Tag Archives: death

World Death Rate Holds Steady at 100 %

That title is a headline from The Onion and it succinctly calls attention to the elephant in every room: we are all going to die. It’s not a topic we discuss much, but maybe we should, since it’s the one unifying experience of all humanity — indeed, of all life.

I am on a plane somewhere above Nebraska, flying across the country to see my mom. She has dementia. She is dying. We say that of someone we expect to pass soon, but in reality, it’s true for each of us; we are all dying and the fact is we don’t know how or when death will find us. I’m sitting next to a psychotherapist from Washington D.C. whose wife died of cancer this year. Death is hard on the living. Which is perhaps why we try so hard to avoid thinking about it.

I’m not afraid of death. But it’s easy for me to say that, because at the moment, I’m healthy and “too young to die.” If the plane’s engines suddenly stopped roaring and we plunged to the plains below, I’m fairly certain I’d feel afraid. Like most of you, I’m not afraid to BE dead — but I’m not too thrilled at the idea of dying painfully. Like you, I hope to go to sleep one night when I’m really old and feeling complete and simply not wake up, passing gently in the night.

I have a firm belief in an afterlife, confirmed by sacred experience. In fact, I look forward to that life after; I am spending my mortality preparing for it. Perhaps it’s just the transitions that make us nervous. Birthing is beautiful, but difficult and often dangerous, not just for the mother but for the child as well. We don’t generally think of dying as beautiful — at least not in our Western culture — but I suspect we’re missing something important by not recognizing the holiness of the transition from this life to the next. It’s easier to see as we sit by the bedside of a dying loved one who is ready to go, easier than dealing with the shock of the sudden or violent death of someone we love. It brings up the unanswerable question: would you rather know you’re dying, so you have time to say goodbye and get ready, or would you rather go instantly, to minimize the pain?

I have little experience with death first-hand. Much of my ruminations on the subject are theoretical. I am aware of the risk I’m taking to talk about it here, when so many of you have buried parents or children, siblings or friends. Please forgive any boorishness. But Death is on my heart lately because I am not prepared for my mom to die. Are we ever? As I was praying for her yesterday, I could not bring myself to ask God to heal her of her latest physical infirmities. She’s been in the hospital and the rehab unit for almost four weeks now, and Memory Care for months before. She can’t walk. She’s not eating. She’s just aware enough to realize that her life is no life. I wonder if she is trying to die, perhaps unconsciously, but intentionally.  And what right do I have to insist she stay, just because I don’t want her to die?

The paradox of our modern world is that we can keep people “alive” indefinitely, but what does that say about our relationship with Death? We spend far more money on end-of-life care than on any other medical need. And for what? When does our regard for Life and our collective fear of Death become untenable?

My mother-in-law died well. She had colon cancer, which she knew would kill her without treatment. She went to a couple of chemotherapy sessions, then said, “No more. I choose to let this cancer take me.” And eight months later, it did. I asked her once, “Are you afraid?” She replied emphatically, “No!” And I could tell she was telling the truth. Toward the end, we could see a new clarity and light in her eyes, as if the veil was already lifted and she could clearly see the glorious path ahead. But that’s all conjecture. I only know that she died in peace, even joy, her life complete. She embraced the transition fearlessly, with faith and a humble eagerness. We mourned her passing, of course. We still miss her, years later. But her example of dying well will remain in my heart forever.

Believing Mormons have a clear, joyous narrative about Life and Death, which makes our funerals not-so-somber and our conversations about Death almost flippant. Some think we are unfeeling because our grief does not generally manifest in extreme ways. But the peace that accompanies our understanding of Death as simply one more transition in our eternal lives is real and soul-sustaining. Our grief is certainly just as real. But we hear enough and have enough inter-world experiences with our dead to make it all somehow bearable, even beautiful.

I have much to learn. Much to yet experience. Our stories of Death are important, the difficult as well as the divine. We will all die, after all, but it’s hard to talk about because we know so little of what’s beyond. I believe those who live well tend to die well, so maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe there’s no difference, really. All we can do, perhaps, is  help each other live well and when the time comes, die well.

How would you describe your relationship to Death? What are your fears, your hopes, your experiences?

