Tag Archives: dying
Over the years, as I’ve developed an understanding of my faith in God, I have regularly been confronted by fundamental religion as an extreme. Whether it be the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other faith, orthodoxy has alluded me. The question that regularly rises to my mind is, “How can anyone be so sure of anything?” I now find myself on the other end of the question, “How can anyone be so sure God doesn’t exists?”
A young man, who is like a nephew to me, recently became an atheist chaplain at a major metropolitan teaching hospital. Although this may seem like an oxymoron at first blush, after discussion with him, I, along with the head of the department for chaplains, realized this makes perfect sense. His belief in science and free-thinking is as strong as that of the orthodox individuals I know. The fascinating part for me is that I am now the one with the belief in a god that someone else cannot imagine exists. Agnosticism, at least, allows for the possibility for a god, as long as there is proof that this entity exists. Atheism, however, offers no possibility for the existence of a supreme deity, and thereby a relationship with that deity is not an option. His belief system is not my belief system; however, it is one with which I am extremely familiar. My father was an atheist most of the time, or an agnostic, depending on when you spoke with him. Dad and I had many animated, sometimes vitriolic, conversations about God.
As I look to my nephew, I see a peacefulness about him that I cannot understand. To my spirit, I cannot help but question how it is possible for someone to believe in nothing smaller than a quark or lepton, neither of which I understand at all, and nothing bigger than the universe. The only thing I know is that I love this young fellow and know that if this is the path he’s chosen, then it necessarily must be right for him. Although they never push their belief systems on me, I know my friends look at me with perplexed wonder at how a person reared as a Roman Catholic could have such an omni denominational faith. Inasmuch as my loving fundamental Christian friends would rejoice if I said I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I know I would be happy if Noel would find a faith in something larger than space. Perhaps, though, this might not be all together true. Would I want for him what he doesn’t want or feel he needs for himself? No.
The spiritual universe I sense informs my awareness that we are each responsible for our own lives, accountable only to ourselves and to our creator, whomever that may be… if any, given the belief system. So, how could I ask him to believe differently than his ethical and moral system tells him is right? I can’t. What I do know is that as he pursues his chaplaincy, he will encounter other systems of belief and faith that are not consistent with his own. That is why I gave him my thanatological research regarding death and dying in many traditions to supplement his already wide breadth of knowledge. The gifts he has as a vital part of a support system and as loving human being in the benefit of other people will be best illuminated by his knowledge of others’ traditions; even those he doesn’t espouse. He then can speak their language while remaining true to his own convictions. This is compassion. This in intelligence used on a personal level. This is my nephew.
I am very proud of this bright, joyful young man. He is a unique and very funny individual who brings rich laughter and deep thought wherever he goes. I know those he counsels, the individuals who are ill and dying, and their families, will benefit from his presence in unimaginable ways. They will remember his tender heart and brilliant mind, and the comfort he brings, long after their difficult journeys have passed.
Good luck, Noel. I am very proud of you!
It’s strange somehow to hear that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died. It’s like hearing that Sara Lee ate cake or Les Schwab had his car repaired. One rarely thinks that those who work in a field actually experience their work as a customer as well. Jack Kevorkian advocated for individuals to have the right to terminate their lives with the help of a physician if both feel their quality of life is at such a low level as to make that life no longer livable. He not only promoted this idea, but participated in physician-assisted suicides many time. Kevorkian had guidelines for this choice; however, they were much more liberal than any state’s that has passed legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide.
My father, a pharmacist and brilliant man, agreed with Dr. Kevorkian. After many conversations with Dad about Dr. Kevorkian and his beliefs, I know that Dad believed that if a person’s life did not meet the standards of quality he or she desired, or if an individual had a condition that would cause deterioration of his or her body or mind, the person should be able to choose death instead of suffering. He also believed that a physician had a responsibility to assist those who could not take their own lives if the patient chose to do so.
My father had a challenge with the chemistry in his brain that caused his mental faculties to progressively diminish. After his death, we discovered that his condition could have been remediated with medication, but my father did not want to be on that type of medication for the rest of his life. I suspect he knew the side effects would leave him different from the person he was before. The problem was that he had already changed dramatically, but because of his condition he could not recognize those changes. He honestly thought he was the same person he had always been. He was wrong. He had become paranoid, angrier, and posed a threat to himself and others. He made rash decisions and often spoke with vitriol when he felt slighted or ignored. We felt we could not discuss this with most people as it would further damage my father’s reputation. The community he served so loyally, respectfully, and compassionately over the years wanted nothing to do with my father as he grew more unpredictable and unpleasant. Our family understood their response, although it hurt us very much nonetheless.
