friends do
hold me elegantly still
in dance position
then waltz me away
glancing over your shoulder once
and with the smallest gesture
let them know how much
I liked to dance
Coombs Lee is President of Compassion in Dying Federation,
a national organization working to improve care and expand choice
at the end of life. Its local affiliate, Compassion in Dying of
Oregon, counsels and guides clients through end-of-life choices
including legal assistance in dying under Oregon law.
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