When The Heart is Willing, But The Flesh is Weak

Yesterday morning I went to see my uncle, only I didn’t see my uncle. Instead there was a small man in a bed who looked far too old and gray to be the robust, ruddy-skinned man of my youth, who kept a cupboard full of candy and a mess of wild curls upon his head—curls that matched his sisters, his daughter, my dad, my brothers, me. His shoulders were bony and small and though I conjecture, don’t know the truth of difference because it occurred to me then—I had never seen him with his shirt off. But there he was, struggling to gain breath against the ribs and lungs and wires and tubes that together became a shuddering cage of mortality: a new carriage to bear, a burden.

I walked through the rest of my day doing “things”—laundry, dishescountersfloors, a bulletin board at school, a doctor’s appointment 20 minutes west and a soccer game, closer home. I let them, the kids: In’n’Out and then McDonalds, because of Happy Meals and my weakness to insist and a husband out of town anyway. When they scattered and I was alone for exactly one minute, I plugged the straws of two still-heavy milk shakes one at a time, into my mouth, and I slurped for all it was worth, chocolate and vanilla, and wanted to cry.

Bed couldn’t come soon enough and I fell asleep with my hand in the scriptures. Mark chapter 2. My body betraying a peace I felt desperate for.

This morning the baby is scantily clad, just a diaper, a shirt too small. He rolls about on the rug that looks like a road and stretches his limbs to accommodate two cars, divergent paths. I am holding a miniature school bus without wheels but looking at his torso, at a brown swath of flesh that stretches seamless along the delicate pins of his ribcage, at the beauty of his cheeks and their life-giving proof of pink, his hair a mop—alive and wayward. And my heart is full of music. Not words, but sound that language fails to describe.

“Mom, c’mon,” he says; “Mom, that’s mine,” as he plucks the school bus from my hand. “Mom, it’s a Christmas tree.” He points to a picture of a decorated pine, the middle of the rug, and I realize then that’s what it is, that’s the fullness I can’t swallow: Christmas. A Christ child, some time in Gethsemane, a cross, death. There is glory in this, and gratitude for life and the fleshy mess of this existence, of now.

Soon we will go outside, because that is how our day goes. I will lace up running shoes. I will pack a plastic parcel of cereal, two water bottles. I will balance the dog and the stroller and I will run. Mostly, I will let it be, let each step I don’t feel, let the hammering heart I scarcely notice, let it go, let my spirit overpower my body; and when the miles feel long and the sun feels hot I will tell myself this: that the pain is only for a moment, and you can do this, you can do this, you can do this.

Really Here

This is the most bizarre encounter with visiting teaching I’ve ever experienced. I’m sharing it today because it has been on my mind for a while, and because maybe—a big maybe—other people feel the same way about these things?

I moved into a new ward last August and was asked to visit teach a lady named Colleen. The RS president gave me Colleen’s history: she was the only member in her Catholic family to join the Church; within a year of finally marrying in the temple about a year ago in her late 40s, her husband passed away; days later her father died with cancer; then Colleen discovered she had breast cancer; then Colleen discovered she had a brain tumor and eventually she could no longer work. She’d been living in a home for the disabled when I became her visiting teacher. By the time I’d met her, cancer meds and brain tumors eroded whatever mental acuity she might have used to talk herself out of giving her bank account information to online con artists. There was a 30-year age difference between us and we had two things in common: we were both converts and neither of us had children.

I visited her for six months and she’d tell me she prayed every day to win the lottery. Once I brought two cupcakes and she was thrilled because she hadn’t eaten anything for a few days (she’d lost all her savings to another Internet scam). Another time she was sitting in the dark because she couldn’t afford electricity (more internet fraud). Every month, I heard the same stories over and over again about how her husband and father died and about the horrible things her mother, who never supported her conversion, supposedly said to her.

Being her visiting teacher was exhausting. She lived all alone with physical and emotional pain I could never ever imagine, and there was nothing I could do about it, except listen to her same old stories. I was secretly glad when she received new visiting teachers six months later and I moved on with my life.