Dad read Kevorkian’s book and learned about the options for suicide should his life take a negative turn. In 1999, my father’s worst fears became a reality. As his mental deterioration continued, our family decided we had to make a decision about placing him in a facility for his own safety and the safety of others. He was trying to buy a gun to protect himself from people he was certain were trying to kill him. No one was trying to kill my father. No one at all. Although we tried very hard to keep our plans from him, through an error at his physician’s office he found out. After a great deal of planning, on July 30, 1999, my father drove to a secluded spot in the mountains around his home, put a hose from the exhaust pipe to the back of his covered truck bed, started the car, climbed into the back of his truck, and there, alone, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. I suspect Dad chose this method to die because he read that this type of death was painless and fairly quick. In his meticulous planning, he sent a note to my mother that day telling her where he could be found. The next day, when the letter arrived in the mail at my aunt’s house where I had sent Mom to ensure her safety, Mom had the police and two of our closest friends go to the spot Dad described. He was there, dead, no gas left in the GM truck, and his mission accomplished. He did not want to live a life that was less than he dreamed. What Dad couldn’t see is that his death, let alone in this fashion, was not what we had dreamed either.
As Kevorkian lay in his hospital bed dying, surrounded by those he loved, listening to the classical music he so dearly enjoyed, I wonder if he thought about the lives he changed in which he may not have actively participated, but inspired nonetheless. I wonder if he understood the anguish of the parents, spouses, children, and siblings who have to deal with the choices these individuals made. It’s not Kevorkian’s fault certainly, but, at least in my father’s case, he played a role in my father’s choice.
In my faith tradition, suicide has spiritual consequences with which I, for one, would not choose to engage. I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on this topic. My father clearly did not agree. Neither did Jack Kevorkian. Although I’ve actively cared for people at the end stages of their lives due to cancer and other conditions, I do not claim to understand the depth of agony individuals experience at the end of protracted and savage illnesses. I can say that I understood from the outset why my father chose as he did, but it didn’t help ease the grief for us, especially for my mother.
The irony, of course, is that Kevorkian recently said that he was not ready to die yet because he still had missions to fulfill in his life. One might contemplate whether a part of Kevorkian’s karma is dying with his life ending unfulfilled. Perhaps for families like ours was in 1999, his unfulfilled missions are our blessing.
Every so often, a person will say, “Well, I think it’s almost time for me to go.”
They say it with such introspection, I’m not certain if they are talking to me or if their internal monologue simply escaped accidentally.
When my mother was preparing to make her departure, even before her cancer was diagnosed, she came to visit me at the home my husband and I share. She had been here many times before and had seen the “Nana Room” we created just for her. The single bed was surrounded by photographs of her family, some of which were nearly one hundred-years old. I put her suitcase on the floor and watched my mother sit on the bed. She looked around the room and looked almost lost. I sat next to her and took her hand. She began to cry.
I asked, “Mom, what’s the matter?”
“Look at my family,” she whispered through her tears. I began to cry with her. As I scanned the room, as with new eyes, I realized she was not seeing the photographic faces I saw; she was seeing her mother and her father. She was seeing her uncles and aunts. She was seeing her long deceased cousins. The veil was shorn and there was nothing I could do about it.
I said, “We have a wonderful family, Mom. We’re very lucky.”
Mom composed herself a little and said she was just tired and needed to rest. As she laid on the bed that she said was one of the most comfortable on which she had ever slept, I closed the light and let her rest.
I went into the living room and I said to my husband, “I think Mama’s not going to be here much longer.”
I knew she was telling this room, and me, good-bye. I knew she was giving me a heads up that the end was approaching and that she would be with her family very soon. My mother and I were very, very close.
That following September, Mom called me to tell me that she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I took a leave of absence from the school where I was teaching and immediately moved to Dunsmuir to take care of her. On November 23, 2005, Mama died.
