Being on life’s front line
Photo by Denys Nevozhai
A friend of mine died recently, and I had a bit of shock when I arrived at the funeral service. Almost all the seats were taken by an older generation — which is usually the case — but this time that generation was us. There was not a “parent” or “grandparent” to be seen. We WERE the parents and grandparents.
It was a sobering thought. I’ve only realized this once before — when both my parents were deceased. There I was: on the front line. Being the eldest of six kids, I was totally exposed as the theoretical NEXT.
“Death” creeps into a good many conversations I have with friends these days. It hasn’t reached the level of mainstream topics such as health problems, grandchildren or exercise plans. It’s not so common that it comes up at lunch, nor is it examined on the level of “by the way, have you decided about cremation or coffin?”
Conversations are more on the “experience” of approaching death, accepting death and analyzing how different people meet their end.
The “When” Question: I find it surprising that more of my friends haven’t died yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m elated that we’re all still around, many in fine shape, still full of life and energy. But I’m 75 years old, and most of my close friends are also over 70. One might expect I’d have several funerals a year on my agenda, but this is not the case. I’ve only had a few close friends die. Their deaths were years apart; only one was someone with whom I spent a lot of time and felt the loss daily for a while.
I don’t really know how to think about this. Are we in better shape? Are medicine and healthcare better and able to keep us alive longer? Does exercise work as a “life enhancer”? (Although truth be told, I have a condition that doesn’t allow me to do tennis or cycling, and I’m hanging in just fine, for the moment.)
It’s strange to live in an age when life expectancy is moving forward as our generation ages. My parents only expected to live into their 70s, and I remember my father telling me that at every high school reunion, after the age of 60, attendance got smaller by half. When he died at 90, there were only 6 of them left, out of a class of over 100.
So, not only is the “when” a personal puzzle, it’s also a generational mystery.
The Art of Dying: Although I understand that death is a very private and personal experience, I’m fascinated with how a person chooses to die (if they don’t have a sudden death). A woman with whom I grew up had a very bad case of diabetes when she was just 40 and had to have one leg removed. She handled that bravely and with grace. But a few months later, the other leg started to deteriorate, and she could see she might lose another leg… and then maybe an arm. She refused treatment, stopped eating, asked the doctor for morphine and died a couple of weeks later. Her story remains a story of courage for me — acknowledging her definition of life and then choosing death when it was impossible to continue on that journey.
Another friend fought with every fibre of her being to stay alive even after the doctors gave her 48 hours to live. She held on for 3 weeks, stubbornly holding forth outside “death’s door,” rarely acknowledging those who stood by her bedside. I wondered how she decided to finally go through to the other side.
It’s only now, at this age, that I’m no longer terrified but fascinated by these stories. I want to know more. I want to know if there actually is an Art to Dying.
Memorials: I give our generation a big applause for the transformation of memorial services. When my mother died suddenly over 35 years ago, my sisters and I wrote a homage to her. I wanted to stand up front and read it, but my father and the pastor forbid it. Neither thought I could hold it together, nor did they think it was appropriate. We sisters insisted, but we were told they would only allow the pastor to read it, which he did — with all the intonation of rattling off the upcoming week’s activities. Injecting personality and life stories into a religious funeral just wasn’t done.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and now many memorials are a chance to celebrate a personality, an attempt to reveal the path a person took over their time on earth. At my own son’s memorial, I learned many things about him I did not know. His friends, his cousins, and his roommates all got up and told stories: how he would smell banana bread that a roommate baked and snitched a piece the minute it came out of the oven — every time; how he gravitated to kids with special needs as a daycare worker. The stories helped create a life lived fully, if only until age 25.
Even now, under religious roofs, a person’s life is not only revered through scriptures but revealed through stories from friends and family, music and poetry.
It makes sense we would become more comfortable with the idea of death as we age. I was in my late 30s when my mother died, and I had no idea how to deal with it. I felt like I was in some sci-fi movie in which the plot made no sense.
Frankly, I’m happy that death no longer scares me. After all: “That’s the deal.”
Subscribe for free to receive new stories every Sunday.