On July 22nd it was my turn to conduct RS. Colleen came to church that day and sat in the back. Just when it was time to start, she said, “Sarita! Come here, I have to tell you something!” She was more excited than I’d ever seen her in a long time. I told her I couldn’t talk then, but I’d be sure to see her after the closing prayer. And then I stood up to welcome everyone to RS. Two seconds later, Colleen was up at the front of the room, cupping my chin in her hands and whispering in my ear. And this is what was so important that it couldn’t wait: she said, “I just wanted to give you a blessing so that you’ll be able to get pregnant and have a baby.”

What do you say to that?

I said, “Um, thanks?”

And then she sat down and smiled at me for the rest of the hour. Nobody heard her, but the whole thing was still very awkward. It wouldn’t have surprised me except that a) after all my visits, Colleen hardly knew anything about me about me because we always talked about her, and b) I’ve been wondering if my great trial in life is infertility. I eventually laughed it off because Colleen was always doing crazy things like this. So I thought nothing more of it.

Colleen died in a car accident a week later. When she came up to give me a “blessing,” that was her way of saying goodbye, but I had no idea. Later, I found out that she had hugged and kissed several other sisters on that Sunday, and had talked about her husband’s funeral and how she’d be with him again soon, as if she had known it was her time.

Her death surprised me more than it made me sad. She had suffered so much that it was hard for me to cry. I didn’t cry at the funeral home when I helped dress her body for the viewing, even while her closest friends stood there telling me that Colleen told them she really loved me because I was so nice to her, etc.

I didn’t expect to cry at her funeral either. But that’s when I cried most. And the funeral wasn’t even morose. Her friends told funny stories. Once Colleen brought home a boyfriend and her young nephew sat under the table, turned on a vacuum, and started vacuuming her boyfriend’s legs until her boyfriend got up with the intent of leaving the house, only to walk into a closet he mistook for the door. When that nephew got married, Colleen gave them a vacuum for their wedding gift… Colleen loved hanging Christmas decorations during the holidays and once, when another nephew tested out his new slingshot, he broke one of her window ornaments and was afraid to confess, but when he finally said, “I’m so sorry auntie, but I broke it,” Colleen said, “What are you sorry for? That was a great shot!”

I cried because this quote, by Marjorie Pay Hinckley came to mind as I listened to these stories about Colleen:

I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor’s children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden. I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.

That’s what Colleen was like. I cried because I didn’t get to know that part of her. All I knew was the Colleen with cancer who made me and the bishopric and RS president tired. Thinking about the Colleen who “was really here,” and who “really lived” helped me remember that I’m far from really being here and really living, and that there’s so much of me left to give.

The whole thing also made reminded me of Hazel Lancaster’s line in The Fault in Our Stars: “Funerals, I had decided, are for the living.” Because isn’t that so true? If I could have my way, my own funeral would inspire others to wonder if they live so that others want what I have. And if they aren’t there yet, to try a little harder. For me, that’s one of the miraculous aspects of death—that another’s passing has potential to help change us for the better. Not in the melodramatic Walk to Remember way, but more realistically in the Sister Hinckley way. Colleen and her funeral reminded me that death and dying can help us endure more than we thought we could, that those things help us to be more like our Savior and find the lives we were meant to live. And although death sucks, and is really inconvenient for the living, it does come with the possibility of finding an abundance of the joy that we might merely glimpse here.

Lest We Forget

Australia and Turkey fell silent today. Half a world apart, people gathered before dawn in local parks, on beaches, at cliff tops and in nursing homes, then joined in remembering the fallen. Wherever Australian or New Zealand troops are stationed, they too stopped, stood and remembered. These words were read into the smudged dawning light:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.¹

Thousands murmured in reply “Lest we forget.”  A bugle sounded, repeating and echoing throughout the day around the earth, mixed in with sounds of waking kookaburras (where I was in Australia) and waves on the Gallipoli shore. Continue reading

So, how was your day?

Note: I hesitated to write this post for fear the telling of my story might seem irreverent. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And this is the truth of my life.

Let me tell you about last Wednesday:

After too little sleep, a difficult morning and a stressful day at work, I found myself arriving home desperate for a 10-minute power nap. Within five minutes after walking in the door, I got a phone call from my mother. Continue reading