That night, the day before Thanksgiving, some friends of ours brought over Thanksgiving dinner for us to share. As we sat at the table, my brother, who had been battling alcoholism for thirty years, said that anytime he was supposed to go, he was ready. He said that living the life he had, with homelessness, transience and alcohol, was underrated by most people. He liked his life and although he knew he wouldn’t live as long as I would, he was going to live according to his wishes nonetheless.
He died March 9, 2006, three months and two weeks after my mother died, from a pulmonary embolism after thawing out from frostbite.
Three months later, in June 2006, our seventeen-year-old mega-chihuahua, Bootsy, (yes, after the amazing bassist, Bootsy Collins), decided he was going for a run. He was nearly 20 pounds overweight from congestive heart failure, but he wasn’t going to be stopped. He got away from my daughter in a mad rush and went running. Bootsy had always been a dog of the streets, with the scars to prove it. He loved his life.
In later years, however, he had slowed way down as he was approaching his twilight years. This night was different. As a moderately healthy forty-seven-year-old man, I could not catch this old, fat, unhealthy dog. He was going to run and there was nothing I could do about it. He was trying to let go and he wasn’t going to allow anyone, even my husband who had shared a life with him for seventeen years, stop him. He was going to go out in a blaze of glory.
By the time I got him home, with the help of young strangers at the gas station who helped wrangle him, he was exhausted.
It wasn’t too long after that he sauntered into our bedroom to lie down, barely able to breathe, coughing that watery cough of terminal lung congestion. My husband slept on the floor with him that night. When I got up the next morning, as was his custom, he began following me to the kitchen for his meal. He never made it. He listed to the right, fell on the shiny hardwood floor in the bathroom and after a couple of coughs, our beloved Bootsy died.
His message was clear and he was, sadly, correct.
The next year, in May 2007, my former mother-in-law, the woman to whom I always addressed as “Mother-in-law Dearest,” called to tell me that after years of palliative therapy, her emphysema and lung cancer was getting the best of her. She had said this before, but this call was different. Although I had been separated and divorced from her daughter for twenty-two years, we remained close.
As she went into the hospital, she asked me to come pray with her. Of course, I did.
When I arrived, she asked me how someone knows if they’re ready to go? I responded that there is an internal sense of closure that cannot be denied. I said that if and when she was ready and she allowed the natural process to happen, she would go.
She closed her eyes, took my hand, and those of us in the room, three of her daughters, and my two daughters/her granddaughters, prayed together. After awhile, the room went silent.
After five minutes of heavy silence, she opened her eyes and said, “I’m still here?”
We all laughed. I left the room after kissing the woman who had been part of my family for thirty-five years and wishing her a wonderful journey home. I told her that I would miss her terribly.
For the first time in all those years, she said, “I love you, son.”
“I love you, too, Mother-in-law Dearest.”
The next morning, my daughter called to tell me that she had died with only my daughters present.
Each one of these individuals gave me a message that I chose to hear… thankfully. They know better than I when their time is coming. The children with cancer with whom I used to work many years ago taught me that lesson best. They always, always knew when they were about to go. It was just up to us to see the signs and listen to the message.
With two of my aunts, recently, they both told me they were leaving in their own ways. I heard them and told my husband. Within the month, they were gone.
I just returned from my current mother-in-law’s house. She had a message for me.
Today is the third anniversary of my brother, David’s death. He was only forty-five years old when he died and it was a mere four months after my mother had died. My father had been gone since 1999 after committing suicide. There were only the four of us, so, since David has died, I have felt very much alone.
I have a large family, with five living children and nine grandchildren, but somehow, not having anyone with whom I spent my earliest years on a day-to-day basis has been challenging.
I was looking at a photo the other day of the shed behind our house in McCloud. I remembered how, during the winter, the shed would get covered in snow. My brother, the neighborhood children and I would all get on the roof and slide down the snow until the snow fell off the metal roof.
At that moment, I wanted so much to call my brother and simply say, “Remember?”
Now, his grandchildren are growing up, going to school, having medical issues and he isn’t here to share these things.
I was angry at first because he died from complications of his alcoholism; now, however, I’m just sad.
I am happy, though, that we did spend the last couple of months together while my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. At least, I got to know him in a new way living under the same roof again after all those years apart.
The journey now is very lonesome and there’s nothing I can do about it except accept my current state. I’m fortunate to have my husband, children, grandchildren, cousins and friends, but with all due love and respect, it isn’t the same.
I miss my brother. There’s nothing that can change that. I just have to learn to live with that loss. And, I am.