Monday, April 19, 2010

old age and death

Over the weekend, my wife took off to New Jersey to be with her mother, who is in her mid-80's and getting frail. When I asked my daughter how "grandma" had looked the last time she saw her, my daughter said, "Everyone (my wife's siblings) is convinced she is dying. If you treat someone as if they were dying, then they will die." It was just idle conversation, but her words stuck in my head.

Her line sounded good -- as if encouraging an elderly person to get out and about was a kindness that visitors and kin might exercise to altruistic effect. Get some exercise. Get interested in something. Do something -- you'll feel better.

But another facet on that gem is this: Kin and friends don't want to see a part of their own fabric ripped, as when someone they love dies. And yet people are dying all the time, with or without good advice. And so, in one sense, good advice is little more than an unwillingness or inability to face one's own death and understanding of it.

I'm not criticizing, but I do think that it might be better to wish the elderly what they wish and to try to accord with those wishes. Sitting around saying -- implicitly or explicitly -- "you're not going to die" seems to me to sound hopeful and altruistic and kind (full of altar-boy good will), when in fact it simply adds a burden to the one who is being addressed ... please don't die, it will make me so sad. And so, instead of having their burdens eased, the elderly are sometimes forced to console those who are consoling them... more weight in what may be a weighty, novel, confusing and perhaps scary time.

Wish them what they wish -- which may, in fact, be death. Suggesting that an expenditure of energy will improve matters, revise facts, or otherwise reshape the moment ... well, it sounds a bit unkind to me. But it probably takes some discipline in a society that is pretty secretive about death ... to listen, to speak your piece as you might to anyone else, to cry when crying is called for, to remember a time of laughter and smile anew ... wish them what they wish ... not something that denies facts but accords with them.

Secretive ... people will tell you that death is a 'great unknown' and therefore is spooky. But I have a feeling that what is spooky is that it is a 'great known' (and perhaps not so 'great' at all). Who wants to run around in life trying to hide from what they already acquainted with. I guess the answer is, "lots of people."

In Zen, there is the tale of the master who was dying. A student asked if he had any last words. "Yes," said the master, "I am afraid of dying." The student was flabbergasted that a man who had spent 50 or 60 years in plumbing the depths of birth and death could say such a thing. The student's face radiated confusion and disbelief. Seeing this, the old master looked at his student sadly: "You don't understand," he said. "I am afraid of dying, really. I am afraid of dying really."

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